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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Freedom, Reason, and Tradition

Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization, it did not arise from design. The institutions of freedom, like everything freedom has created, were not established because people foresaw the benefits they would bring. But, once its advantages were recognized, men began to perfect and extend the reign of freedom and, for that purpose, to inquire how a free society worked. This development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and France. The first of these knew liberty; the second did not.

As a result, we have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty: one empirical and unsystematic, the other speculative and rationalistic –the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up and were but imperfectly understood, the second aiming at the construction of a utopia, which has often been tried but never successfully. Nevertheless, it has been the rationalistic, plausible, and apparently logical argument of the French tradition, with its flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason, that has progressively gained influence, while the less articulate and less explicit tradition of English freedom has been on the decline.

This distinction is obscured by the fact that what we have called the “French tradition” of liberty arose largely from an attempt to interpret British institutions and that the conceptions which other countries formed of British institutions were based mainly on their descriptions by French writers. The two traditions became finally confused when they merged in the liberal movement of the nineteenth century and when even leading British liberals drew as much on the French as on the British tradition. It was, in the end, the victory of the Benthamite Philosophical Radicals over the Whigs in England that concealed the fundamental difference which in more recent years has reappeared as the conflict between liberal democracy and “social” or totalitarian democracy.

This difference was better understood a hundred years ago than it is today. In the year of the European revolutions in which the two traditions merged, the contract between “Anglican” and “Gallican” liberty was still clearly described by an eminent German-American political philosopher. “Gallican Liberty,” wrote Francis Lieber in 1848, “is sought in the government, and according to an Anglican point of view, it is looked for in the wrong place, where it cannot be found. Necessary consequences of the Gallican view are, that the French look for the highest degree of political civilization in organization, that is, in the highest degree of interference by public power. The question whether this interference be despotism or liberty is decided solely by the fact who interferes, and for the benefit of which class the interference takes place, while according to the Anglican view this interference would always be either absolutism or aristocracy, and the present dictatorship of the ouvriers would appear to us an uncompromising aristocracy of the ouvriers.”

Since this was written, the French tradition has everywhere progressively displaced the English. To disentangle the two traditions it is necessary to look at the relatively pure forms in which they appeared in the eighteenth century. What we have called the “British Tradition” was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, seconded by their English contemporaries Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke and William Paley, and drawing largely on a tradition rooted in the jurisprudent of the common law. Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment, deeply imbued with Cartesian rationalism: the Encyclopedists and Rousseau, the Physiocrats and Condorcet, are their best know representatives. Of course, the division does not fully coincide with national boundaries. Frenchmen, like Montesquieu and, later, Benjamin Constant and, above all, Alexis de Tocqueville are probably nearer to what we have called the “British” than to the “French” tradition. And in Thomas Hobbes, Britain as provided at least on e of the founders of rationalist tradition, not to speak of a whole generation of enthusiasts for the French Revolution, like Godwin, Priestly, Price, and Paine, who (like Jefferson after his stay in France) belong entirely to it.
2. Though these two groups are now commonly lumped together as ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty. The difference is directly traceable to the predominance of an essentially empiricist view of the world in England and a rationalist approach in France. The main contrast in the practical conclusions to which these approaches led has recently been put, as follows: “One finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose”, and “one stands for organic, slow, half-conscious growth, the other for doctrinaire deliberativeness; one for trail and error procedure, the other for an enforced solely valid pattern.” It is the second view, as J. L. Talmon has shown in an important book from which this description is taken, that has become the origin of totalitarian democracy.

The sweeping success of the political doctrines that stem from the French tradition is probably due to their great appeal to human pride and ambition. But we must not forget that the political conclusions of the two schools derive from the different conceptions of how society works. In this respect, the British philosophers laid the foundations of a profound and essentially valid theory, while the rationalist school was simply and completely wrong.

