I want to talk about this article that I found a while back on Cato Unbound called The Trouble in Getting to Denmark. Denmark is the example given by Francis Fukuyama as the ideal modern, peaceful Western Liberal democratic state. Inconveniently for the Cato Institute, it also has one of the most generous social safety nets in the world.
[Tangentially: Cato is all about promoting economic freedom, and Denmark is one of the freest and most entrepreneurial societies in the world. But it’s that way precisely because of its strong safety net and social democratic policies—policies that are being promoted by people like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Also, see this: Never Trust the Cato Institute (Current Affairs)]
This post content centers around a new history book by Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson called Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom. The authors are professors at George Mason University and are affiliated with the Mercatus Center, which on first blush might make them highly suspect. But there are some very good historical insights here, which are worth a look. I’ll also quote extensively from this interview with Koyama by Patrick Wyman on the Tides of History podcast which covers the subject matter well. I’ve lightly altered some of the dialogue for clarity.
The book’s insights dovetail with what we’ve been talking about recently: the rise of Liberal society. The thesis is that religious freedoms were basically the foundation for the rise of capital-L Liberalism—Liberalism being the idea that people’s “natural state” is as autonomous, self-directed individuals who are free from all pre-existing (non-elective) social obligations, and can basically do as they see fit in all cases, so long as their actions are not (theoretically) harming other people. Because the notion of society as a collection of solitary, self-directed individuals unmoored from any group identity has become the hegemonic, underlying assumption of the modern world, we fail to recognize just how novel and atypical it is. So let’s dive in…
The main thesis is succinctly stated by Patrick Wyman near the beginning of the podcast:
“The rise of modern states, which were capable of enforcing general rules throughout their territory–down to the local level–were the precondition for religious peace and the eventual rise of religious and other freedoms, which we can term more broadly Liberal freedoms.”
Put another way,
…general rules, treating people equally before the law, is like the sine qua of a state which allows individuals to flourish. And I call states like that liberal states…religion is at the heart of this rise of liberal states, and it’s at the heart of a rise of the shift from identity rules to general rules.
Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama on Persecution and Toleration (Conversations with Tyler)
Medieval European society gets the closest look, because its out of these societies that the modern Liberal state develops, but many of the concepts and insights are applicable to other societies as well.
Religious Freedom versus religious tolerance
The book makes a very important point: religious freedom and religious tolerance are not the same thing; they are actually quite different. Most modern nation-states have true religious freedom, and most are founded on a secular basis (to the consternation of religious fundamentalists). Ancient states, however, practiced a form of religious tolerance, which was the toleration of minority religious beliefs, the same way you might tolerate your neighbor’s loud music instead of going over and starting a fight, or tolerate a screaming baby on a flight:
[3:18] Mark Koyama: “We attempt to project backwards our modern notions of what religious freedom is. In our modern language, we often use toleration interchangeably with religious freedom, where we describe toleration as an attitudinal thing–like ‘I’m a tolerant person; I don’t care what religion you have,’ as opposed to its original meaning, which was “to bear.” This was a sufferance. We’re going to allow these Muslims, say, to practice their religion, but it’s not because we’re okay with it. It’s because it’s the best expedient or pragmatic response to religious diversity.”
[10:51] Patrick Wyman (host): “There’s a fundamental difference between religious sufferance and freedom. Between suffering something to happen because it’s necessary for you to run your state the way you want to, and actively embracing this thing as a legally-based ideal.”
I think this is an important point. Ancient multi-ethnic states did not have true religious freedom. You will often find this asserted in history books, but this is a misunderstanding, as Koyama argues. They had religious tolerance; that is, they permitted subcommunities to practice their religion, because it was better than the alternative. It was a sufferance, but they allowed it.
This was a categorically different concept from religious freedom as we think of it today.
One example is the Roman Empire. All the Romans really wanted was to gain the spoils of their vast empire via tax collection and tribute. They didn’t want to change society. To that end, subjugated ethnic groups were allowed to maintain their religious practices, with a few stipulations. For most religions, this wasn’t a problem—they were flexible enough that they could accommodate some Roman gods in their pantheon and be more-or-less okay with it. The Jews, on the other hand, with their strident and uncompromising monotheism, were different. They regarded their God as the real one, and all others as idols, and worshiping idols was strictly forbidden. This is why there was so much tension in Judea, tension that ultimately led to several revolts and wars.
