Does David Hume, a classic proponent of classical liberalism, still have something to say to us? Today classical liberalism is (along with its more ideological relative, libertarianism) out of fashion among progressives but also some prominent parts of the Right. On the left, socialism and Black Lives Matter are on the upswing. For some on the right, libertarianism is to blame for hollowing out the working class and privileging an utterly sovereign self, untrammeled by considerations of the common good in sexual or economic matters. Whatever has been said about libertarianism in recent years, however, these criticisms miss the mark with Hume. A quick look at three of his great themes as they relate to political movements today will show why.
First, Hume presents himself above all as a political scientist. Unlike our political science, however, Hume’s is not value-free. Being subject to the arbitrary will of another is an objective evil; and so the definition of a sound political order is individual liberty under the rule of law. For Hume there is a fundamental tension at the heart of political life. Individual liberty is the purpose of society; yet liberty cannot sustain itself outside of political institutions and so of authority. We humans need rules and someone to enforce the rules, but we also want protection from the all-too-frequent abuse of those rules. Hume offers institutional or constitutional design as a means of balancing these competing imperatives. Using insights learned from Machiavelli, Hume aims to design institutions to channel ambition and self-interest in the service of strong but limited government.