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Individual Liberty and Civil Society

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In 1819, the French classical liberal, Benjamin Constant, delivered a lecture in Paris entitled, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Modems.” He drew his audience’s attention to the fact that in the world of ancient Greece, “the aim of the ancients was the sharing of [political] power among the citizens of the fatherland: this is what they called liberty. [But] the citizen, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations. As a citizen, he decided peace and war, as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged…. The ancients, as Condorcet says, had no notion of individual rights. Men were, so to speak, merely machines, whose gears and cog-wheels were regulated by the law. . . . The individual was in some way lost in the nation, the citizen in the city.”

Constant asked his listeners to compare “what an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word ‘liberty.’ For each of them it is the right to be subjected to the laws, and to be neither wrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations and whims.” For the modems, Constant said, liberty consisted of “peaceful pleasures and private independence.”

Modern men wished, Constant explained, “each to enjoy our own rights, each to develop our own faculties as we like best, without harming anyone…. Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modem liberty.” As a consequence, while a concern for the preservation of political liberty was essential to the preservation of individual liberty, Constant believed that politics was a distraction from the proper affairs of free men, and these proper affairs were the peaceful pursuit and cultivation of their personal, family, commercial and voluntary societal relationships.

In the ancient world, the personal and the private were subordinate and subjugated to the political. Each individual’s life revolved around and was defined by his relationship to — and standing within — the political order. But in Benjamin Constant’s “modem world” of the early 19th century, the political order was relegated to an increasingly unimportant corner of social life. Me individual was liberated from political subordination, and he attached himself to an expanding web of voluntary relationships of diverse and personal interest.

What had replaced the politicized order of the ancient world was civil society. And as University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils has reminded us in his article, “The Virtue of Civil Society,” in the Winter 1991 issue of Government and Opposition, “The idea of civil society is the idea of a part of society which has a life of its own, which is distinctly different from the state, which is largely in autonomy from it…. The hallmark of a civil society is the autonomy of private associations and institutions as well as that of private business firms…. A market economy is the appropriate pattern of life of a civil society.” And the importance of the market economy in the civil society, as Benjamin Constant pointed out in 1819, is that “commerce inspires in men a vivid love of individual independence. Commerce supplies their needs, satisfies their desires, without the intervention of the [political] authorities.”

In civil society there is no longer a single focal point in the social order, as in the politicized society in which the state, designs, directs and imposes an agenda to which all must conform and within which all are confined. Rather, in civil society there are as many focal points as individuals, who all design, shape and direct their own lives, guided by their own interests, ideals and passions.

But the society of free individuals is not a society of unconnected, isolated individuals — “atomistic man,” as the critics of liberty sometime refer to him. As another 19th-century French classical liberal, Count Destutt Tracy, concisely expressed it, “The social state … is our natural state …. Society is … a continual series of exchanges … in which the two contracting parties always both gain; consequently society is an uninterrupted succession of advantages, unceasingly renewed for all its members.”

The exchange relationships that emerge among free men in civil society, however, should not be viewed as meaning only those involving the trading of what is narrowly thought of as “goods and services” within the institutions of the marketplace. The network of exchange relationships include community endeavors, religious and church activities, cultural associations and clubs, professional organizations and charitable callings. Indeed, any relationship in which men find that they have common interests, goals or shared beliefs becomes the foundation for the emergence of exchange. And these exchanges involve agreed-upon terms for association and collaboration for mutual benefit and the enhancement of the quality, character and meaning of life for each participant.

Every free man belongs to numerous voluntary associations and institutions in the civil society. He forms or joins new ones as new interests and ideals develop during his life, and withdraws from others as his inclinations and circumstances change; and the associations and institutions to which individuals belong modify their goals and structures over time, as the members revise their purposes and discover new rules more effective in achieving the ends of the organization.

Each individual, therefore, simultaneously participates in a variety of “social worlds” with different people, with each of these social relationships representing different purposes and needs in his life. And cumulatively these various social worlds of civil society, with all the relationships within each of them and between them, create what the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek called the spontaneous social order. He called it a spontaneous order because the institutions, associations and activities among men that are the elements of this order are not the result of any prior plan or regulated design; instead, they arise, evolve and maintain themselves as a result of the independent actions and interactions of the members of society.

But, equally important, these spontaneous institutions of society supported the individual throughout his life and helped to protect him from the power of the state. The Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero in his 1926 book, Words to the Deaf, explained that these institutions and associations of civil society “also served as refuges against the power of the state.” But in the 20th century, the state, as it has grown in power, has superseded or suppressed many of the private and voluntary associations of civil society. The individual, Ferrero said, has “found himself alone confronting the state …. [Governments] force people to study, to work, to fight. They no longer let them sleep, they grind them down and fleece them mercilessly in the name … of progress, of country … of socialism of the people…. Multiple names of one and the same duty: to obey, to work, to pay.”

And as the relationships and activities of civil society have been diminished, political and politicized society has expanded. In other words, we have been reaming to the world of the ancients that Benjamin Constant contrasted with his modem world of the early 19th century. Our “liberty” in the political order is to choose between political leaders with the same philosophical perspective. Once that has been done, we revert to being subjects dependent upon the increasing discretion of those we have placed in office and those who have the greatest special-interest influence in effecting the directions of state policy.

As the new century rapidly approaches, we are continuing our journey back to the political world of three thousand years ago. We continue to trade away the modem ideal of individual liberty for the ancient ideal of collective tyranny.

Professor Ebeling is the Ludwig von Mises professor of Economics at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).