This was a time where religious identity was not separate from cultural or ethnic identity. The rise of doctrinal evangelical religions changed all that. You can be an Arab, a Turk, a Persian, or Balinese and also be a Muslim. You can be Irish, Polish, French, Italian, or Nigerian and be a Catholic. That’s a much more modern conception of religion: as a creed freely chosen. But in ancient societies religion was an essential part of shared cultural identity.
In our reading of the historical evidence, neither ancient Rome nor the Islamic or Mongol Empires had religious freedom. They often refrained from actively persecuting religious minorities, but they were also ruthless in suppressing dissent when it suited their political goals. Religious freedom is a uniquely liberal achievement, and liberalism is an achievement of post-1700 modernity. What explains it?
Which raises the second major point of the book.
Identity Rules versus General Rules
The books’ biggest focus–and what I found the most fascinating–was on the difference between identity rules and general rules.
[6:25] “An identity rule is where the content or enforcement of the law depends on the social identity of the individual involved. In contrast, a general rule is a rule where the content or enforcement of the law is independent of that individual’s relevant social identity…The identity rules could privilege a minority, or it could disadvantage them. They key here is that your social identity is determinative.”
They actually distinguish three types of rules: personal rules, identity rules and general rules. Personal rules are targeted to the specific person who commuted the infraction, and are largely ad-hoc. This works well on small, local scales, but it doesn’t scale up.
When large empires came on the scene, they imposed identity rules, where enforcement was based on one’s group identity. The reason they did this is because ancient states had limited capacity to govern at a local level i.e. low state capacity. The sophisticated legal systems we have today, with their courts, police, bailiffs, jails, attorneys and professional judges, simply didn’t exist. Plus the very notion of an individual as having an identity wholly separate from the larger group to which one belonged was just much less common in the ancient world. Ancient societies were collectivist by default. And so, rules were based on one’s group identity: one’s clan affiliation, status, guild, corporate group, etc.
With the shift to settled agriculture after 8,000 BC, political organizations became larger and states oversaw the introduction of more sophisticated legal systems to prevent theft, fraud, and uncontrolled violence. For most of history, and in much of the developing world today, these laws have taken the form of identity rules.
Identity rules depend on the social identity of the parties involved. This could refer to an individual’s clan, caste, class, religious affiliation, or ethnicity. Examples from historical legal systems abound. Aristocrats faced different rules from commoners. Slaves faced different rules from freemen. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, prescribed punishment based on the relative status of the perpetrator and the victim. Identity rules were common historically because governing individuals on the basis of their legible social characteristics was cheap. As religious identity was particularly salient, many identity rules treated individuals differently on the basis of their religion.
This is something I’ve repeatedly tried to emphasize in my writing. When we talk about “states,” or things like “the rise of the state” in ancient history, we’re talking about something qualitatively different than when we use term “state” today.
[9:24] “The nature of pre-modern states is that, because of they way they govern, they have to rely on identity rules. They don’t have the ability or the capacity to govern at a very local level. They can’t extend their reach deep into society. So they’re more likely to say to this community: ‘we’re going to delegate to you a lot of authority; a lot of power.’ Even if they wanted to enforce a general rule, they wouldn’t be able to.”
“To take another pre-modern example, if you look at the Ottoman state throughout its history, it’s seen as an absolutist state where the Sultan has all the power. But it’s such a vast empire that, given how primitive communication technologies are, its inevitably decentralized, and power is delegated to local nobles. And that means that religious minorities like Christians and Jews get quite a lot of autonomy; a lot of independence, because the state just can’t govern them directly.”
“So the local religious leaders will get quite a lot of autonomy, and a lot of “freedom” precisely because the state governs through identity rules, not through general rules. This results in a lot of self governance for religious minorities. But the key point is that that religious self-governance should not be mistaken for religious freedom. Nor should a state like the Ottoman state, which delegated power and gives autonomy to religious communities, be mistaken for a liberal state. That shouldn’t be mistaken for an example of religious freedom or liberalism.”
