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  • Reply to My Critics
  • Andrew Sabl (bio)

I salute the careful attention these three distinguished scholars have given Hume’s Politics, and I am flattered by their compliments. That these scholars from different disciplines all value my work speaks well of their broad-mindedness. It also illustrates my hopes for the book, which (as noted in more than one of these contributions) avowedly aims to build bridges among different social sciences, as well as between empirical social science and normative political theory. The three scholars’ criticisms are also sharp and important, though I believe they can be met. This response will, unavoidably, restate theses and arguments that appear in the book. But it shall also aim to re-cast some of those theses and arguments in a new forms, in some cases more intuitive than those in the book, less technical and detailed. As a result these remarks may, I hope, interest both those who have read Hume’s Politics and those who have not.

Mark Spencer’s comments, leaving aside his excellent and welcome summary, focus squarely on one crucial question: whether Magna Charta can be for Hume—as I argue at length that it is—a “fundamental convention” that, along with constitutional monarchy, defines the English polity, permanently establishing both political authority and the limits to that authority. The question is crucial because I regard the existence of such conventions to be a crucial lesson we can and should take from Hume. Without conventions that limit authority, politics would rest solely on force or a dangerously variable short-term opinion. And Hume’s political thought would not embody—as I believe it does—a fundamental alternative to Kantian liberalism, a systematic account of how not just authority but also liberty, [End Page 91] diversity, social progress, and political equality may rest on conventions rather than requiring (or being fully capable of) rational justification.

Against Spencer’s claim that Hume’s identification of Magna Charta as fundamental is always ironic, I am afraid I must insist—without being able to repeat all the evidence from the book—that Hume’s identification of the Charter as fundamental is repeated and conclusive.1 This is so even taking into account, as I work assiduously to do, the ever-present possibility of irony and the perhaps even greater challenge posed by Hume’s penchant for placing alternative viewpoints in different actors’ mouths, with Hume’s own view often attributed to so-called “men of sense.” Spencer’s confident claim that a key passage is “dripping with irony” begs the question, in my view. Parliament’s hope that repeated reassertion of the Charter’s limits on governmental authority could over time firmly establish those limits, so as to restrain both the monarch and Parliament itself, is absurd only if one rejects the possibility that Magna Charta could come to limit parliamentary supremacy—but for Hume, it could, and did.2 Of Magna Charta and an allied charter concerning public forestry rights, Hume writes: “Though often violated, they were still claimed by the nobility and people; and as no precedents were supposed valid, that infringed them, they rather acquired, than lost authority, from the frequent attempts, made against them in several ages, by regal and arbitrary power” (H 2:7).3

Spencer is completely right to portray Hume as a constant critic of the ancient constitution, of appeals to both its perfection and its normative validity. He is also completely right to stress that appeals to Magna Charta were, on Hume’s account, often political and strategic, deliberately distorting and changing its ancient meaning. As Spencer’s own work shows, many in Hume’s own time took such criticism to mean that Hume had written against constitutionalism as such.4 But on my view, Hume has a fundamentally different, and non-ancient, conception of what counts as fundamental or properly constitutional.5 Magna Charta, like all fundamental conventions of authority, became fundamental over time as the product of repeated political experience. Its validity was established through recurrent appeals to its principles. Different actors in English history invoked the Great Charter against their powerful adversaries because its principles were flexible enough to be useful in...


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pp. 91-102
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