April 26 marks the 1711 birth of David Hume, good friend of Adam Smith and “The most important philosopher ever to write in English,” according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Three centuries later, his recognition of the need to protect property rights for a well-functioning society is crucial because violations are increasingly displacing protection.
Crony capitalism, with its widespread sacrifice of others’ property rights to benefit government favorites, has spread everywhere. Fourth Amendment violations and civil asset forfeiture demonstrate the same erosion. Eminent domain abuses and development exactions are far from uncommon. And the list goes on.
Hume saw why stable, secure property rights are crucial to social cooperation because otherwise, people are “exposed to the violence of others.” Government defense of property rights allows more effective social cooperation by expanding the sphere of voluntary arrangements. That is why Hume recognized that “[under] a government of laws, not of men…property is there secure.” However, every expansion of government reduces individuals’ rights over their own property, undermining the most essential tool for prosperity and peace.
“Property must be stable…fixed by general rules...by the peace and order which it establishes in society…every individual person must find himself a gainer. Leave everyone in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry…abstaining from the possessions of others…we maintain society. As the improvement, therefore, of...goods is the chief advantage of society, so the instability of their possession…is the chief impediment.”
“Men’s happiness consists not so much in an abundance of [goods], as in the peace and security with which they possess them.”
“Fit members of society…abstain from the possessions of others.”
“It will be for my interest to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me.”
“Property is…derived from the rules of justice.”
“The convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.”
“It is to restrain [others’] selfishness that men…distinguish between their own goods and those of others.”
“[Ideas of perfect equality] are…extremely pernicious to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community.”
“Stability of possession... [is] absolutely necessary to human society...to cut off all occasions of discord and contention; and this end would never be attained, were we allowed to apply this rule differently in every particular case.”
“[Free] government…must act by general and equal laws that are previously known to all…In this sense…liberty is the perfection of civil society.”
Hume observed that “In all governments there is an intestine struggle… between authority and liberty.” He saw the key to liberty in private property, which protects each citizen from abuse by others. When he argued to “maintain, with the utmost zeal…those forms and institutions by which liberty is secured,” private property was chief among them. And since every expansion of government beyond what was once known as justice (“which gives every man his due,” according to Cicero) replaces individual rights with government dictates, a strictly limited government is essential to both property and liberty.
Hume wrote that government’s sole object is “the distribution of justice,” which requires unwavering protection of citizens’ rights. Americans need to re-learn Hume’s widely-violated wisdom, to reduce the expanding “violence of others” over every American’s property.