Those British philosophers have given us an interpretation of the growth of civilization that is still the indispensable foundation of the argument for liberty. They find the origin of institutions, not in contrivance or design, but in the survival of the successful. Their view is expressed in terms of “how nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action but not the execution of human design.” It stresses that what we call political order is much less the product of our ordering intelligence than is commonly imagined. As their immediate successors saw it, what Adam Smith and his contemporaries did was “to resolve almost all that has been ascribed to positive institution into the spontaneous and irresistible development of certain obvious principles—and to show how little contrivance or political wisdom the most complicated and apparently artificial schemes of policy might have been erected.”

This “anti-rationalistic insight into historical happenings that Adam Smith shares with Hume, Adam Ferguson, and others” enabled them for the first time to comprehend how institutions and morals, language and law, have evolved by a process of cumulative growth and that it is only with and within this framework that human reason has grown and can successfully operate. Their argument is directed throughout against the Cartesian conception of an independently and antecedently existing human reason that invented these institutions and against the conception that civil society formed by some wise original legislator or an original “social contract.” The latter idea of intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew is perhaps the most characteristic outcome of thos design theories. It found its perfect expression when the leading theorist of the French Revolution, Abbe Sieyes, exhorted the revolutionary assembly “to act like men just emerging from the state of nature and coming together for the purpose of signing a social contract.”

The ancients understood the conditions of liberty better than that. Cicero quotes Cato as saying that the Roman constitution was superior to that of other states because it “was based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many: it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all men living at one time possibly make all the necessary provisions for the future without the aid of actual experience and the test of time.” Neither republican Rome not Athens – the tow free nations of the ancient world—could thus serve as and example for rationalists. For Descartes, the fountainhead of the rationalist tradition, it was indeed Sparta that provided the model; for her greatness “was due not the pre-eminence of each of its laws in particular…but to the circumstance that, originated by a single individual, they all tended to the same end.” And it was Sparta which became the ideal of liberty for Rousseau as well as for Robespierre and Saint-Just and for most of the later advocates of “social” or totalitarian democracy.

Like the ancient, the modern British conception of liberty grew against the background of a comprehension, first achieved by the lawyers, of how institutions had developed. “There are many things specifically in laws and governments,” wrote Chief Justice Hale in the seventeenth century in a critique of Hobbes, “that mediately, remotely and consequentially are reasonable to be approved, though the reason of the party does not presently or immediately and distinctly see its reasonableness…Long experience makes more discoveries touching conveniences or inconveniences of laws than is possible for the wisest council of men at first to foresee. And that those amendments and supplements that through the various experiences of wise and knowing men have been applied to any law must needs be better suited to the convenience of laws, than the best invention of the most pregnant wits not aided by such a series and tract of experience…This add to the difficulty of the present fathoming of the reason of laws, which, though it commonly be called the mistress of fools, yet certainly it is the wisest expedient among mankind, and discovers those defects and supplies which no wit of man could either at once foresee or aptly remedy…It is not necessary that the reasons of the institution should be evident unto us. It is sufficient that they are instituted laws that give a certainty to us, and it is reasonable to observe them though the particular reason of the institution appear not.”

3. From these conceptions gradually grew a body of social theory that showed how, in the relations among men, complex and orderly and, in a very definite sense, purposive institutions might grow up which owed little to design, which were not invented but arose from the separate action of many men who did nto know what they were doing. This demonstration that something greater than man’s individual mind may grow from men’s fumbling efforts represented in some ways an even greater challenge to all design theories than even the later theory of biological evolution. For the first time it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of designing human intelligence, but that there was a third possibility—the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution.

Since the emphasis we shall have to place on the role that selection plays in this process of social evolution today is likely to create the impression that we are borrowing the idea from biology, it is worth stressing that it was from the theories of social evolution that Darwin and his contemporaries derived the suggestion for their theories. Indeed, one of those Scottish philosophers who first developed these ideas anticipated Darwin even in the biological field, and later application of these conceptions by the various “historical schools” in law and language rendered the idea that similarity of structure might be accounted for by a common origin a common place in the study of social phenomena long before it was applied to biology. It is unfortunate that at a later date the social sciences, instead of building on these beginnings in their own field, re-imported some of these ideas from biology and with them brought in such conceptions as “natural selection,” “struggle for existence,” and “survival of the fittest,’ which are not appropriate in their field; for in social evolution, the decisive factor is not the selection of the physical and inherited properties of the individuals but the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. Though this operates also through the success of individuals and groups, what emerges is not an inheritable attribute of individuals, but ideas and skills – in short, the whole cultural inheritance which is passed on by learning and imitation.

