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Book Review: Conditions of Liberty


Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals
by Ernest Gellner (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994); 225 pages; $25.

The Western world is unique. It is the only civilization that has successfully combined liberty, order, and prosperity. We who live in it — even with all of its existing impurities of statist interventionism and coercive redistributivism — take it for granted and unconsciously assume it as the natural order of things. But, unfortunately, it is not. Throughout most of history, all around the world, people have had order imposed upon them by force and intimidation and have known little liberty or prosperity.

What the West has had is civil society. This is how it is defined by Ernest Gellner, in his recent book Conditions of Liberty:

Civil Society is that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society.

Under civil society, the state is separate from and limited in its power over the diverse social relationships that emerge among men as they pursue their individual and interpersonal interests. The state is limited to the protector of individual rights, enforcer of contracts freely entered into, and defender of the citizenry from aggressors, both foreign and domestic. Individuals and voluntary associations are given wide autonomy and discretion over their own affairs, with the result that the state can neither claim nor impose its power over the community of free men.

Since men associate with each other on the basis of free contract and voluntary exchange for mutual benefit, class and caste no longer define or determine the status or opportunities of men in society. They live under equality before the law, with the social and economic standing of each individual now determined by the laws of the market — how well one serves others in the division of labor through producing products that others desire as the means of earning the financial wherewithal to purchase what others, in turn, have for sale. In the market, each of us is a voluntary servant in our role as a producer, as we cater to the wants of others, and a free master in our role as a consumer, as we pick and choose from among the various goods and services that others offer us at prices freely agreed to. Professor Gellner explains that in the civil society:

[Man] can combine into specific-purpose, ad hoc, limited associations, without binding himself by some blood ritual. He can leave an association when he comes to disagree with its policy, without being open to an accusation of treason. A market society operates not only with changing prices, but also with changing alignments and opinions; there is neither a just price nor a righteous categorization of men, everything can and should change, without in any way violating the moral order.. . . It is this which makes Civil Society: the forging of links which are effective even though they are flexible, specific, instrumental.

Furthermore, in the civil society the state no longer dictates or imposes virtuous behavior on people. Virtue is privatized. As Gellner observes, “Virtue as the aim of state or public policy is . . . disastrous for liberty. Virtue, freely practiced between consenting adults [is] a great boon to Civil Society, or even its essential pre-condition.” Where virtue is a matter of private conscience and not a tool of political power it can no longer be used as a stepping stone by some to impose upon others their particular conception of proper status, pleasure or salvation.

The market relationships of civil society, instead, generate what Donald McCloskey has recently called the “bourgeois virtues” (see The American Scholar , Fall 1994): honesty; self-responsibility; punctuality; forethought for the future; humane and courteous conduct in one’s business and personal affairs; a spirit of voluntary giving; and participation in the affairs of one’s community and local associations. These constitute the elements of virtuous, personal conduct that are the foundations for the free and good society.

Most of man’s history, alas, is the story of the uncivil society. In feudal society, Gellner explains, men lived in community relationships that often protected and shielded them from the direct power of the king. But the individual knew no freedom or privacy. His station and role in life was defined for him from birth to death.

In the 20th century, civil society was challenged by the totalitarian, communist state. In the Marxian society, man was left with no corner free from the prying eye of the state. The totalitarian experience atomized man by destroying and preventing any normal interpersonal relationships other than those approved of and controlled by the state. It dehumanized man. It never left him alone, it never let him rest.

Professor Gellner is not a classical liberal. Like too many in our times, he cannot conceive of how the market economy could successfully deal with what generally goes under the heading of “environmental problems.” He also considers that in modern society, the government necessarily must function as a welfare state for the “needy.” For example, he says at one point: “A central world political authority may come about and be indispensable, if ecological and terrorist disaster is to be avoided.” He seems not to understand that any movement towards such a global political authority would threaten and undermine the very institutions of the civil society that he values and defends. Yet, these views do not detract from the essential message of his book.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the 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).