This is another one of those pioneering works of philosophical history (or “sociology” as we would call it today) which emerged in France and Scotland in the late 18th century as part of the Enlightenment project to discover the motors which drove societies to evolve over time. This passage had a profound impact on the thinking of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in the formulation of his ideas of “spontaneous order”. He found precursors to his way of viewing social and economic change in many of the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. In this quotation we find the phrase that Hayek himself quoted on a number of occasions in its larger context: that societies were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” This phrase, along with Adam Smith’s phrase about the “invisible hand”, are two of the most important and profound insights to emerge out of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Adam Ferguson observed that social structures of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782)
Friedrich Hayek was most taken by an observation Adam Ferguson made in this work that social structures of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. This led him to develop his notion of “spontaneous order”:
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 are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.
Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: 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 they 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 crowd 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 are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.
If we listen to the testimony of modern history, and to that of the most authentic parts of the ancient; if we attend to the practice of nations in every quarter of the world, and in every condition, whether that of the barbarian or the polished, we shall find very little reason to retract this assertion. No constitution is formed by concert, no government is copied from a plan. The members of a small state contend for equality; the members of a greater, find themselves classed in a certain manner that lays a foundation for monarchy. They proceed from one form of government to another, by easy transitions, and frequently under old names adopt a new constitution. The seeds of every form are lodged in human nature; they spring up and ripen with the season. The prevalence of a particular species is often derived from an imperceptible ingredient mingled in the soil.