4. A detailed comparison of the two traditions would require a separate book; here we can merely single out a few of the crucial points on which they differ.

While the rationalist tradition assumes that man was originally endowed with both the intellectual and moral attributes that enabled him to fashion civilization deliberately, the evolutionists made it clear that civilization was the accumulated hard-earned result of trial and error; that it was the sum of experience, in part handed from generation to generation as explicit knowledge, but to a larger extent embodied in tools and institutions which had proved themselves superior—institutions whose significance we might discover by analysis, but which will also serve men’s ends without men’s understanding them. The Scottish theorists were very much aware of how delicate this artificial structure of civilization was which rested upon man’s more primitive and ferocious instincts being tamed and checked by institutions that he neither had designed not could control. They were very far from holding such naïve views, later unjustly laid at the door of their liberalism, as the “natural goodness of man,” the existence of “a natural harmony of interests,” or the beneficent effects of “natural liberty” (even though they did sometimes use the last phrase). They knew that it required the artifices of institutions and traditions to reconcile the conflicts of interest. Their problem was “that universal mover in human nature, self love, may receive such direction in this case (as in all others) as to promote the public interest by those efforts it shall make towards pursuing its own.” It was not “natural liberty” in any literal sense, but the institutions evolved to secure “life, liberty, and property,” which made these individual efforts beneficial. Not Locke, nor Hume, nor Smith, nor Burke, could have argued, as Bentham did, that “every law is an evil for every law is an infraction of liberty.” Their argument was never a complete laissez faire argument, which, as the very words show, is also part of the French rationalist tradition and in its literal sense was never defended by any of the English classical economists. They knew better than most of their later critics that it was not some sort of magic, but the evolution of “well constructed institutions,” where the “rules and privileges of contending interests and compromised advantages” would be reconciled, that had successfully channeled individual efforts to socially beneficial aims. In fact, their argument was never antistate as such, or anarchistic, which is the logical outcome of the rationalistic laissez faire doctrine; it was an argument that accounted both for the proper functions of the state and for the limits of state action.

The difference is particularly conspicuous in the respective assumptions of the two schools concerning individual human nature. The rationalistic design theories were necessarily based on the assumption of the individual man’s propensity for rational action and his natural intelligence and goodness. The evolutionary theory, on the contrary, showed how certain institutional arrangements would induce man to use his intelligence to the best effect and how institutions could be framed so that bad people could do least harm. The antirationalist tradition is here closer to the Christian tradition of the fallibility and sinfulness of man, while the perfectionism of the rationalist is in irreconcilable conflict with it. Even such a celebrated figment as the “economic man’ was not an original part of the British evolutionary tradition. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, in the view of those British philosophers, man was by nature lazy and indolent, improvident and wasteful, and that it was only by the force of circumstances that he could be made to behave economically or could learn carefully to adjust his means to his ends. The homo oeconomicus was explicitly introduced, with much else that belongs in the rationalist rather than the evolutionary tradition, only by the younger Mill.

5. The greatest difference between the two views, however, is in their respective ideas about the role of traditions and the value of all the other product of unconscious growth proceeding throughout the ages. It would hardly be unjust to say that the rationalistic approach is here opposed to almost all that is the distinct product of liberty and that gives liberty its value. Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not been consciously designed are almost of necessity enemies of freedom. For them freedom means chaos.
To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, on the other hand, the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity that it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there certainly has been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and “all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.” Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.

This esteem for tradition and custom, of grown institutions, and of rules whose origins and rationale we do not know does not, of course, mean – as Thomas Jefferson believed with a characteristic rationalist misconception – that we “ascribe to men of preceding age a wisdom more than human, and… suppose what they did beyond amendment.” Far from assuming that those who created the institutions were wiser than we are, the evolutionary view is based on the insight that the result of the experimentation of many generations may embody more experience than any on man possesses.

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