Balance and Trust

2005-01-17

In the first half of his book The Making of the Modern World, Alan Macfarlane summarizes and elucidates the synthesis performed by F.W. Maitland regarding the puzzle of how the modern world we're all familiar with emerged. Although nowadays most people (at least in the West and increasingly elsewhere) take the form of our current society for granted, it is very much an historical anomaly. Macfarlane describes how Montesquieu, Smith, and Tocqueville provided important insights into the emergence of modernity: all three agreed that it happened first in England and that English society seems to have been distinctively individualistic and market-oriented (capitalistic, if you prefer Marx's terminology) as far back as the second half of the thirteenth century, or even earlier into Anglo-Saxon society (providing a tie to the Germanica of the Roman writer Tacitus). The key seems to have been a peculiar balance of independent forces that emerged in English society: the spheres of politics, religion, economics, and social interaction (mainly family life) were separate but largely equal as modernity came into being in England and, slightly later, in America and then Western Europe. But why and how did that delicate balance emerge? Maitland (followed by Macfarlane) explains that the English somehow developed forms of life that were independent of the state yet not purely individualistic, either: the whole realm of clubs, associations, trusts, leagues, cooperatives, societies, parties, unions, guilds, fraternal orders, and the like. Thus the individual or family did not face the state one-on-one, and the opposition between the individual and the state was moderated or mediated by voluntary groups that provided strength in numbers, singleness of purpose, and opportunities for the exercise of responsibility and initiative. Further, Maitland finds that the English came up with a special legal form for such groups: not state-approved corporations, but private, voluntary trusts. The affairs of such a trust were, literally, entrusted to its members, and although the members did not have to agree on everything under the sun, they did have to share a dedication to the stated aims of the trust and, through working together, also came to trust one another personally. Thus emerged the kind of high-trust civil society that was for a long time lacking in most of the rest of the world, yet grafted onto a fundamentally individualistic and capitalistic pattern of life. And these trusts -- what nowadays are called "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) or the "third sector" (neither governments nor corporations) -- formed the basis for much of the intellectual, religious, scientific, technological, economic, social, political, and even military innovation of the early modern world. Examples include the Royal Society, the dissenting religions (Quakers, Methodists, Wesleyans, etc.), political parties, insurance funds, benevolent societies, poorhouses, volunteer police and firefighters, and technical societies (as witness, even today, voluntary, non-corporate groups such as the IETF).

So it seems that I need to delve into Maitland's works here soon (so much to read, so little time!), which include:


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