Locke, Smith, and the Decline of Civil Society


    The successes of political and economic liberalism seem to be nearly  universally accepted.  The events of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989 and the years following were taken by many as a signal that the old shibboleths were falling.  The Iron Curtain was torn  down, the Soviet empire collapsed, and communism was seen as  economically and ideologically defunct.  The end of the Cold War was  heralded not only as the triumph of liberal democracy, but it also brought the global dominance of liberal capitalism.  Fears of  ideological differences and nuclear conflict were replaced by talk of a global shopping center as national income in capitalist nations  soared.  In the excitement, enthusiasts declared that we are all liberals now.1  Francis Fukuyama talked about "the end of history," stating that "liberal democracy may constitute the endpoint of  mankind's ideological evolution and the final form of human government."2
    Certainly, events of the past several years have tempered these sentiments.  However, political and economic liberalism remains the  predominant model, and it is without significant challenger.  Indeed,     the globalization of market economics, for good or for ill, has become  a key driver of global trends, and some would argue that it is the  primary organizing structure for world events.  As captialism and    Western ideals spread, accellerated by the media and global exchange,  so do the norms, values, and social structures associated with them.
    To be sure,  all of this has had tremendous benefits for the West and,  increasingly, throughout the world.  However, without a moderating  influence, these gains come at tremendous cost.  Homelessness, drug abuse, and crime are becoming increasingly prominent.  Perhaps more significant is the psychological and cultural disengagement from  social relationships as growing numbers feel disenfranchised and    marginalized.  Globally, backlash against the West, and especially against the United States, has taken tragic proportions.
    These problems do not represent simple imperfections in the  implementation of liberalism as Fukuyama claimed,3 nor are they mere  market externalities that can be corrected by legislation.  Rather,    their causes are in fundamental contradictions within the liberal philosophy upon which democracy and capitalism are founded.4.    

The Liberal Tradition

    The philosophy of liberalism was articulated by John Locke in the late 1600s.  Locke's ideas were extended to economics by Adam Smith in the  classic The Wealth of Nations published in the next century. Together, Lock and Smith are among the ideological fathers of democracy and capitalism.
    Locke built upon, but significantly revised, the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes believed that individuals are passionate and  self-interested by nature.  Thus, when libidinal desires conflict with  the public good, people will tend to choose the former.  Hobbes felt  that without an authoritarian government, self-interest would lead to continual conflict, war being the law of nature.5  For Locke, however, the Hobbesian view of society was moderated by a claim that civil society exists prior to and independent of the state.6  Civil society refers to social institutions such as family, church, and school.  It  also includes community relationships and the customs, habits, and  values that accompany them.7  Civil society reinforces the norms, values, and beliefs around which society forms and which guide the   behavior of its members because those who violate social rules may be cut off from the benefits of community relationships.  Because civil society tempers license, the government can grant liberty without fear of the state of war predicted by Hobbes.  Instead of fighting in order  to fulfill physical urges, civil society encourges people to work  together to for security and prosperity.8
    While politics for Locke was fundamentally economic, it was Adam Smith  who proclaimed free market capitalism as the economic counterpart to  political liberalism.  For Smith, the governing principle of economic relations is self-interest.  Although members of society have a  constant need for cooperation to secure the greatest benefit for all,   it would be vain to expect individuals to help each other solely out  of altruism.  Rather, societal welfare is best promoted by mutually beneficial exchange.  Thus, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."9  This was the crowning success of Smith's theory: Individuals, by acting in the market to secure the greatest benefit for themselves, are led by an "invisible hand" to   promote the societal good.10
    Although Smith legitimated self-interest and argued against governmental intervention in economic relations, he realized that  prosperity tends toward inequality.  Thus, he, like Locke, saw civil society as necessary to moderate unabashed self-interest.11  Societal rules and norms must be binding in order to assure the stability and  well-being of the community.
The Disintegration of Civil Society

    The failure of Locke, Smith, and those who came after is that they did  not account for the logical conclusions of their arguments.  William Ophuls explains, "the free play of individual selfishness with the   liberal polity has steadily vitiated the very civil society upon which  it depends."12
    The internal contradictions of liberalism that have lead to the decline of civil society stem from the Hobbesian basis of Locke's  philosophy.  Hobbes argued, and Locke accepted, that humans are driven    by passion and libido, and when circumstances are unfavorable, reason may fail to keep passion in check.13  The issue is that when welfare  is provided by self-seeking economic relationships in the market,  social relationships are become secondary and can be overridden.  By locating individual benefit and societal good in the market, Smith    leaves no role for civil society.  As economics has been extended to   all aspects of human activity, communities have been displaced.  We  pay therapists to solve personal problems, we contract out the raising of families, and even the most intimate of relationships may be bought and sold.
    The transfer of interpersonal and communal relationships to the market removes the constraints on passion that civil society provides. Communities are based on common norms and values.  There are shared expectations regarding what behavior is acceptable.  In striking contrast, actors in the market seek behavior which is profitable  irrespective of the social cost.  The public good is only sustained to   the extent that it can be assigned a cost and a price.  In this environment, the only interest is self-interest, and social norms and values cease to be binding.
    When the injunctions of civil society fail to moderate behavior, society becomes unsustainable.  Society is held together, or integrated, by the common values and beliefs of its members.  When these values and notions of accepted behavior no longer constrain, all that is left are the egocentric cost-benefit calculations of atomized individuals.14  Such a disintegrated society, predicts Johan Galtung, will be characterized by the failure of social institutions, corruption, violence, and other social pathologies.15.
    Surely we have not reached the anarchic society described by Galtung. However, as market calculations of self-interest become the basis of calculations of individual and societal good, we should not be    surprised with expanding income differentials and increasing  marginalization.  Explaining the hopelessness and disenfranchisement that the disintegration of urban society has caused for inner-city youth, Joel Devin and James Wright have argued that is no wonder that so many "have babies, quit school, engage in crime, or fall into drug use."  The real mystery, they say, is that given such conditions, some still try to improve their lives.16
    There is tremendous hope for rights, democracy, and capitalism. However, civil society must be protected and invigorated.  A first  step is to reintroduce the common good into the public dialogue; policy decisions should be made with a view to the impacts for social  institutions; and programs should seek to deal with social issues by  empowering civil society.  Then we may be able to avoid the  disintegration that can already be seen in the ghettos.  If we fail to restore civil society, then democracy and capitalism will become incompatible.  In that case, we may be faced with a choice between the  sort of leviathan government proposed by Hobbes and his brutal war of  all against all.


     1. Economist. 1996, "The perils of complacency." (Dec 21), 17-19 []
     2. Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992, xi []
     3. Fukuyama, xi []
     4. Capra, Fritjof. The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982, 193, 213 and Ophuls, William. Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, 25-53 []
     5. Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996,  88, 109 []
     6. Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1967, 294-295, 341-373 []
     7. Ophuls, 47 []
     8. Ophuls, 37, 40 []
     9. Smith, Adam. Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Random House, 1937, 14 []
    10. Smith,423 []
    11. Ophuls, 39 []
    12. Ophuls, 45 []
    13. Ophuls, 49 []
    14. Galtung, Johan. 1996, "On the social costs of modernization: social disintegration, atomie/anomie, and social development." Development and Change (27): 383 []
    15. Galtung, 384-385 []
    16. Devin, Joel and James Wright. The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass.  New York : A. de Gruyter, 1993 []