The rulers of ancient states relied on religion to legitimize their rule. This seems to stem back very far, indeed. A careful reading of, for example, The Creation of Inequality by Flannery and Marcus, leads to the conclusion that all the earliest “ruling classes” claimed a special connection to the divine entities that were the subject of collective reverence. Sometimes this was the “king as a god” model of ancient Egypt. Sometimes this was the “ruler as steward” model as in ancient Mesopotamia. Sometimes it was “sacral kingship”: the ruler as high priest. Sometimes it was tribal elders or scribes who “interpreted god’s will”. Much later, it was the Divine Right of Kings. But religion seems to have been involved in virtually all cases that we know of.
If identity rules were a “cheap” form of enumerating and enforcing laws in low-tech, multi-ethnic societies, religion was a “cheap” way for rulers to claim legitimacy in such societies. It was also critical to the creation of a coherent group identity.
Religion was so central to premodern societies that it is difficult to fully understand the transformations associated with modernity without attending to it. Religion was used to justify the categories in which government and society more broadly used to structure everyday life. Women versus men, nobles versus commoners, guild members versus non-guild members, Muslims versus Christians, Christians versus Jews. All of these categories—as well as the different statuses associated with them in law and in culture—relied to a varying degree on religion to legitimize their use.
Religion was an especially important component of identity in the large agrarian civilizations of Europe and the Near East in a time before nationalism and nation states. Shared religious beliefs and religious identities were seen as crucial to maintaining social order. Religious differences were extremely destabilizing because they were associated with a host of deep societal cleavages.
In an environment where a common religious identity undergirded not only the institutions of the church, but also those of the state and civil society, both religious freedom specifically, and liberalism more generally, were unthinkable.
For instance, in medieval and early modern Europe oaths sworn before God played an important role in upholding the social order. These were thought so important that atheists were seen as outside the political community, since as John Locke put it, “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”
A shared religious identity was also crucial for guild membership. Guilds in Christian Spain excluded Muslims. Guilds in 14th century Tallinn excluded Orthodox Christians. Jews were excluded almost everywhere. In parts of Europe converts from Judaism and even their descendants or remote relations could not be guild members. In a world governed by identity rules, an individual’s religious identity determined what economic activities were open to them.
The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)
Identity rules were even relied upon for rulers to raise funds, as they describe:
As an illustration, consider how early modern governments often used Jewish communities as a source of tax revenue. Usury restrictions made lending by Christians very costly. However, rulers could grant monopoly rights to Jews to lend without violating their religious principles. In turn, the rates of interest charged by Jewish lenders were high, and the profits were taxed away by the very rulers who granted these rights. Finally, the specialization of Jews as moneylenders exacerbated preexisting antisemitism among the Christian population. This in turn made it relatively easy for rulers to threaten Jews in case they didn’t intend to pay up.
So long as rulers relied on Jewish moneylending as a source of revenue, Jews were trapped in this vulnerable situation. Their position could improve only when states developed more sophisticated systems of taxation and credit.
As suggested by the above example, low state capacity and a reliance on identity rules are self-reinforcing. States that rely on identity rules face less incentive to invest in the fiscal and legal institutions that would increase state capacity. This, in turn, makes them more reliant on identity rules and less able to enforce general rules.
Low state capacity, identity rules and religious legitimization all combined and interacted to form a self-reinforcing social equilibrium, claim Koyama and Johnson.
What is a self-reinforcing equilibrium? This is a tricky one. It’s a concept developed by a Stanford polical scientist named Avner Greif. He distinguishes between “institutions as rules” and “institutions as equilibria”. The following is my interpretation, such as I can figure it out:
Rules as institutions is just what it says—it looks at what the rules of the game are, and how they developed over time.
Rules as equilibria is a concept developed from game theory. In this conception, rules are an emergent phenomena from consistent, repeated interactions among groups of people. There is no overall enforcer—rather rules develop through “playing the game” over and over again. Consequently, rules as equilibria are more likely to develop out of repeated, mutually-chosen interactions between groups rather than individuals, and are enforced by intra-group norms rather than an all-powerful “referee”. This approach emphasizes the incentives and motivations of the interacting groups.
