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.

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.

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.

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.”

Specialization and Trade Lead to the Commercial Order

Adam Ferguson applied his idea of emergent social order without prior or intentional design to the evolution of the division of labor in society. Men discover they are much more likely to achieve their ends by specializing in what they do, and associating with others for mutual gain through trade. But this process of emergent specialization and exchange as the institutional arrangement through which men associate for a standard of living that is impossible under more self-sufficient methods of production was not in the minds or even the imaginings of those whose actions brought it about.

In Ferguson’s words:

A people can make no great progress in cultivating the arts of life, until they have separated, and committed to different persons, the several tasks, which require a peculiar skill and attention . . .

The enjoyment of peace, however, and the prospects of being able to exchange one commodity for another, turns by degrees, the hunter and warrior into a tradesman and a merchant . . .

The artist finds, that the more he can confine his attention to a particular part of any work, his productions are the more perfect, and grow under his hands in the greater quantities . . .

By the separation of arts and professions, the sources of wealth are laid open; every species of material is wrought up to the greatest perfection, and every commodity is produced in the greatest abundance . . .

Nations of tradesmen come to consist of members who, beyond their own particular trade, are ignorant of all human affairs, and who may contribute to the preservation and enlargement of their commonwealth, without making its interest an object of regard or attention . . .

Ferguson was insistent that however much we may now see and appreciate the logic and the benefits that have arisen through the evolution of society’s institutions to protect rights, secure property, enforce justice, and maintain the peace that fosters the environment that makes liberty and prosperity possible, the multitudes of human actions and interactions that brought this about were done by individuals giving no thought to how their specific goal-oriented activities would generate the complex order of modern society.

Ferguson said and asked:

But the establishments of men [institutions and social arrangements] arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect; and they bring human affairs to a state of complication, which the greatest reach of capacity with which human nature were ever adorned, could not have projected; nor even when the whole is carried into execution, can it be comprehended in its full extent.

Who could anticipate, or enumerate, the separate occupations and professions by which the members of any commercial state are distinguished; the variety of devices which are practiced in separate cells, and which the artist, attentive to his own affair, has invented to abridge or to facilitate his own separate task?

A Common Human Nature and Complex Social Diversity

Ferguson believed that history and rational reflection on man and the human condition demonstrated that there were certain universal and common qualities and characteristics to human nature, what he referred to as “instinctive propensities,” among which the leading ones are self-protection and preservation, sexuality, and sociability or the need and desire for companionship.

Central to the pursuit of all of these, Ferguson said, was man as acting and active being. “Man is not made for repose,” he explained. “In him, every amiable and respectable quality is an active power, and every subject of commendation an effort. If his errors and his crimes are the movements of an active being, his virtues and his happiness consist likewise in the employment of his mind” to attain what he wants and desires.

In addition, human happiness comes not from the fulfillment of a goal as much as the act of striving to achieve it. Happiness, said Ferguson, “arises more from the pursuit, than from the attainment of any end whatever.”

At the same time, these common attributes or qualities discoverable in any and all men also are the source of the diversity of human experience and many of the social institutions through which individuals undertake their goal-oriented pursuits. This is seen in the different forms that civilizations take on in terms of art, industry, games, language, and rules of association. Yet, that very diversity serves the unplanned advancement of human purposes looking over long periods of time.

Conflict and Commerce as Influencing Human Character

Ferguson also argued that conflict was as much a part of the human experience as cooperation. He feared that as wars became less frequent and peace more prevalent certain human qualities such as heroism, courage, and cultural identification among those in the same society would be weakened. He also wondered if intensified division of labor would not narrow the minds of people to a small corridor of knowledge and interest, and that too many would lose an understanding and appreciation of a wider social view and context without which, among other things, freedom may not be protected against tyranny.

He often seemed fearful of commercial society making this narrowing of view and interest more easy to occur. But as the late Ronald Hamowy, an expert on Adam Ferguson who wrote his dissertation on Ferguson and his conception of spontaneous order under the supervision of F. A. Hayek at the University of Chicago, has argued, Ferguson was not fatalistic about this. It was a matter of countervailing trends and cultural inclinations.

In addition, Hamowy emphasized that Ferguson’s greatest concerns with commercial society came not from the development of the market order, itself, but from the intruding and intervening hand of government into the competitive system. Said Hamowy:

Indeed, his distrust could with justice be said to center not on commercial society itself but on the various efforts by politicians to intervene in economic life with the end of improving it. These attempts, no matter how well meaning, almost always resulted in hindering the production of wealth.

’In matters of particular profession, industry, and trade,’ wrote Ferguson, ‘the experienced practitioner is the master . . . When the refined politician would lend an active hand, he only multiples interruptions and grounds of complaint.’

What stands out more than anything else as Adam Ferguson’s contribution in An Essay on Civil Society is the profound insight and explanation that, yes, society does not exist independent of the individuals who comprise it at every moment, but its emergence, evolution, institutions and its patterns of ordered coordination are greater than and incorporate more cooperative participation than any social planner could ever successfully impose and direct according to any preconceived centralized design.

In addition, to try to impose such centrally engineered designs on society limits its potentials and possibilities to what a handful of finite and limited human minds can anticipate and imagine. Far better for all to have the individual liberty, and to respect the freedom of others, to use their knowledge as they see fit in the pursuit of their own personal happiness, so all may reap the benefits that come from the inactions of multitudes of minds the full outcomes of which that no one can successfully comprehend.

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Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, 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).

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