On the Liberty of the Press


Author: David Hume

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company



In looking for something to read, I came across David Hume’s Of the Liberty of the Press. While Hume and I disagree, for the most part, on the best form of government,  I do agree with him on the importance of the press. He begins this essay noting that foreigners find Britain’s freedom of the press surprising. This is due mainly to the fact that other governments are absolute and they do not allow such political, social, or religious freedom. These freedoms were even better realized in America, but this essay was written before the founding.

Part of what makes the people free is the freedom to speak. Liberty is kept by people, and people keep it, in part, by speaking. But such liberty can be taken away if the people are silent or are silenced. This is why we in America have the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, freedom to religion, and so many other liberties. These are natural rights, but as Hume says, such liberty can be taken away slowly.

‘Tis seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.

He compares such a loss of liberty with slavery. Slavery did not become so great or so well accepted all at once but it disguised itself “in order to be received.” This is true for any freedom, right, or liberty we enjoy: it can be taken away piece by piece. Liberty is not lost all at once, but it can be lost and perhaps not regained, at least for a time (unless there is a revolution, to which I direct you to the Declaration of Independence).

And this is why we should strive to defend our rights lest any person, group, or government try to deny us of them. One way to do this is to keep the press free. We should not permit people or ideas to be shut down or encourage censorship, even if we disagree with what is said! We should allow dissenting or opposing opinions! This is often how change happens. If something is wrong, we can speak out. If we believe something to be true, we can publish it without fear of a loss of liberty.  Let us keep the market of ideas open. In this way we shall preserve liberty. To do anything else would result in a loss of liberty. We must not allow “such a bare-faced violation of liberty” by a “despotic government” or anyone else. If we stand by while people – with whom we agree or disagree – are silenced, we may conclude like Hume that the liberty of our country “is gone forever when these attempts shall succeed.”


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