In the institutions-as-rules approach, rules are institutions and institutions are rules. Rules prescribe behavior. In the institutions-as-equilibria approach, the role of “rules”, like that of other social constructs, is to coordinate behavior. Because there are multiple potentially self-enforcing expectations in a given situation, coordination mechanisms, including rules, play an essential role in generating regularities of behavior and social order.
The core idea in the institutions-as-equilibria approach is that it is ultimately the behavior and the expected behavior of others rather than prescriptive rules of behavior that induce people to behave (or not to behave) in a particular way. The aggregated expected behavior of all the individuals in society, which is beyond any one individual’s control, constitutes and creates a structure that influences each individual’s behavior. A social situation is ‘institutionalized’ when this structure motivates each individual to follow a regularity of behavior in that social situation and to act in a manner contributing to the perpetuation of that structure.
An example might be the merchant guilds of the Middle Ages:
For example, at the medieval Champagne Fairs, large numbers of merchants from all over Europe congregated to trade. Merchants from different localities entered into contracts, including contracts for future delivery, that required enforcement over time. There was no state to enforce these contracts, and the large number of merchants as well as their geographic dispersion made an informal reputation mechanism infeasible…impersonal exchange was supported by a “community responsibility system”. Traders were not atomized individuals, but belonged to pre-existing communities with distinct identities and strong internal governance mechanisms. Although particular traders from each community may have dealt with merchants from another community only infrequently, each community contained many merchants, so there was an ongoing trading relationship between the communities, taken as a whole. Merchants from different communities were able to trust each other, even in one-shot transactions, by leveraging the inter-community “trust” which sustained these interactions. If a member of one community cheated someone from another community, the community as a whole was punished for the transgression, and the community could then use its own internal enforcement institutions to punish the individual who had cheated.
This system was self-enforcing. Traders had an incentive to learn about the community identities of their trading partners, and to establish their own identities so that they could be trusted. The communities had an incentive to protect the rights of foreign traders, and to punish their members for cheating outsiders, so as to safeguard the valuable inter-community trade. Communities also developed formal institutions to supplement the informal reputation mechanism and coordinate expectations. For example, each community established organizations that enabled members of other communities to verify the identity of its members. Ultimately, the growth of trade that this institution enabled created the impetus for its eventual replacement by more formal public-order (state-based) institutions which could directly punish traders by, for example, jailing them or seizing their property.
Thus we see the importance of group identity in establishing and enforcing social norms in a world where centralized institutions (e.g. states) are very weak. Without a powerful state, there is simply no way to enforce norms out of a group of isolated, atomized individuals whose identity is completely self-chosen. But membership in various sodalities makes it possible. If you were a bad merchant who cheated or welshed on your debts, you wouldn’t be a merchant very long, even without a all-powerful government enforcing contracts from above. Your reputation and your relationship with the group was paramount.
I’m reminded of James Carses’s distinction between finite games, where the object is to establish a winner, and infinite games, where the object is to keep playing the game. This leads to different sets of rules, which are collectively declared and voluntarily observed in order to lead to one of the two outcomes above.
If finite games must be externally bounded by time, space, and number, they must also have internal limitations on what the players can do to and with each other. To agree on internal limitations is to establish rules of play. The rules will be different for each finite game. It is, in fact, by knowing what the rules are that we know what the game is.
What the rules establish is a range of limitations on the players: each player must, for example, start behind the white line, or have all debts paid by the end of the month, charge patients no more than they can reasonably afford, or drive in the right lane. In the narrowest sense rules are not laws; they do not mandate specific behavior, but only restrain the freedom of the players, allowing considerable room for choice within those restraints. If these restraints are not observed, the outcome of the game is directly threatened. The rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won.
The rules must be published prior to play, and the players must agree to them before play begins. A point of great consequence to all finite play follows from this: The agreement of the players to the applicable rules constitutes the ultimate validation of those rules. Rules are not valid because the Senate passed them, or because heroes once played by them, or because God pronounced them through Moses or Muhammad. They are valid only if and when players freely play by them. There are no rules that require us to obey rules. If there were, there would have to be a rule for those rules, and so on.
