Rediscovering Scotland’s Intellectual Triumphs: The Roots of Freedom and Progress

In recent decades, the vicissitudes of U.K. politics have projected onto the world a narrow image of Scotland as a hotbed of socialism and nationalism, a realm where victimhood and provincialism reign supreme. Reading the headlines, it is easy to disregard unless one is somewhat familiar with the country’s history and intellectual tradition, and the eminent place Scotland occupies in the scholarly world of science and social science, this country’s contribution to civilization and the culture of liberty.

As I drive with my son and daughter, and my son’s girlfriend, across various parts of the lowlands and the highlands of this fascinating country, endowed by nature with a mesmerizing natural scenery, I cannot help but think that Scottish political discourse, and the portrayal of Scottish politics by outsiders, have rendered little justice to its significance in Western culture.

A detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post, but let me cite some of the Scottish contributions we should bear in mind when thinking about Scotland.

One is the tradition of decentralization—a social order relatively free from centralized political power. Because Scotland was not Romanized like England, towns, and villages were not planned—they sprang spontaneously as settlements around castles or churches. King David chartered the first burghs in the early 12th century. They were lightly delineated and not heavily fortified, and, except for taxation and a few limitations, they were relatively free from the control of the crown. 

Although there were restrictions, the essential purpose was not social regimentation but trade and commerce. Peasants could leave behind the rigors of the land and practice a craft. An intense commercial activity emerged, including foreign trade. The 16th and 17th centuries saw them prosper and enjoy their largest measure of freedom.

Another milestone in Scotland’s contribution to liberalism was the Reformation. Its Calvinist reforms, with their heavy Presbyterian outlook, enhanced the power of the individual as opposed to the centralization of traditional religion. The great humanist George Buchanan is perhaps the leading intellectual figure of that period. He attacked the privileges of the clergy and eventually joined the Protestant Reformed Churches, and his doctrine that political power emanated from the people and that kings were bound by the consent of his subjects promoted the ideas of limited government and equality before the law.

The Scottish Enlightenment, of course, was another milestone. Oddly enough, it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that it began to be studied in depth and that the extraordinary significance of this school (I use the term loosely given the great differences among its scientists and writers) started to be widely recognized in the world of academia. Although they excelled in many domains, including the natural sciences, their impact on moral philosophy and political economy was particularly revolutionary. 

Building upon the works of others, such as Mandeville, they explored the interaction of emotion and reason, self-interest and sympathy, the pursuit of material well-being and social order, in varying, often opposing, ways. But they all converged on this major, counterintuitive observation: that only the observation of social phenomena rather than the belief in divine right or the social contract can help identify the keys to social progress and that the actions and pursuits of men and groups of men have unintended consequences for the development of institutions and the social order. In that regard, Hayek’s ideas about the evolution of institutions and society owe a great debt to the Scots. 

In Adam Ferguson’s famous words, “..nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. This momentous truth could be verified in many areas, including the economy, where Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” served as a perfect metaphor for unintended consequences that spelled progress.

The Scottish Enlightenment would not have been possible without the various Scottish traditions and its well-developed academic environment. When the union between England and Scotland took place at the beginning of the 18th century, England had only two universities, whereas Scotland had five. Not to mention the relative freedom with which scholars could engage in intellectual research and discovery in many cases with the support of the church as opposed to other places in the West where religious and political obscurantism and censorship still governed.

I do not wish to idealize or exaggerate Scotland’s past or contributions to liberalism. Among its many traditions, there are shadows as well as lights, of course. But no account of Scotland’s place in the world, and no sojourn in these proud lands, are complete without recognizing the debt those of us who love freedom owe to this country.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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