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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Adam Ferguson, "Essay on Civil Society"

Since I realized that there hasn't been one for some time, here is a review of another of my favourite books.

Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was one of the lesser lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. I don’t mean this in the sense that he is not equally deserving of respect as David Hume or Adam Smith. I believe that in their own way, Ferguson’s writings can profit a modern reader just as much as Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Thus, when I refer to Ferguson as a “lesser light”, I mean that he is in fact little read, not that he is not well worth reading, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

The work for which Ferguson is best-known, both in his own time and ours, is his An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). The book is largely what its title implies: In typical Scottish style, the author traces a sort of moral history of humankind, structured within the four-stage framework of social development that was fashionable at the time. The four stages are: 1. hunting and gathering society, 2. herding or pastoral society, 3. agricultural society, and 4. commercial society. In places he refers to the first and second stages in more normative language, as the “savage” and “barbaric” states, respectively. It is worth noting in passing that Ferguson would have considered himself fairly knowledgeable about less advanced societies: although he was a celebrated man of letters at the centre of the Enlightenment, and was a professor at one of the world’s great universities (Edinburgh), he was also a Highlander, and spoke Gaelic. More polished lowland Scots considered the Highland clans to be in a transitional stage somewhere between the barbaric and civilized stages of social development (i.e. between stages 2 and 3). Having served as chaplain of the Black Watch Highland regiment, he saw the fierce battle prowess of “barbaric” society firsthand and according to accounts did not lack martial spirit himself.

Now, one must be careful of misunderstanding Ferguson’s stadial theory of social progress. He is merely saying that those societies that display progress do so through these four stages. He does not say that every society will progress through them. Indeed, history shows that societies are just as likely to regress, to move backwards. This happens especially when a society experiences a “relaxation” of its public spirit and civic virtue, losing its energy and its ability to exert itself for greater projects. Thus, as we’ll see, there is a profound pessimism at the heart of Ferguson’s philosophy that distinguishes him from an Adam Smith or a David Hume.

In many ways, Ferguson’s stadial view of human progress is the part of the book least worth reading. It certainly wasn’t very original, for other Scots had come up with variations of this theme before, for example Lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man (1734). In my opinion, the most important contributions of Ferguson’s book to the history of ideas were two.

The first was his idea of the organic development of order, and of what we might call the “law of unintended social consequences”. The basic concept is well expressed in the following passage, which was to have a profound effect on Friedrich Hayek in the 20th century when he wrote his magisterial three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty:

“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.” (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Pt. III, §2, italics added)

Hayek took this idea and ran with it. For him, it was pointless for socialists to try to plan a society and economy along rational lines, for society is the complex outgrowth of the individual decisions ― some conscious, but most of them unconscious ― of billions of individuals, alive and dead. We might say that social institutions are emergent properties of individual action and decision. They are not always the result of a plan. Indeed, planned societies usually end up being very different from what their planners intended, as do planned institutions.

However, Hayek chose to largely ignore the darker side of Ferguson’s insight, which was that just as humans stumble upon order without intending it, so too they just as often stumble upon disorder:

“Mankind, when they degenerate, and tend to their ruin, as well as when they improve, and gain real advantages, frequently proceed by slow, and almost insensible steps. If, during ages of activity and vigour, they fill up the measure of national greatness to a height which no human wisdom could at a distance foresee; they actually incur in ages of relaxation and weakness, many evils which their fears did not suggest, and which, perhaps, they had thought far removed by the tide of success and prosperity.” (Pt. VI, §6)

As the conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple quipped: “Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.” Things may actually be going wrong just at that very moment when they seem most to be going right. There is a normative prescription in Ferguson’s observation. We should not allow small symptoms of weakness or lethargy in the body politic to go untreated, for though they seem benign or barely perceptible at first, they quickly become a disease untreatable. Such inattention has been the downfall of many a prosperous and polished civilization. Social rot has its beginnings during apparent health, so by the time the rot is first noticed, it has likely already been progressing for some time.

This observation leads to what I consider to be the second great contribution of Ferguson’s book. His stadial theory of progress aside, Ferguson’s genius lay not in his account of human progress, but of its decline. If you read no other part of this book, I would recommend that you at least skip ahead and read the Essay’s final Part VI, entitled “Of Corruption and Political Slavery”. It is in my opinion the wisest account of political corruption ever written.

