Saturday, March 10, 2012

For the Loss of a Footnote a Theory is Compromised

Libertarian scholars with whom I have debated, argue that Adam Smith’s use of the invisible hand metaphor was consistent with the statement from Adam Ferguson that the market economy was the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (see papers by Professor Daniel Klein of George Mason University on the IH metaphor, Economic Affairs, Vol. 31, Issue 2, pp. 90-92, 2011; and my reply same issue), which idea was popular with Hayek (The Fatal Conceit,etc.,) and is often quoted as such.

Recently, I had reason to consult exactly what Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), and I read his evocative statement about society being “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. It proved an interesting exercise, both for my health regime of walking each day to re-build my physical strength and for my intellectual health, both of which necessitates me visiting a local café, attached to an organic and fair-trade foods shop, to which I always take something to read while nursing a decaff Americano for c.45 minutes. Yesterday, I took my copy of Ferguson’s 1767 book, which I first read in 1996, and my re-reading proved instructive.

Here is a contextual, three-paragraphs quotation in Adam Ferguson’s text:

Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate, and pass on, like other 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 heirs;’ did not perceive that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments. He first ranged himself under a leader, did not perceive, that he was setting the example of a permanent subordination, under the pretence of which, the rapacious were to seize his possessions, and the arrogant lay claim to is service.

Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and scheme: but he who would scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds, that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever the 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 men. The croud 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 are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design
”, Adam Ferguson, “An Essay on the History of Civil Society”, [1767] 1976, p 122, Edinburgh University Press.

I noted that the now famous phrase, “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” was footnoted by Ferguson as coming from ‘De Retz, Memoirs’. A further quick scan on Google and in my library notes produced additional information.

‘De Retz’ was Jean François Paul de Gondi, cardinal de Retz (1613-1679), whose ‘Memoirs’ were first published in a ‘very imperfect condition’ in 1717 (Wikipedia). In these Memoirs, he quotes Oliver Cromwell on the “Fixity of men's designs and Uncertainty of their destiny” (see John Foster, Biographical Essays, 3rd edition, John Murray, 1860 HERE.

Cardinal De Retz’s religious insight, from the Puritan Olive Cromwell, may have prompted Ferguson to reformulate the similar ideas of De Retz and Cromwell, as the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. Also, it fits De Retz’s own theological background in playing down human design in favour of life’s outcomes being the intended designs of a divine Providence and the belief in the certainty of all actual outcomes in the lives of all humans being Providential, not man made.

In short, Ferguson was not the originator of such thinking, and neither, as befits a scholar, did he pretend it to be his own idea. My point is that nobody, other than Ferguson drew that prior source to their readers’ attention. However, Hayek did note the De Retz connection, but my libertarian friends in our debates did not raise the implications of the famous idea to Pagan Stoic, later to Christian, theology (see Kennedy, 2011, 'The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’, JHET, September). I am disappointed.

Regular readers of Lost Legacy will note my regular references to the widespread popularity of the “invisible hand” figure of speech among 17th-18th-century preachers, theologians, and Catholic and Protestant authors, where the claimed theological connection to religion is explicit, as documented by Peter Harrison, a professor of theology at Oxford, in his paper to that affect in the Journal of the History of Ideas, September 2011 (a reference kindly given to me by Paul Oslington, of the Catholic University of Australia).

This changes somewhat the picture of Adam Ferguson’s role, as the initiator of a secular idea, now widespread among libertarian thinkers. Ferguson served as former Chaplain of the famous Scottish Black Watch Regiment (1745 to 1754), and presumably he was comfortable with Cardinal De Retz’s and Cromwell’s theological message implicit in the statement. It is, however, far more powerful as a secular message, without a superstructure of religious beliefs imposed on it.
Specifically:

The croud 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”.

Nor do the crowd “follow the plan of any single projector”, or, for that matter an imaginary providential force that explains everything (if it exists) and nothing (if it doesn’t). The entire academy can accept that society, as it has emerged, and as it will continue to emerge, namely will be “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human [or divine] design”.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Unknown said...

Just found this while researching Ferguson. Thank you!

9:20 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Gus
Im glad you liked this post. I do too.
Gavin

1:37 pm  

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