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The 1999 Lord Acton Essay Competition

Law, Liberty, Virtue, and Enterprise

What is the purpose of government? At present, government can be said to entail a multiplicity of state interference with our lives that is sometimes easily seen, but in most instances is less immediately clear. Unfortunately, many people seem to accept such "big government" as it encroaches upon them. Although in the last twenty years the arguments against state interference with the economy have gained wider acceptance, the relationship between economic liberty and individual liberty remains misunderstood, and the folly of "statecraft as soulcraft" continues to be widespread.

In this essay I will argue that a principled vision of government is vital, since ideas on the character and role of government are crucially linked to competing visions of society, freedom, and individual well-being.1 For this reason, we should ask, first, what we mean by government, and, second, why and in what form we need it. By discussing these problems, I aim to show why government must be strong but limited–why, in other words, Lord Acton was correct in writing, "There are many things the government can’t do–many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people."

What do we mean by government? The problematic answer is that at various times and places in history, it has meant many things. The word government is identified first and foremost the agent that controls the state, giving governing a natural affinity with statesmanship. The classical liberal and the conservative would associate statesmanship with prudent and virtuous administration of a limited public good. However, communitarians and socialists have identified statesmanship with rational direction of both society as a whole and of the individuals, families, and corporations that are its building blocks. It is precisely because the concept has no inherent boundaries that at various times the term government has come to mean unlimited political interference with the whole or parts of society. For a proper understanding of government, we should, therefore, take a closer look at its intellectual history.

One of the first thinkers to distinguish between, on the one hand, the realm of politics, government, and the state, and, on the other, that of civil society and the individual, was Benjamin Constant. He pointed out that in the view of the Greeks and Romans, all of life was public. As a result, the Greeks and Romans failed to recognize a private domain in parts of society that lay outside the state and beyond the reach of politics. It has only been with the moderns that a boundary has been drawn between the sphere of the state and the sphere of the individual: "The aim of the ancients was the sharing of social power among the citizens of the same fatherland: This is what they called liberty. The aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to these pleasures."2 Constant’s analysis was echoed by Acton:

"The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty. They concentrated so many prerogatives in the State as to leave no footing from which a man could deny its jurisdiction or assign bounds to its activity. If I may employ an expressive anachronism, the vice of the classic State was that it was both Church and State in one. Morality was undistinguished from religion and politics from morals; and in religion, morality, and politics there was only one legislator and one authority."3

Yet from the predominance of a collective concept of freedom and the absence of modern liberty, it should not be concluded that the ancients did not have a notion of individual freedom. Instead, it would be correct to say that the ancient view of individual liberty had a completely different character from the modern "security in private pleasures." The ancients viewed individual liberty as the exercise of virtue.4 As such, particularly in the eyes of the Romans, libertas and discipline were two names for the same thing. Its dual opposites were deemed to be licentia –a freedom without discipline that ought to be despised–and servitus–the enslavement by the passions or by other men that licentia would inevitably produce.5

The success of this concept of personal liberty depended on social pressure. Liberty, virtue, and discipline were accompanied by the rewards of honor, and their absence was punished by shame. Thus, the character of their idea of individual liberty made it natural for the Greeks and Romans to limit the private sphere, leading to the merging of notions of individual and political liberty. 6

Various forms of the ancient concept of collective liberty–conflating society with the state and negating a separate private sphere–survived well into modernity and have continued to influence views of the role of government into our own time. Paradoxically, they regained influence during and after the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the modern idea of individual liberty. Major eighteenth-century thinkers, ranging from Montesquieu and Rousseau to the American Founding Fathers, were deeply impressed by Greco-Roman ideas of freedom as collective sovereignty.

Indeed, during the constitutional debates following the American and French Revolutions, the question was posed whether the combination of virtue and ancient liberty that had characterized the classical polis should be recreated. Some, following Montesquieu, stressed that a free and virtuous republic based on the ancient model was possible only in small territories populated by a homogenous people subjected to the same climate.7 Thus, they claimed, it would be ensured that government would act in the individual interest of all–since, in these circumstances, each interest was the same.

In contrast, the American Federalists believed that Montesquieu had not only raised problems with the ancient models of government but had also offered the beginning of a solution: He rightly understood how a confederation of republics could uphold the liberty and virtue of the ancient small republics, while gaining the strength of size associated with a monarchy.8 To make this successful, the Constitution would have to compensate for the lack of communal affinity between the federal government and the governed that resulted from both distance in space as well as diversity in climate and population. It was for this reason that the Federalists embraced John Locke’s doctrine of natural rights, protecting individual liberty against the ambitions of a federal government that could not be familiar with local circumstances.