One of the ways a society goes off the rails involves giving in to the temptation to discount the future in the service of current projects (or indeed, mere current pleasures). The following passage illustrates this, and when read in the light of the current fiscal situation of developed nations, it has an eerily contemporary ring to it:

“States have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit, instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran. They have found, in the loans they raised, a casual resource, which encouraged their enterprises. They have seemed, by their manner of enacting transferable funds, to leave the capital purposes of trade, in the hands of the subject, while it is actually expended by the government. They have by these means, proceeded to the execution of great national projects, without suspending private industry, and have left future ages to answer, in part, for debts contracted with a view to future emolument. So far the expedient is plausible, and appears to be just. The growing burden too, is thus gradually laid; and if a nation be to sink in some future age, every minister hopes it may still keep afloat his own. But the measure… is, with all its advantages, extremely dangerous, in the hands of a precipitant and ambitious administration, regarding only the present occasion, and imagining a state to be inexhaustible, while a capital can be borrowed, and the interest be paid.” (Pt. V, §5)

Here, as elsewhere, Ferguson displays a deep-rooted ambivalence to commercial culture. He recognizes the possible benefits of such instruments of public finance as paper money and a national debt, but is very aware of how easily these may be manipulated and abused by short-sighted and self-interested leaders. Funding national projects through public debt seems to be working so far, he seems to say, but for how much longer?

There are other worries lurking under the surface of this passage: The system will work only so long as the “great national projects” the debt funds continue to bring in a sufficient return to pay off accumulated debt plus interest. What are these projects? Will such a system naturally lead to the temptations of dangerous imperialist adventures, of the sort that contributed to the Roman decline into despotism? In Canada at least, we have been lucky in that those great national projects have largely consisted of social programs such as a publicly-funded healthcare system. As suspicious as I am of “progressive” attempts at social engineering, at least our great national projects have not involved large expenditures of blood in addition to treasure (the current Afghanistan adventure excepted).

In public finance, when future consumption is brought forward, and present payment pushed back, a moral hazard is created (thus, Ferguson’s reference to states that “have endeavoured, in some instances, by pawning their credit, instead of employing their capital, to disguise the hazards they ran”). For politicians who resort to this kind of finance, the rewards of risk are present and are enjoyed by the risk-taker; but the penalty for failure is a future burden shouldered by others. Given such a perverse incentive structure, is it any wonder that governments have a marked propensity to overspend?

This is a particular example of Ferguson’s more general tendency to see corruption in “polished” societies as a sort of moral complaisance. In describing this phenomenon, Ferguson deploys a rhetorical vocabulary of “energy”, “exertion” and “vigour” on the one hand, and “relaxation”, “ebbing”, and “languor” on the other. When a polished society’s national “vigour” becomes “relaxed”, the future is discounted while the present is spent eating up all the low-hanging fruit, enjoying luxuries purchased on credit, and avoiding decisions that require too much effort. Again, such moral complaisance often takes the form of a short-sighted discounting of the future.

War is a subject about which, like public finance, Ferguson displays a deep-rooted ambivalence. On the one hand, he dislikes imperialism and believes war to be a waste of human and material capital, especially when conducted in the service of immoral ends. On the other hand, nations face real dangers, and in order to protect itself the state must have a citizenry capable of making war. Not only that, but because of the constitution of human nature itself, struggle and aggressive competition play a vital role in the moral economy of a society: “To overawe, or intimidate, or, when we cannot persuade with reason, to resist with fortitude, are the occupations which give it most animating exercise, and its greatest triumphs, to a vigorous mind; and he who has never struggled with his fellow-creatures, is a stranger to half the sentiments of mankind” (Pt. I, §4).

Too long a period of peace may lead citizens to become weak, and a republic to lack vigour and energy. This effect may be mitigated to some extent by the sort of economic competition found in commercial societies. However, economic competition narrows the minds and moral horizons of citizens, as they struggle after private rather than common interests. And too much wealth tends to lead to luxury and civic apathy, which spell the death of a republic.

Another factor contributing to the decline of a healthy commonwealth stems from a certain mistaken view of politics, a view which I am afraid is all too common in our own time.  I have quoted the following passage more than once in this blog, but it will always be worth quoting again:

“[O]ur notion of order in civil society is frequently false: it is taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think it consistent only with obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the hands of a few. The good order of stones in a wall, is their being properly fixed in the places for which they are hewn; were they to stir the building must fall: but the order of men in society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act. The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere inaction and tranquility, we forget the nature of our subject, and find the order of slaves, not that of free men.” (Pt. VI, §5)

In a healthy republic, citizens are active. They are not supposed to be passive spectators who vote every four years for new masters.