If the rules of a finite game are unique to that game it is evident that the rules may not change in the course of play-else a different game is being played. It is on this point that we find the most critical distinction between finite and infinite play: The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play.
The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome-that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others. The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play. If the rules of a finite game are the contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, the rules of an infinite game are the contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing. For this reason the rules of an infinite game have a different status from those of a finite game. They are like the grammar of a living language, where those of a finite game are like the rules of debate. In the former case we observe rules as a way of continuing discourse with each other; in the latter we observe rules as a way of bringing the speech of another person to an end. The rules, or grammar, of a living language are always evolving to guarantee the meaningfulness of discourse, while the rules of debate must remain constant. pp. 9-11
The authors make a distinction made between equilibria which are stable, and equibria which are self-undermining.
[11:06] PW: “You talk a lot about political legitimacy, about what allows rulers to rule without the constant threat of political violence, of coercive violence. And so you get at the concept of self-reinforcing equilibrium—that this is how medieval society functioned. In your conception, you have religious legitimacy—legitimacy given to a ruler by religious authorities—and identity rules, working together to generate a kind of political equilibrium.”
MK: “In the Middle Ages we see widespread reliance on identity rules. Why? Well, for one reason is that even if a ruler was ambitious and had read Roman law and envisioned ruling on the basis of laws which were more general, less parochial, and less local, they wouldn’t have the ability to really enforce them. Ambitious medieval rulers lacked bureaucracies and standing armies, so they would be unable to overturn these rules and replace them with more general rules. So that’s one self-reinforcing relationship–the relationship between low state capacity and reliance on identity rules.”
“The other aspect is the reliance on religion as a source of legitimacy. One reason why religion is valuable is because medieval rulers didn’t provide much in the way of public goods beyond maybe defense; but even defense is questionable because often defense is actually offense. So they’re not providing education, they’re not providing welfare—that’s done by the Church. They’re not really regulating markets. They’re not doing much to alleviate famine or harvest failures. Where does their legitimacy come from, then?”
“It’s because they’re the ‘Most Christian King,’ or the’ Catholic Monarch,’ or the ‘Defender of the Faith.’ Religion is a cheap way for rulers to get legitimacy. But if you’re using religion to get legitimacy, you’re making a deal with the religious authorities.”
“So in the case of medieval Europe, you’re making a deal with the Church. What the deal entails might be things like: making Churchmen exempt from certain laws, or exempt from paying taxes, which was common in the medieval period. It might involve allowing the papacy to choose popes, or giving them political offices.”
“If you have low state capacity, religious legitimization is going to be an appealing strategy. But at the same time, the more you rely on religion or religious authorities to legitimate your rule, that’s going to curtail your power, your discretionary authority to build state capacity. So its’ a self-reinforcing relationship.“
And so low state capacity, religious legitimization, and the application of identity rules were all linked in maintaining a stable equilibrium. Eventually, that equilibrium was disrupted. To borrow Carse’s formulation, the rules changed, and the players no longer knew what game they were playing anymore.
Disrupting the equilibrium: The Reformation and the printing press
The Gutenberg printing press, expanding literacy, and the Protestant Reformation are all intimately connected and are a potent example of how technological change often drives social change, for better or for worse (a point worth attending to today).
Suddenly you have may more religious minorities, disrupting the old stable equilibrium. Perhaps more significantly, you have religious minorities that are allied across national boundaries. This is something that did not really exist before.
[23:00] (MK): “John Calvin and Martin Luther didn’t want to secularize society or the state–anything but. They wanted to revitalize religion on different foundations. But the net result was something very different than what they intended…”
“Large chunks of society that were once the concern of the church are no longer the concern of the church, at least in the Protestant territories. For example, in England the monasteries are sold off, and a lot of Church land is privatized, so a lot of functions that the Church was doing–like providing welfare to the poor–are no longer being provided in sixteenth-century England. That generates a crisis of beggars and paupers in Elizabethan England which the state eventually has to solve with the introduction of the Poor Law in the early seventeenth century.”