In America, these arguments by the Federalists carried the day, enshrining the modern idea of liberty in the Constitution. But in France, the failure of modern liberty was especially assisted by the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, like Montesquieu, had tried to adapt ancient thinking on liberty and the state to modern circumstances.

As we have seen, the Greeks and Romans recognized a collective interest, understanding political freedom to be the collective exercise of absolute sovereignty. Consequently, for the ancients, this freedom was to be gained through direct participation in government. However, Rousseau reinterpreted ancient ideas on liberty and government by arguing that the collective interest had to be rational.9 As such, according to Rousseau, it could be understood by any government–regardless of a country’s scale–and pursued by the state. With this claim, he completely bypassed the objections of individual diversity, overestimated the capacity of reason, and introduced one of the most powerful and damaging ideas ever conceived by man.

It is important to remember these origins of the conflation of state and society, since Rousseau’s "rationalized" collective concept of liberty was picked up by Hegel and Marx.10 Through them, it has not only been a major influence on all types of socialism and communism, it has also given birth to the welfare state and, more recently, to communitarianism.11 All of these are collectivist doctrines sharing the idea that, to make people free, in one way or another, politics and government should extend to the whole of society. All are also rationalist doctrines, sharing in various degrees the belief in government "blueprints" for society and its members. As such, all are the enemy of individual freedom, personal responsibility, and, as we will see, religion.12

To thoroughly invalidate unlimited government, it suffices to recall the horrors of Nazi death camps, the desolation produced by communist rule, or the destruction of social capital in American inner cities as a result of well-intended welfare programs. These experiments in large-scale government interference with society were bound to go disastrously wrong, since they assumed a knowledge of diverse individual ends, means, and opportunities, that only exists in civil society. Since all knowledge is local knowledge, direct forms of government are, if at all possible, by definition feasible only in very small communities. It also means that in larger societies any notion of "big government" must lead to a neglect of its members’ interests, since it is only through individual liberty and free markets that local knowledge can be used and individual ends pursued.13

To ensure the flourishing of freedom and commerce, it is of the essence that power not be arbitrary and that, therefore, laws be abstract, promulgated in advance of implementation, and equally applicable to all. As Friedrich Hayek says,

"The conception of freedom under the law rests on the contention that when we obey laws, in the sense of general abstract rules laid down irrespective of their application to us, we are not subject to another man’s will and are therefore free. It is because the lawgiver does not know the particular cases to which his rules will apply, and it is because the judge who applies them has no choice in drawing the conclusions that follow from the existing body of rules and the particular facts of the case, that it can be said that laws and not men rule."14

By definition, government confined to protecting individual liberty through the rule of law excludes all forms of rational direction of individuals, corporations, and other actors in civil society, since such direction would have to be specific and concrete, thus endangering personal choice.

Ironically, just as many have conflated civil society and the state, so others have, either deliberately or unwittingly, separated the free market from civil society. Many opponents of the free market claim to defend civil society against the supposedly destructive influences of enterprise. Yet nothing could be more erroneous, since such views fail to appreciate that the free market and civil society are two sides of the same coin. Individuals live in society, satisfying their needs through interaction with others, i.e., predominantly through the market. Therefore, the individual, society, and the market are interdependent elements of the extended order–designed by no one, supported by everyone–that makes our lives possible.15 Critics of the influence of commerce on civil society would do well to ask themselves whether the market is not simply responding adequately to a demand–whether, in other words, the problem is not so much one of commerce corrupting society, but of society having a problem in the first place.16

Indeed, the close relationship between the condition of civil society and the performance of a market economy becomes all too evident when we compare the prosperity of countries. Francis Fukuyama, in his books Trust and The Great Disruption, has shown in detail that many societies are unable to support the market economy because of a weak moral fabric, an undermining of tradition, and a lack of religion.17 In contrast, at the heart of a prosperous civil society we find virtue, supported by religion, custom, and tradition. It is only virtue that teaches the self-control that allows for freedom, thereby creating the extended order.

Such virtue was precisely what the ancients meant when they understood individual liberty as libertas. Yet the Greeks and Romans needed the social pressure of a shame culture to force the individual to be free. In contrast, by rendering virtue the duty of each individual toward God, the Judeo-Christian tradition created amongst the moderns a culture of conscience. Consequently, whereas the ancient promotion of virtue led to collectivism, amongst the moderns the church vehemently opposed any role of the state in the private realm. Acton explains: "When Christ said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ those words gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.18" Thus, the Western concept of individual liberty is closely bound to the Christian moral tradition. Indeed, the American Founding Fathers understood that the United States could afford its constitutional guarantee of individual freedom only because it was a Christian nation–an observation later shared by Alexis de Tocqueville.19

