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
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.
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 [©]