“In the German territories, it’s been shown by research that Protestantism leads to the selling off of Church buildings. Even in Catholic Europe, the Counter-Reformation is tightly controlled by powerful monarchies in Spain and France. And so the independent ability of the Church is weakened as a result. Similarly, the ability of identity rules and religious identity to effectively govern society is weakened where you have multiple religions in one society.”
“So all of these societies which experience the Reformation wholeheartedly–France, the German territories, England–they generate religious minorities that they didn’t have before.”
“This is an ongoing problem. In England, the wars of religion destabilize the political economy for the entire period between Henry the Eighth and the Glorious Revolution. You’re always worrying whether the Catholics will somehow take control, or will turn England toward Rome. That generates the persecution of Catholics, and it generates conflict between Parliament and the King.”
“Germany is the most extreme example, because the Holy Roman Empire descends into a terrible war—the Thirty Years’ War—which is one of the worst wars in European history.”
“Throughout this period of crisis, which lasts more than a century, European rulers want to return their societies to how they had been in the medieval period. They want to regain religious homogeneity, so they think they can reconcile the Protestants and the Catholics. It’s a common view in sixteenth-century France that if the king can bring everyone together, there will be a way to bring the Protestants back into the fold. We also have the policy of expulsion which is used not only in Spain and Portugal, but also in France at the end of the seventeenth century. You feel you can’t govern effectively so long as you have a group of people who belong to another religion, so you expel them.”
“Because rulers are conditioned on this prior equilibrium, they don’t know how to deal with religious differences. And it takes basically a century-and-a-half of conflict, violence, and then accommodation before there’s a movement to reorient these societies along different rules. There’s what we recognize as a shift in political arrangements which de-emphasizes religion as a source of political legitimacy and shifts away from this reliance on identity rules towards more general rules. And, of course, this transition takes several centuries.”
One idea the podcast then explores is the demise of multivocal signaling. In an era of low information flow and primitive communication technologies, rulers can target alternative messages to different groups of subjects. Each message is tailored to that particular social group, and is designed to appease them and keep them in the fold. The rulers’ identity is a Rorschach ink blot designed to be interpreted many different ways by many different groups of people.
But once information becomes easier to disseminate and access, different groups can compare notes. Now, it’s no longer possible to be all things to all people. Sort of like when a cheating man’s wife discovers that he has one or more secret other families, and all the wives can compare notes. This is based on a book called The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe by political scientist Daniel H. Nexon:
[27:15] (PW): “In the early modern period, especially with the rise of print and then the Reformation that follows, it gets a lot harder for rulers to be everything to all of their different groups of subjects–what Nexon terms multivocal signalling. Premodern rulers had done a lot of being one thing to one group of people in their kingdom, another thing to another group of people. So you could simultaneously be ‘Protector of the Jews’ and ‘Most Christian King,’ and this to the artisans, and this to the nobles. A ruler could be a lot of different things simultaneously because it was easy to target messages to those groups in the absence of mass media of communication.”
“But when you get the rise of print and simultaneously the splintering of society along religious lines, it gets a lot harder to be everything to everybody, because everybody knows what you’re saying to everybody else, too. So it becomes much harder for rulers to maintain these split identities that allow them to govern heterogeneous societies effectively by means of these identity rules.”
“Maybe that’s a thing that helps explain the shift to general rules. When you can’t be everything to everybody, you need to find different bases of legitimacy and power on which to rule.”
[28:33] (MK): “…When we think about why religious persecution was so acute during that period–why do you have these wars of religion–the kind of trite, high school history view is how intolerant people were back then. Then we can look down on them from our modern liberal societies and say that people in the sixteenth century really believed in burning heretics alive, or killing people for religious differences.
But Daniel Nexon’s book really points out that because of the spread of print media, this religious crisis was really a geopolitical crisis, because Catholics in France and Spain were now interested in the fate of Catholics in England. So the Catholics in England then become a potential fifth column in the geopolitical struggle taking place for non-religious political reasons between England, France, and Spain. They’re aligned with the political interests of a foreign power. Ditto Protestants in France. Protestants in France are going to be aligned with the Dutch Republic, or with the German States or with England. So, again, a potential fifth column that the state no longer can trust.
