Economic Ideas: Francis Hutcheson and a System of Natural Liberty

by | Nov 29, 2016

Adam Smith was one of Hutcheson’s students in Glasgow, and his influence on Adam Smith was singularly significant, from everything from the importance of division of labor and the role of private property, to the normative notion of a free society based on a “system of natural liberty.”

Scotland would seem a strange place for the emergence of center of intellectual development that would influence the stream of ideas throughout the world. Scotland had been unified with England near the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was considered a “backwater” of European civilization.

But perhaps because of the strong nationalist sentiments and resentments that still lingered among many Scots, scholars and professors attempted to look beyond Great Britain for intellectual influences and associations outside the orbit and dominance of London. Thus, Scottish thinkers were familiar with, and often had personal ties with many of the leading intellectual figures on the European continent, including and especially in France.

But the emerging Scottish variation on the Enlightenment was not merely a shadow or reflection of Enlightenment ideas in France. It developed in distinct ways, especially in the circles around the universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Francis Hutcheson as Inspiring Teaching for Liberty and Against Tyranny

A major influence among these Scottish moral philosophers was Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), who taught at the University of Glasgow. Born in Ireland, he took up his position at the University of Glasgow in 1730, and held it until his death in 1746 during a visit to his native country.

Adam Smith was one of Hutcheson’s students in Glasgow, and his influence on Adam Smith was singularly significant, from everything from the importance of division of labor and the role of private property, to the normative notion of a free society based on a “system of natural liberty.”

This was reinforced by Hutcheson’s talent as a teacher, which one of his contemporary’s recalled as “a happy talent, of speaking with ease, with propriety and spirit, rendering him one of the most masterly and engaging teachers that have appeared in our age.”

And another of Hutcheson’s contemporaries reinforced this impression by saying,

If ever a Professor had the art of communicating knowledge; if ever one had the magical power to inspire the hearts of youth with an admiration and love of virtue; if ever one had the art to create an esteem for Liberty and a contempt for tyranny and tyrants, he was the man!

Human Reason for Understanding Man and Society

His major and most influential work, A System of Moral Philosophy (1737), laid out many of the themes that later Scottish thinkers would pick up in one form or another. Though religious in his beliefs, Hutcheson argued that it is man’s human reason and his experiential understanding that could guide us in comprehending the reality of the world in which we live, and judging best the institutions that would further mankind’s condition.

But he believed that reason applied would also assist man in discovering God’s purposes and mission for his created creatures on earth.  This was reinforced by his belief that man possessed an inherent and intuitive moral sense. Or as he argued,

From the constitution of our moral faculty . . . we have our notions of right and wrong, as characters of affections and actions . . . The actions approved as right, are such as are wisely intended either for the general good, or such good of some particular society or individual as is consistent with it. The contrary affections and actions are wrong . . .

Or we may say more briefly, a man hath a right to do, possess, or demand anything when his acting, possessing, or obtaining from another in these circumstances tend to the good of society, or to the interest of the individual consistent with the rights of others and the general good of society, and obstructing him would have the contrary tendency.

Like many thinkers before and after him, Hutcheson left an open and ambiguous question, which is: How to define “the good of society” other than in terms of the “good” of each individual as defined by him and in a societal context within which each respects the rights of all others to do the same through peaceful and voluntary association?

But, nonetheless, Hutcheson helped open the door to a political and social philosophy that emphasized the role and importance of human reason in mastering the nature of man and the world in which he lives, and reinforcing a justification of human freedom based on natural rights.

The nineteenth century historian, Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862), explained this aspect of Hutcheson’s outlook, though with admittedly some exaggeration:

Hutcheson . . . did not fear to construct a system of morals according to a plan entirely secular, and no example of which had been exhibited in Scotland before his time . . . Though he was a firm believer in revelation, he held that the best rules of conduct could be ascertained without its assistance, and could be arrived at by the unaided wit of man; and that, when arrived at, they were, in their aggregate to be respected as the Law of Nature. This confidence in the power of human understanding was altogether new in Scotland and its appearance forms an epoch in the national literature.

The Justice and Social Necessity of Private Property

Hutcheson was adamant on the justice and importance of private property rights. Property rights give individuals the means of pursuing their own happiness and the happiness of those whom they are most concerned about and interested in, especially family and friends. In addition, private property rights serve as the essential institution through which men have the motive and ability to apply their industry and efforts to improve their own circumstances, and through this, to indirectly improve the mutual conditions of all others in society, as well.

Hutcheson made this point in the following way:

Universal industry is plainly necessary for the support of mankind . . . Whatever institution therefore shall be found necessary to promote universal diligence and patience, and make labor agreeable or eligible to mankind, must also tend to the public good . . . Now nothing can so effectually excite men to constant patience and diligence in all sorts of useful industry, as the hope of future wealth, ease, and pleasure to themselves, their offspring, and all who are dear to them.

Hutcheson opposed various notions of communism and egalitarian sharing of what a “community” may produce. It would make the industrious the slaves of those who were the laggards in society. As Hutcheson put it: “If the goods procured, or improved by the industrious lye in common for the use of all, the worst of men have the generous and industrious for their slaves.”