Yet Rousseau, despite his love of ancient political liberty, accepted neither the constraints of ancient personal liberty nor those of its Christian successor. Those following him in rejecting the "fetters" of traditional morality should ask themselves how they would be able to live in a society without virtue, or how they would legitimize any artificial code of morality. To quote Hayek again: "Rousseau led people to forget that rules of conduct necessarily constrain and that order is their product; and that these rules, precisely by limiting the range of means that each individual may use for his purposes, greatly extend the range of ends each can successfully pursue."20

Thus, religious and traditional customs, produced by communities, have jointly led to the social capital that nurtures freedom. This, in turn, has strengthened the community by allowing for the development of individual talent, voluntary association, the family, and so on. No other set of circumstances has ever produced an equal amount of individual fulfillment, prosperity, and peace.

Acton’s insight that there are many things the government cannot do boils down to the recognition that, ultimately, it is only individuals themselves who can lead their lives. No other agent, and certainly not the government, can live our lives for us. Indeed, any attempt to let the government interfere with the ends individuals pursue in civil society–nutrition, prosperity, knowledge, spirituality–leads to the government taking our lives away, leaving us not only constrained but, in some instances, literally dead. In contrast, government in its proper role enforces the rule of law and contributes to an atmosphere of trust, thus supporting the extended order. As two famous classical liberals described it, the choice between these competing visions is one of liberty or serfdom.21

Melvin L. Schut was educated in France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. In 1996 he attended the Institut d’Etudes de Paris. Two years later he received an M.A. in history and an LL.B. from the University of Leyden. Having completed an M.Phil. in Political thought and intellectual history at Cambridge University in 1999, he is currently researching his D.Phil. on ‘Alexis de Tocqueville and the problem of liberty in modernity’ at the University of Oxford. In the future he hopes both to promote and take an active part in the culture of free enterprise.


  1. I will use the words freedom and liberty synonymously.
  2. Benjamin Constant, "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns" in Benjamin Constant, Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 317.
  3. Lord John Acton, "The History of Freedom in Antiquity," in The History of Freedom and OtherEssays, ed. J. N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), 1–29, 16–17. It is illustrative that Cicero, in his De Republica (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) praises the role of the censor, a Roman magistrate in charge of guarding the state’s—i.e., the people’s—moral fabric.
  4. A. A. M. Kinneging, Aristocracy, Antiquity, and History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 162–163.
  5. Ibid., 163.
  6. Ibid., 155. As a result, the Romans could use the words servitus and libertas to indicate, respectively, the serfdom and the liberty of both the civis (the citizen) and the civitas (the community). (Ibid., 190.)
  7. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), in particular, part 3, 231ff.
  8. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 281, 284.
  9. Rousseau did so by (in)famously introducing the concept of the general will (what the people really wanted) as opposed to the will of all (their mere vote in the assembly). Thus, he could write in book 2, chap. 3 of The Social Contract: "It follows from what has gone before that the general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad." And so on. J. J. Rousseau, The Social Contract (London: Dent, 1913), 22–23.
  10. Rousseau’s influence on Hegel is most clearly visible in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. See Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  11. For a hostile discussion of Hegel’s influence on Marx, see K. R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1945).
  12. For the French origins of rationalism and its influence on continental as opposed to traditional Anglo-American liberalism, see F. A. Hayek, "Individualism: True and False" in his Individualism and Economic Order (London: Routledge, 1949), 1–32, and "Why I Am Not a Conservative," in The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, 1960), 397–411. On the arrogance of rationalism in the face of religion, see F. A. Hayek, "Religion and the Guardians of Tradition," in The Fatal Conceit (London: Routledge, 1988), 135–140.
  13. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order, 77–91.
  14. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 153.
  15. F. A. Hayek, "Cosmos and Taxis," Law, Legislation, and Liberty (London: Routledge, 1973) vol. 1, chap. 2.
  16. If it is objected that Say’s Law states that every supply creates its own demand, and that, therefore, a supply of vice would automatically corrupt, I respond by pointing to the Christian’s duty to resist such temptations—all of which originate outside the distributive instrument of the free market. Cf. Infra.
  17. Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (London: Penguin, 1996), and The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order (London: Profile, 1999).
  18. Acton, 29.
  19. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (London: David Campbell Publishers, 1994), vol. 1, chap. 17, "Principal Causes Which Tend to Maintain the Democratic Republic in the United States," 288ff. On pages 303–304 Tocqueville writes, "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the soul of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conforming to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the world."
  20. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, 49.
  21. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, was the first to warn of the serfdom that would result from big government. Tocqueville’s warning later inspired F. A. Hayek to write his The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pointing out the dangers of collectivism.

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