Reinventing Civil Society (2): The tradition of Communal Liberalism or Civic Capitalism

We continue our treatment of the book by David Green, Reinventing Civil Society, which represents a conservative approach to the topic.

In the following excerpts, Green introduces his own intellectual tradition:

Liberty rests on people taking personal responsibility for the maintenance of the institutions, morals and habits fundamental to freedom.

This tradition of `communal liberalism‘ is not a utopian ideal of the imagination, it was the lived reality of liberty for many long years until well into the twentieth century. Most of this book is an attempt to describe the day-to-day character of this tradition by re-assessing the voluntary social institutions that had emerged under its influence by the end of the last century, when their incomplete evolution was prematurely halted by the march of socialism.

This seventeenth-century antipathy to over-mighty government developed in two directions, not always clearly distinguished. The first, which I will call civic capitalism in the hope of avoiding confusion with other related ideas, can be understood as an effort to prevent the king from reverting to `lordship’, in Oakeshott’s language. The civic capitalist ideal was a nation united as civil associates, not as instruments of the king’s will. This antipathy to the king was based on a sense, entrenched since at least the thirteenth century, that English subjects were governed by a ruler not by a lord, and that the law was a moral and prudential code for living which no person, and certainly no king, ought to defy. The Stuart kings were seen as usurpers meddling with the centuries-old rights of subjects. Classical liberalism, or civic capitalism, was therefore respectful of history. It saw England’s civilisation as worth preserving.

The other leading liberal tradition is commonly called rationalism. It did not see the struggle against the Stuart monarchs as a restoration of historic rights, but rather saw all tradition as suffocating, and barely distinguished between custom and superstition. This tradition originated with Descartes and, in its search for `clear and distinct’ truth, over-estimated the capacity of governments to re-arrange human affairs.

How did the civic capitalists see the human condition?

Essentially, they saw it as a struggle against human imperfection. Two particular shortcomings concerned them, sinfulness and ignorance, and consequently the practical task of the civic-capitalist thinker and activist was to develop human civilisation by discovering or improving those institutions which encouraged the opposites of sin and ignorance, namely goodness and learning. The moral ideal underlying civic capitalism is that human relations should, as far as possible, be based on free mutual consent rather than force or command. Classical liberals favoured this ideal because they believed it was more consistent with human nature than rule by the `lord of the manor’. But it was also an ideal in the sense that it challenged human character by setting a standard to be aimed for. It presented people with an ideal way to live. The particular combination of institutions that came to be supported had taken reasonably mature shape by the time that liberals like David Hume, Adam Smith, Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke and William Paley were writing in the eighteenth century. The character of civic capitalism was elaborated further during the American constitutional debates of the 1780s, not least by the authors of the Federalist Papers, by Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt in Germany, by Montesquieu in France and during the nineteenth century by Tocqueville, J.S. Mill and Acton. During this century the tradition has been developed still further by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Novak. It is important to avoid one major source of modern confusion.

Liberty under law is not a doctrine which sees liberty as the absence of all restraint, or freedom from all obstacles to our desires. The classical liberals did not want `power’, they wanted `liberty’, that is they did not seek the `power’ to achieve their particular ambitions, they sought a social order — a civilisation — which allowed every person the liberty under law to contribute to their own good and the good of others as each believed best. To repeat Acton’s words: they treasured the liberties of others as their own.

The ideal was liberty under law, not liberty to do as anyone pleased. It was liberty guided by conscience rather than naked wants. Nor was it relativistic. Liberty was valued, not because civic capitalists thought that any individual’s views or values were as good as anyone else’s, but because it is not possible for any authority to identify in advance who will turn out to do the most good, or benefit humankind to the greatest extent, or to judge which values, habits or institutions will ultimately prove most conducive to human co-operation. Consequently, they thought that every one should be free to contribute as each thought proper, in the belief that we will recognise real progress when we see it.

The view of thinkers such as Acton and Tocqueville must also be sharply distinguished from another attitude often associated with liberalism. It is the view, which derives from Rousseau, that people are essentially good and that they are made bad by institutions, such as bad laws or bad governments.
The law is intended, not only to punish wrong conduct, but also to smooth the path of voluntary co-operation. Roughly speaking, criminal law punishes moral wrongs, and civil law is the body of rules that makes it easier to work with other people, as buyers or sellers, employers or employees, and consequently to create wealth more readily.

Thus, civic capitalism was a political philosophy based on a belief in the possibility (but not the inevitability) of progress and how it could best be achieved. In essence, civic capitalists have taken the view that progress is the result of trial and error. As the distinguished turn-ofthe- century economist Alfred Marshall argued, collectivism might seem in the short run to deliver benefits, but this was only because it lived off the fruits of earlier private initiative. In Marshall’s view, if the springs of progress were not to dry up, there was no substitute for the bearing of risks at one’s own expense.
The civic capitalists were first and foremost concerned to discover those common institutions, both private and public, which, on the one hand, encouraged individuals to become better citizens and which, on the other, reduced the harm that would result when human behaviour fell short of the ideal. Individuals are capable of great self sacrifice and many have laid down their own life for the good of others, but they are also capable of great wickedness. The civic capitalists were idealists whose vision was tempered by their awareness of human fallibility.

As Professor Alfred Marshall wrote, `

progress mainly depends on the extent to which the strongest, and not merely the highest, forces of human nature can be utilised for the increase of social good’. Unlike some conservative thinkers who have celebrated established authority per se, civic capitalists did not forget that authority is a means and not an end.”



“The founders of civic capitalism saw the state as the protector of the people from crime and oppression as well as the facilitator of human ingenuity. They saw individuals as each struggling to understand the world around them and to make the most of their own lives in mutual concert with others. No less important, they saw people as united, not in pursuit of a uniform goal, since all were free to pursue their own objectives, but by the particular sense of solidarity that results from a shared awareness of belonging to a civilisation that gives everyone their chance. Solidarity is a term generally associated with egalitarianism, or with the creation of cohesion through compulsory transfers of cash—as exemplified by the European Community’s `cohesion fund’—but the solidarity associated with liberty is the sense of unity that flows from being part of a culture that respects persons as fully entitled to make the most of the opportunities available to them and which expects each individual to uphold the values on which freedom rests. To feel love for their country has been typical of free citizens, as demonstrated by the high morale of the allied soldiers of World War.


Also central to the thinking of civic capitalists has been a commitment to personal responsibility, partly for prudential and partly for moral reasons. They thought it prudent for people to be free to pursue their own lawful ends as their judgement dictated and at their own risk, because better results in the interests of all were more likely. This view was taken partly because, when decision makers spend other people’s money, they do not exercise the same care as when they personally bear the cost of failure or reap the reward of success. In addition, classical liberals believed that the personal bearing of risk gave individuals a powerful reason to improve their knowledge, skills and character. Morally, their view was based on the argument that freedom will not work unless we all accept an obligation to treat others with the respect due to fellow moral agents.”

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