The Danger and Arbitrariness of “Distributive” Justice

For this reason, he was critical of any general redistributive scheme as likely to reinforce the lazier members of society to expect to be able to live off the hardworking. Said Hutcheson:

Such as are capable of labor, and yet decline it, should find no support in the labors of others . . . The most benevolent temper must decline supporting the slothful in idleness, that their own necessities may force them to contribute their part to the public good.

He was also concerned and fearful of the discretion that redistributive authority placed in the hands of those in political power. In Hutcheson we find the seed of an argument found in the twentieth century Austrian economist and social philosopher, Friedrich A. Hayek, in his critique of social justice, in that it presumes that those in political authority could ever rightly determine the “merit” or “deservedness” of each member of society in terms of “just” distributive shares, without it in reality devolving into the personal caprice and political pressures of those able to influence governmental income transfers.

Hutcheson reasoned:

Such constant vigilance too of magistrates and such nice discernment of merit, as could ensure both a universal diligence, and a just and humane distribution, is not be expected . . . What magistrate can judge of the delicate ties of friendship, by which a fine spirit may be so attached to another as to bear all toils for him with joy?  . . . And what plan of policy will ever satisfy men sufficiently as to the just treatment to be given to themselves . . . if all is to depend on the pleasures of the magistrate? . . . Must all men in private stations ever to be treated as children, or fools?

Individual Rights as a Just System of Natural Liberty

But what is especially of note in Francis Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy (1737) is his clear outlining of the natural rights” of man in society that define and delineate a “system of natural liberty.” Hutcheson suggests, first, that each person has a right to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property, with every individual being at liberty to freely trade with all those with whom he finds it mutually advantageous in association and exchange:

The following natural rights of each individual seem of the perfect sort: A right to life, and to that perfection of the body which nature has given, belongs to every man . . . This right is violated by unjust assaults, maiming, and murder.

As nature has implanted in each man a desire of his own happiness     . . . tis plain that each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for these purposes, in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods . . .

This right we call natural liberty. Every man has a sense of this right, and a sense of the evil or cruelty in interrupting this joyful liberty of others . . .

Each one has a natural right to the use of such things as are in their nature fitted for the common use of all; and has a right, by any innocent means, to acquire property in such goods as are fit for occupation and property, and have not been occupied by others . . .

For the like reasons every innocent person has a natural right to enter into an intercourse of innocent offices or commence with all who incline to deal with him . . .

Reason and Persuasion as the Moral Tools for Influencing Others

But do not other men sometimes follow courses of action and ways of living that may be considered unwise, wrongheaded and possibly harmful to them? Hutcheson readily admits this.

But if each person is to be secure in his natural rights in this social system of natural liberty, then what avenue is open to those who wish to assist such misguided individuals to redirect themselves into more enlightened and betters ways?

Hutcheson states that the only course open that is consistent with respect of other people’s individual rights is reason and persuasion. Said Hutcheson:

Let men instruct, teach, and convince their fellows as far as they can about the proper use of their natural powers, or persuade them to submit voluntarily to some wise plans of civil power where their important interests shall be secure. But till this is done, men must enjoy their natural liberty as long as they are not injurious [by violating the individual rights of others].

This right of natural liberty is not only suggested by the selfish parts of our own constitution but by many generous affections . . . as the grand dignity and perfection of our nature.

Individual Liberty and the Moral Society

The pinnacle of social morality, therefore, in Hutcheson’s view, is to respect each individual to live his life as he peacefully chooses, without private or political molestation as long as he respects the equal rights of all others. And the proper ethical principle in advancing conceptions of a better life to others is the use of reason, persuasion, and the example of one’s own life.

Hutcheson concluded that,

The natural equality of men consists chiefly in this, that these natural rights belong equally to all . . . The laws of God and nature . . . prohibit the greatest and wisest of mankind to inflict any misery on the meanest, or to deprive them of any of their natural rights, or innocent acquisitions, when no public interest requires it [due to the violation of another’s rights].

Hutcheson Not an Advocate of Pure Laissez-Faire

If would be wrong to suggest that Hutcheson’s theory and understanding of human liberty and association was fully a laissez-faire one. He, unfortunately, suffered from a variety of the Mercantilist errors of his time, including a belief in the desirability of the government to influence the forms and directions taken by one’s own country’s domestic and foreign trade to generate a “positive” balance of trade.

And he also partly misconstrued the logic behind Bernard Mandeville’s, The Fable of the Bees. He misunderstood Mandeville as saying that unless there was large and extravagant spending on consumption luxuries, society would languish in poverty and stagnation.

Hutcheson, echoing what in the nineteenth century became a core element of what became known as Say’s Law, argued that if income and resources are saved rather than spent on immediate consumption there will still be an outlet and stimulus for production and employment through the redirection of labor, capital and resources towards investment activities that will generate desired consumer goods at a later date when what has been saved in the present will be devoted to and used for consumption purposes in the future.

This argument is, no doubt, completely true. But it missed the more essential point that Mandeville was making. That when men are prevented or repressed from pursuing their own self-interests as they see and desire them, it undermines the motive and incentives for the industry and creativity that most effectively propel them when they are allowed to live their lives for themselves as they think and view best. And by so restricting self-interest, it not only undermines the individual’s own interest in productive effort, but indirectly reduces the material and cultural development and potential of the society as a whole.

Yet, this was, in essence, a central message in Francis Hutcheson’s own political and economic philosophy. And it was the starting point for Adam Smith’s own profound contributions a few decades later, after his time studying with Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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