This is as much as I need to say about the Treatise, I think. As I so often remark, there is a wealth of interesting materials in the work that await those who are willing to take it up and read it straight through. Hume is, among other things, a shrewd observer of la comedie humaine, and almost three centuries later, his anatomization of human foibles and follies is worth reading. Since many who are following this tutorial will, I imagine, have read Locke’s Second Treatise [it is, with Rousseau’s Of the Social Contract, surely the most often assigned classical text of political philosophy in college courses], I might close by quoting a passage from Section iii of Hume’s discussion of justice that will both affront modern readers and also illuminate a familiar passage in the Locke. Writing of the various ways in which the idea of property arises and is deployed, Hume says:
“We acquire the property of objects by accession, when they are connected in an intimate manner with objects that are already our property, and at the same time are inferior to them. Thus the fruits of our garden, the offspring of our cattle, and the work of our slaves, are all of them esteem’d our property, even before possession.”
Compare this with the following passage from Locke’s famous Chapter Five, “Of Property”, of which Bob Nozick, for example, makes such heavy use [“The Lockean Proviso”] in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
“Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them.”
Modern readers often do not realize that “servant” in this context means “slave.” Hume makes explicit what seventeenth century readers would have understood, but that is often missed by Randian libertarians today. Since I own the slave, his [or her] labor belongs to me. Lest anyone dismiss this as a regrettable but no longer operative proviso, I would simply point out that exactly the same process of reasoning underlies the central tenet of capitalism, which is that the product of the labor of my employees [“wage slaves,” as they were once known] belongs to me as the capitalist, and is mine to dispose of as I wish, without regard to the needs or desires of those who actually produced it.
Tomorrow, I shall turn my attention to the very last of Hume’s works to be published, the posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.