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An essay on the history of civil society ferguson

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.

  • This effect may be mitigated to some extent by the sort of economic competition found in commercial societies;
  • Human institutions, he argued, emerge spontaneously from human activity, and evolve in a variety of ways:

Cambridge University Press, 1995. Adam Ferguson 1723-1816 was one of the lesser lights of the Scottish Enlightenment. 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: It is worth noting in passing that An essay on the history of civil society ferguson would have considered himself fairly knowledgeable about less advanced societies: 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.

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. 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: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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: 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.

  • It is a living thing, whose breath comes from the activity and wisdom of those subject to it and those who administer it;
  • 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;
  • Major Works of Adam Ferguson;
  • However, Ferguson was not misty-eyed about the arrival of capitalism;
  • 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.

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. 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: 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?

  • Adam Ferguson 1723-1816 was one of the lesser lights of the Scottish Enlightenment;
  • In 1783, he helped found the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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. 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?

An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition by Adam Ferguson

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: 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: 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: 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. They are not supposed to be passive spectators who vote every an essay on the history of civil society ferguson years for new masters. 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: For Ferguson, this would not be desirable even if it were feasible: It is in activity that the mind is exercised, talents are made use of, and the commonwealth flourishes.

A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

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. 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.

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 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….

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.