Por Samuel Gregg*
Fuente: Law & Liberty
27 de Marzo 2024

The word “civilization” is unfashionable in our times. It implies a contrast, and that contrast is uncomfortable. If some societies have attained a cultural level that merits this designation, it may follow that other societies are less civilized or—worse—even barbarous. For many people today, making any such value-judgment is simply unacceptable.

Those who maintain that such distinctions can and should be made are usually labeled conservative, even traditionalist in their outlook. However, specific ideas about the nature of civilization have been taken quite seriously by key classical liberal thinkers and their philosophical forebears. For them, certain theories of societal development helped explain how particular conceptions of rights and distinctive political, economic, and legal institutions emerged and fit together. Today, I’d suggest, such concepts of civilization have the potential to invest contemporary classical liberalism with a normative outlook and foundations that it needs at a time when classical liberal ideas are being assailed by competitors from across the political spectrum.

Hayek’s Civilization

One curiosity of F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1960) is its dedication, “To the unknown civilization that is growing in America.” Thanks to Bruce Caldwell and Hansjoerg Klausinger’s Hayek: A Life, 1899–1950 (2022), we know that Hayek, like many European classical liberals of his generation, had mixed views of America. What Hayek did not doubt, however, was classical liberalism’s need to wrap itself in a civilizational agenda.

Throughout his writings, Hayek makes references to classical liberalism finding validation in notions of progress. But for Hayek, liberalism properly understood had a civilizational dimension. In part, he connected this with the moves towards greater political, civil, and economic freedom that marked nineteenth-century Europe. Like his intellectual sparring partner, John Maynard Keynes, much of Hayek’s thought was geared towards seeking to protect values that both men associated with prewar liberal Europe—and, in Hayek’s case, those of a nineteenth-century liberal Britain that had well and truly disappeared long before Hayek moved to London in 1931.

What then were liberal civilization’s core values for Hayek? Some of these are outlined in his Constitution of Liberty. Certainly, he values goods closely connected to freedom, such as the scope that a free society provides for creativity and tolerance. However, there is just as much emphasis on constitutionalism and the rule of law as good in themselves, and even liberty is understood to be inseparable from personal responsibility.

Some of this is echoed in various commitments referenced in the Statement of Aims approved by the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society—a group of classical liberal thinkers convened by Hayek in 1947. The Statement begins by unambiguously asserting that “the central values of civilization are in danger.” Some of those civilizational values include “human dignity and freedom” and “the rule of law.” It specifically describes “freedom of thought and expression” as a “precious possession of Western Man,” thereby linking this liberty to a precise historical and cultural trajectory. The statement also references the civilizational threat posed by “a view of history which denies all absolute moral standards,” thereby signaling classical liberal opposition to moral relativism.

Hayek thought it important that governments not unduly meddle with liberal civilization’s achievements. Such actions, he believed, were likely to undermine various conveyors of knowledge, the full value of which may not be apparent to us until it is lost.

There is, however, another sense in which Hayek utilizes the concept of civilization. In the Constitution of Liberty, he denotes civilization as an accumulation of knowledge and experiences over time that could never be designed by any one human mind, but which allows people to pursue their individual aims. The scope of possibilities open to people at any one moment in time is what Hayek refers to as “the state of civilization.” Some civilizations contain more possibilities than others; that is why Hayek speaks of “higher civilization.”

Civilization in Hayek’s sense thus embodies the wisdom transmitted from the past, often in the form of conventions and traditions. While no one person can fully grasp all this knowledge, it enables people to pursue “their individual ends so much more successfully than they could alone.” This “conservative” feature of civilization, however, goes together with a “liberal” recognition that as people freely pursue their chosen goals (especially the end of knowledge driven by humans’ innate desire to know truth) they may make errors but also likely uncover new information. This can form the basis of critiques of existing ideas, institutions, and conventions that in turn suggest revisions of what we already know.

Hayek’s liberal civilization is consequently one characterized by certain unchanging commitments alongside openness to change, a willingness to question, and above all, complexity. Full knowledge of the different elements that make up a higher civilization is, for Hayek, beyond any one human mind. Indeed, it is civilization that enables us to overcome “our ignorance of the circumstances upon which the results of our action depend.” For the same reason, Hayek thought it important that governments not unduly meddle with liberal civilization’s achievements. Such actions, he believed, were likely to undermine various conveyors of knowledge, the full value of which may not be apparent to us until it is lost.

Scottish Civilization

If this sounds rather Burkean, that’s because it is. Hayek affirmed Lord Acton’s assessment of Burke as one of “the three greatest liberals” and as part of a liberal tradition that markedly differed from what Hayek labeled “rationalistic Continental liberalism” and “the English liberalism of the utilitarians.” It was not for idle reasons that later in life Hayek described himself in an interview as “a Burkean Whig.”

In using this expression, Hayek had in mind the eighteenth-century British tradition of liberty within which he placed Burke alongside important Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. That matters, not least because these Scots—still a reference point for many classical liberals—presented some of their arguments in explicitly civilizational terms.

One expression of this was the four-stage theory of social development articulated by the philosopher and judge Henry Home, Lord Kames in his Historical Law-Tracts (1758) and his Sketches of the History of Man (1774). Beginning with a hunter-gatherer stage before moving to a herder society and then to full-blown agricultural arrangements, Kames posited a fourth stage which he called “commercial society.”

