Front Page Titles (by Subject) Freedom and Progress - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
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Freedom and Progress - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Freedom and Progress
“Gibbon and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The Journal of Law & Economics 19 (1976): 489–505.
Why do civilizations decline and grow sterile rather than flourish? This is the question that engaged Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's answer was lost on his contemporaries, who either admired his prose style or were shocked by his alleged infidelity to Christianity.
Gibbon's question was part of the research problem for the eighteenth century intellectual community: to understand progress. How did the moderns achieve progress (in the arts, sciences, and commerce), and how had the ancient world lost it? Mankind needs to discern the conditions assuring progress. This need explains both Gibbon's and his model Montesquieu's fascination with the reasons for the decline and end of Roman progress (see Montesquieu's Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline).
In answering this research problem of progress, Gibbon employed the new sociological method derived from Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws fired the Englishman's intelligence in 1753. The new sociological approach transformed the old narrative history by a new emphasis on social context with its relative ideas and values. The sociological method viewed society, institutions, and ideas as interdependent. Particular value systems (ideas and ideology) were seen as mirrored in and corresponding to political systems and social structures. In turn, great religious transformations reflected and consecrated social changes; religion was, thus, intimately connected with social decline or progress.
From this sociological approach, what is the form of society that promotes progress and what is the value system or “spirit” needed to animate that form? Progress, Gibbon believed, required free trade in goods and ideas; this, in turn, required an open society of liberty, which depends upon and nourishes independent minds. But, from its birth, the Roman Empire stifled this spirit of civic individualism. Hence, its inevitable decline.
Progress flourishes not from great political systems whose history “is that of the miseries of mankind,” but from free individuals cultivating the arts and sciences that promote human life. The healthy form of political system capable of liberating such vital, humane progress was urban freedom and self-government, which avoided the life-sapping centralized power of the Roman Empire. That Empire's bureaucratic centralization atrophied the vitality and progressive impulses of society until finally “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressures of its own weight.”
Viewed as a temporal sociological institution, the Christian Church gradually aped and mirrored the form and organization of the bureaucratized later Empire. Thus, the Church becoming centralized, monopolistic, and parasitic; lent its weight to sapping individualism, freedom, and progress.
Gibbon's achievement was a liberal historical philosophy: historical progress or decline flowed from social structure and its underlying ideology or spirit.