The antithesis of custom and liberty is deeply entrenched in liberal socio-historical imaginations. Of course, there is an old tradition of political thought that links British liberties to prescriptive institutions.1 But by the second half of the eighteenth century such invocations of custom served primarily as a bulwark against demands for the wider or deeper extension of liberties.2 Thus, Edmund Burke invoked custom as the repository of British liberties in order to repudiate more radical emancipatory claims.3 Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine famously criticized Burke as an enemy of the natural right to self-legislate, explicitly contrasting liberty with the authority of custom.4 While utilitarians were contemptuous of appeals to natural rights (‘nonsense upon stilts’, Bentham declared), they were entirely in agreement about the antithetical relationship between ‘brute custom’ and ‘manly reason’.5 John Stuart Mill would make the...

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