One of the most cherished misunderstandings, if not delusions, of the social engineer – the individual who would presume to attempt to remake society through conscious and planned design – is the confident belief that he (and those like him) can ever know enough to successfully remold mankind and human institutions.

Society
Image source: Kevin Dooley, Flickr
Society

An appreciation of how limited is our individual knowledge and abilities to intentionally try make a “better world” through government regulation, control and central planning has been slow in fully developing, and still eludes too many among what is sometimes referred to as the “intellectual class” who influence and often seem to direct the social policy discourse in the modern world.

He believed the origin and nature of man in society had to be derived from historical investigation and not abstract imaginings of fictitious “states of nature.”

Yet, it was precisely the call for men to use their reason to understand the modesty with which they should approach matters of social evolution and societal change that was a central hallmark of several of the members of the Scottish Enlightenment.

A leading figure in this Scottish movement was Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), who for several years held a chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, until his retirement at the age of sixty-two. Ferguson had also been sympathetic to the grievances of the American colonists against the British crown, but believed that the government in London was ultimately in its rights to oppose American independence.

In 1778, he was appointed by the British government to a Conciliation Commission assigned the task of negotiating with the American colonists to bring an end to the hostilities while preserving British sovereignty over the thirteen American colonies. He travelled with his fellow commission members to Philadelphia, but was denied permission by George Washington to cross into rebel-held territory to negotiate with members of the Continental Congress. Unable to find any solution to the conflict short of acceptance of American independence and withdrawal of all British forces, Ferguson and his fellow Commission members returned to Great Britain in late 1778, having failed in their mission. Ferguson then took up, again, his chair at the University of Edinburgh.

Understanding Social Evolution in Place of Social Construction

Adam Ferguson is best known for his 1767 work, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, as well as his Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). The Essay on the History of Civil Society contains some of the clearest analyses of social institutions and their emergence and evolution as the spontaneous development of the interactions of multitudes of people over many generations, the results of which are unpredictable, yet often superior to any attempt to actually guide or direct social processes through time.

Ferguson believed that the origin and nature of man in society had to be derived from historical investigation and not abstract imaginings of fictitious “states of nature.” A number of intellectual historians have argued that his point of criticism on this was Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Social Contract and the image of the “noble savage” free man entering into a compact with others to form society at the expense of some of his “natural” freedom.

Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.

Instead, Ferguson insisted that man may be a willing, volitional and acting individual, but he is born into society in the form of families and clans, which then took on more complex and extended forms of human relationship and association over extended time. The formal institutions of society concerning rights and law emerged out of this more primitive human order precisely to delineate private property ownership and impose restraints on abusive political authority.

Thus, Ferguson argued, society was not created by design to provide safety and security, but, instead, freedom and rights emerged and evolved out of more primitive forms of tribal and collective association as responses to considered injustices and abusive power.

The Results of Human Action, But Not Human Design

This now gets to the heart of Ferguson’s conception of society as a spontaneous order and not a planned creation of human forethought and conscious purpose, or as he expressed it in one of the most famous passages in the Essay on Civil Society:

“Like the winds, that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of man. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector.

“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what is termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments [institutions], which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.

“[It] may with more reason be affirmed for communities [societies], 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.”

The Unintended Evolution of Property and Law

A main theme in Ferguson’s analysis is to emphasize that much of what we understand to be human progress through social evolution is the result of these cumulative actions of multitudes of people, the results of which cannot be, and have never been, fully predicted or understood by anyone.

Property rights and the legal order to recognize and protect them did not come first, Ferguson reasoned, but were the outgrowth individuals acting with particular purposes in mind, with little thought or realization that their individual decisions and acts would bring about the institutions without which the execution of those individual plans would have been less possible and secure.

As Ferguson expressed it:

“Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrives at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate, and pass on, like animals, in the track of their nature, without perceiving its end.

“He who first said, ‘I will appropriate this field: I will leave it to my heirs,’ did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments . . .

“This is the simplest form under which we can consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design, what came to be known only by experience, what no human wisdom could foresee, and what, without the recurring humor and disposition of his age, no authority could enable an individual to execute.”

Furthermore, Ferguson argued that the attempt by some to impose their societal designing projects on others finds ready resistance from those whose own plans differ from that of the social engineer. Said Ferguson, “Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: but he who can scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself.”

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