What does Hume mean by liberty? Though clearly important to him, Hume never clarifies the matter explicitly. In his texts, liberty often seems to be a matter of government rules being certain, general, regular, etc., and often a matter of political form or constitution—the place of parliament or republicanism, checks to power, and so on. Many scholars have highlighted such ideas as Hume’s idea of liberty. We argue that liberty in Hume bears a central meaning: liberty is a flipside of (commutative) justice. The basic injunction of (commutative) justice is to not mess with other people’s stuff. The flipside is: Others not messing with one’s stuff. And it is especially in relation to government (as opposed to, say, a robber) that that flipside concept is what Hume often signifies with the word liberty. Because liberty is polysemous in Hume’s writings, we call that meaning “mere-liberty.” Hume sees the achievement of high degree of mere-liberty as dependent on authority, which itself depends on contraventions of mere-liberty. We advance mere-liberty not against the other meanings, but with them, with mere-liberty central to Hume’s political outlook.


Klein, Daniel B. and Matson, Erik, Mere-Liberty in David Hume (June 6, 2018). Forthcoming, A Companion to David Hume (Universidad Francisco Marroquin); GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 18-14. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3192142 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3192142