Some time ago, a former mayor of the city in which I live demanded from the provincial government that he and other mayors be given “strong mayor powers” to forward certain favoured projects. Beware the leader who claims to require more powers in order to be able to “get things done” and acts as if the constitutional order is a mere obstacle to his ends. The very purpose of a constitution is precisely to thwart ambitious politicians. It is supposed to be an obstacle.

A constitution is often the only thing that separates a free people from political slavery. Thus, beware too those politicians and citizens who bemoan a supposed excess of liberty. Free expression is often ugly, and democratic politics is often just as ugly. It is tempting to prohibit what is currently unpopular, while delegating political power to administrative bodies in the name of governmental expediency. This is a dangerous tendency: “subjects, as well as their princes, frequently imagine that freedom is a clog on the proceedings of government: they imagine, that despotical power is best fitted to procure dispatch and secrecy in the execution of public councils; to maintain what they are pleased to call political order, and to give a speedy redress of complaints” (Pt. VI, §5). This is precisely the phenomenon that Lord Hewart, in his 1929 book of the same name, famously described as “the new despotism”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a wise and virtuous elite who always deliberated and acted for the common good? Wouldn’t it be grand to be able to spend all day drinking beer and watching hockey, safe in the knowledge that our security and prosperity were in the capable hands of our benevolent masters, and overseen by a scrupulous and efficient civil service? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we simply had no need to attend to politics?

For Ferguson, this would not be desirable even if it were feasible: “When we suppose government to have bestowed a degree of tranquility… such a state, like that of China, by throwing affairs into separate offices, where conduct consists of detail, and in the observance of forms, by superseding all the exertions of a great or a liberal mind, is more akin to despotism than we are apt to imagine” (Pt. VI, §5). It is in activity that the mind is exercised, talents are made use of, and the commonwealth flourishes. A society cannot be in good health if its forms of political life have been routinized to such an extent that citizens and officials have little to do except to mindlessly follow procedures.

Habit is the great deadener, as Samuel Beckett once observed. A thoroughly bureaucratized political order is the order of slaves. In Democracy in America (1835-1840), Tocqueville warned of a similar sort of “soft despotism”, where the minds of citizens were (unwittingly) cramped by innumerable and often pointless rules and procedures, and where the government takes care of all the wants of the citizenry (or indeed decides what the citizenry’s wants are), to the extent that they look to it for everything. This is every bit as much a form of slavery.

Tocqueville characterized soft despotism as a tyranny of petty rules and procedures, which relieves the citizen of the burden of thinking. Ferguson would caution us not to mistake the rule of such petty administrative rules (now euphemistically referred to as “administrative law”) for the rule of law proper. Law is not a collection of mechanical procedures. It is a living thing, whose breath comes from the activity and wisdom of those subject to it and those who administer it. When virtue ceases to give it life, law becomes the exercise of naked power and nothing more:

“When a basha, in Asia, pretends to decide every controversy by the rules of natural equity, we allow that he is possessed of discretionary powers. When a judge in Europe is left to decide, according to his own interpretation of written laws, is he in any sense more restrained than the former?... If forms of proceeding, written statutes, or other constituents of law, cease to be enforced by the very spirit from which they arose; they only serve to cover, not to restrain, the iniquities of power…. And the influence of laws, where they have any real effect in the preservation of liberty, is not any magic power descending from shelves that are loaded with books, but is, in reality, the influence of men resolved to be free…” (Pt. VI, §5)

For Tocqueville, the only difference between soft despotism and the hard variety is that the latter breaks the spirit of citizens into whatever form the despot desires, whereas in the former the spirit is bent imperceptibly but inexorably. The end result is the same. And it matters little whether the despot is benevolent; either kind of despotism stamps upon the citizenry the moral character of slaves or children. What worried Tocqueville especially was that, while hard despotism or tyranny is incompatible with democracy, soft despotism is perfectly compatible with some reasonable facsimile of it. It takes vigilance and activity to prevent the slow rot of soft despotism. Ferguson foresaw the danger of soft despotism some seventy years before Tocqueville wrote.


  1. Excellent insight

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