What we have called the “British tradition” was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson, seconded by their English contemporaries Josiah Tucker, Edmund Burke, and William Paley, and drawing largely on a tradition rooted in the jurisprudence of the common law. Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment, deeply imbued with Cartesian rationalism: the Encyclopedists and Rousseau, the Physiocrats and Condorcet, are their best known representatives.
Of course, the division does not fully coincide with national boundaries. Frenchmen like Montesquieu and, later, Benjamin Constant and, above all, Alexis de Tocqueville are probably nearer to what we have called the “British” than to the “French” tradition. And, in Thomas Hobbes, Britain has provided at least one of the founders of the rationalist tradition, not to speak of the whole generation of enthusiasts for the French Revolution, like Godwin, Priestley, Price, and Paine, who (like Jefferson after his stay in France) belong entirely to it.
Though these two groups are now commonly lumped together as the ancestors of modern liberalism, there is hardly a greater contrast imaginable than that between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty. The difference is directly traceable to the predominance of an essentially empiricist view of the world in England and a rationalist approach in France.
The main contrast in the practical conclusions to which these approaches led has recently been well put, as follows: “One finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose”; and “one stands for organic, slow, half- conscious growth, the other for doctrinaire deliberateness; one for trial and error procedure, the other for an enforced solely valid pattern.” It is the second view, as J. L. Talmon has shown in an important book from which this description is taken, that has become the origin of totalitarian democracy…
This “anti-rationalistic insight into historical happenings that Adam Smith shares with Hume, Adam Ferguson, and others” enabled them for the first time to comprehend how institutions and morals, language and law, have evolved by a process of cumulative growth and that it is only with and within this framework that human reason has grown and can successfully operate.
Their argument is directed throughout against the Cartesian conception of an independently and antecedently existing human reason that invented these institutions and against the conception that civil society was formed by some wise original legislator or an original “social contract.” The latter idea of intelligent men coming together for deliberation about how to make the world anew is perhaps the most characteristic outcome of those design theories. It found its perfect expression when the leading theorist of the French Revolution, Abbé Sieyès, exhorted the revolutionary assembly “to act like men just emerging from the state of nature and coming together for the purpose of signing a Social Contract.”…
The greatest difference between the two views, however, is in their respective ideas about the role of traditions and the value of all the other products of unconscious growth proceeding throughout the ages. It would hardly be unjust to say that the rationalistic approach is here opposed to almost all that is the distinct product of liberty and that gives liberty its value. Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not been consciously designed are almost of necessity enemies of freedom. For them freedom means chaos.
To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, on the other hand, the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functioning of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and “all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways.” Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society.