As the phrase suggests, this was a social and economic order in which ever-expanding market exchanges, urbanization, and industry took center stage. It was also characterized by complicated webs of intersecting relationships, laws, and freely undertaken obligations that increasingly revolved around market transactions and the studied pursuit of self-interest. That complexity, however, delivered more than just material prosperity; Kames also believed that it produced an accelerated expansion of knowledge, a growth of social and cultural opportunities, and ultimately greater liberty and a more consistent administration of justice.

Similar narratives about civilizational development pervaded the thought of other Scottish Enlightenment figures ranging from Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith to David Hume and Adam Ferguson. In his 1752 essay “Of Refinement in the Arts,” Hume maintained that “the mind acquires new vigor [and] enlarges its powers and faculties” in commercial societies. This energy spills over into the cultural, political, and legal spheres. “The spirit of the age,” Hume wrote, “affects all the arts; and the minds of men, being once roused from their lethargy, and put into a fermentation, turn themselves on all sides, and carry improvements into every art and science.”

Considering the sheer scale of the cultural achievements of late-eighteenth-century Scotland, whose universities became the envy of Europe as it was transformed from a poor semi-feudal country into a society dominated by commerce, Hume had a point. At the same time, these thinkers’ satisfaction at the emergence of commercial civilization did not mean that they regarded it as a cost-free exercise. As men steeped in classical and medieval history, the Scots recognized that the societies of those eras had their own virtues. They worried that commercial society might obviate these moral habits alongside the vices of premodern social orders. In his Sketches, Kames expressed concern that an obsession with consumption for consumption’s sake might weaken individuals and society more generally.

Smith believed that those virtues which noticeably manifested themselves in market activities were insufficient if commercial societies were to be civilized.

Of all the Scots, Adam Ferguson was the most vocal about these risks. In his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Ferguson described “the admired establishments and advantages of a civilized and flourishing people” as emerging from multitudes of individuals pursuing particular goals rather than “the execution of any human design” (a phrase that Hayek often quoted). Such achievements owed much, Ferguson stated, to “the effects of virtue.” By this, Ferguson meant habits like hard work, initiative, risk-taking, and creativity that people must embrace if they seek commercial advancement.

Nonetheless, Ferguson also thought that the very successes of commercial civilization, especially its ability to generate wealth and luxury, could weaken those same habits and devalue the importance of others. “The boasted refinements,” Ferguson insisted, “of the polished age, are not divested of danger. They open the door, perhaps, to disaster, as wide and accessible as any they have shut. If they build walls and ramparts, they enervate the minds of those placed to defend them.”

Virtue as Civilized Liberty

Apprehensions about the potential of commercial civilization and its creature comforts to undermine virtues linked with the premodern world are not hard to find in our own time. There is no dearth of thinkers on the left and right who view the market order promoted by classical liberal ideas as corrupting entire societies by marginalizing a concern for virtue, thereby rendering people weak, ineffectual, or even indifferent when tempted by the promises of domestic demagogues or threatened by foreign adversaries.

Most such critiques, however, miss an important point: Many of the Scots who favored commercial society were equally insistent that the civilized liberty of which they spoke required a firm grounding in virtues that went beyond those associated with commerce.

Francis Hutcheson went to some lengths to show that benevolent motivations often underlay the pursuit of economic self-interest and that the decisions driving commercial exchanges were often less self-regarding than many suppose. In his inaugural lecture at the University of Glasgow, Hutcheson noted that “when men are said to be seeking profit, or their own advantage, they are surely quite often serving their offspring and family.”

Scottish Enlightenment thinkers also thought that the full panoply of virtues can and should be taught in commercial orders. Hutcheson and his student Adam Smith firmly believed in the power of education to inculcate moral knowledge and refinement among elites and the wider populace in the increasingly commercial conditions of their time. For Smith, this was important because he believed that those virtues which noticeably manifested themselves in market activities were insufficient if commercial societies were to be civilized.

In Part VI of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, entitled “On the Character of Virtue” and added to the book at the end of his life, Smith explains that commercial virtues require supplementation by classical virtues like magnanimity and justice as well as disinterested habits of benevolence like charity, generosity, and friendship. All these virtues, Smith believed, encourage us to look beyond the boundaries of self-preference.

Such virtues were not understood simply as extra grease to smooth the wheels of commerce. Virtue, Smith said, is nothing less than “excellence, something uncommonly great and beautiful.” It would civilize the use of our liberty in commercial society while also ensuring that our horizons were not limited to the market’s technical and material triumphs, as formidable as these are. Especially significant in this regard is the virtue of humility. For if Hayek was right to maintain that civilizational growth owes much, as Ferguson observed, to “nations [stumbling] upon establishments,” we should resist the hubris of imagining that we can somehow manufacture ex nihilo a better society and higher culture from the top-down.

If twenty-first-century classical liberals want to avoid being caricatured as narrow-minded technocrats or sophistic materialists, they could do worse than to follow their intellectual forebears, recasting classical liberalism as a truly civilizational endeavor that pursues the excellence that Smith has in mind. To the extent that classical liberalism today can show that love of the true, the good, and the beautiful can go hand-in-hand with the wealth, liberties, and complexities associated with markets, the power and attraction of its ideas will surely grow.

*Samuel Gregg es Miembro del Consejo Consultivo Internacional del Instituto Acton Argentina.