Prior to the Reformation, there were religious differences across these European states. People would have their own local version of Catholicism. They would worship local saints and have local practices. But those local religious differences were not correlated in any way with political differences at the geopolitical level. The fact that you might have your own religious practices in Norfolk was not going to align you with the French. But by the seventeenth century, that is true for Catholics and Protestant minorities in their respective countries. So that’s another layer of this crisis that early modern rulers faced.
Nexon himself describes multivocal signaling this way:
Multivocal signaling enables central authorities to engage in divide-and-rule tactics without permanently alienating other political sites and thus eroding the continued viability or such strategies. To the “extent that local social relations and the demands of standardizing authorities contradict each other, polyvalent [or multivocal] performance becomes a valuable means of mediating between them” since actions can be “coded differently within the audiences.” Multivocal signaling, therefore, can allow central rulers to derive the divide-and-rule benefits of star-shaped political systems while avoiding the costs stemming from endemic cross pressures.
In subsequent chapters we will find many instances of the failure of multivocal signaling contributing to crises in European rule. The spread of reformation, in particular, made it difficult for dynasts to engage in polyvalent signaling across religiously differentiated audiences. Claims about the “true” religious orientations or policies of dynastic rulers became part of the repertoire of actors seeking to mobilize resistance against their rulers.
The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change; by Daniel H. Nexon, pp. 114-115
This also helps explain the rise of nationalism and national identities in nineteenth-century Europe, and the demise of multi-ethnic states like the Austro-Hungarian empire. As the hand of the state reached ever deeper down into the underlying social structures of society during this period, people wanted to be directly ruled by people “like them” and not by “foreigners.” Ancient states, by contrast, did fairly little besides keeping basic order, keeping underlying ethnic identities intact.
The Roman Empire is an example. You can look at a map of the Roman Empire at its height and ponder, “How could they govern such a vast territory without any modern technology?” The answer is: they didn’t! The empire was sort of a “stratum” above local communities whose daily lives probably differed very little than that of their remote ancestors. The empire just provided an organizational framework, and little else. Even with a standing army, it could only move as fast as a soldier could march and communicate was fast as a horseman could ride. Rulers moved the army about strategically, like pieces on chessboard, to maintain order and quell revolt. Actual interaction with government agencies, however, was something limited to a small cabal of aristocratic leaders. For most ordinary people, the “empire” they were nominally ruled by was just a remote abstraction.
The Emergence of general rules and modern Liberalism
And so we come to the introduction of general rules—rules that are written to treat everyone equally, regardless of doctrinal creed or ascribed social status. This only came about after every other approach was tried by Early Modern rulers and failed to work. But what it also does is free up rulers to expand state capacity in ways that they could not do before.
Wyman asks what were the forces pushing back against attempts by Early Modern rulers to strengthen state capacity:
[31:15] We see endless attempts by Early Modern rulers to build state capacity, and they’re always being undermined at the local level…Every attempt by these Early Modern rulers to build state capacity is one step forwards, two steps backwards. There are these forces pushing back against any attempt to build a society based on general rules–what Francis Fukuyama calls repatrimonilization of the state–and often it’s only in war that these modern states are forged. War is driving this increase in state capacity, but war is also destroying the economy and using up the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. That’s why its such an arduous process.
Some of these Early Modern rulers are heading towards more general rules and increased state capacity, others think the way forwards is actually backwards. The term historians use is confessionalization, and in some sense these confessional states that are built in the Early Modern period are trying to rebuild the medieval equilibrium. I think Louis the Fourteenth, what he’s doing when he expels the Huguenots—the French Protestants—is looking back to the golden age of how France was before the Reformation. He thinks if only he could get back and reunify the country religiously, that would actually strengthen his power and make the state stronger. We know after the event that that’s a failure. It doesn’t strengthen the French economy or society, because they lose a very productive minority, but it also doesn’t work even on its own terms, because by the eighteenth century there are still many, many Protestants in France. it doesn’t get rid of the problem of a religious minority.
Society’s always evolving, and it’s just a question of the direction you’re going in. And we can only discern the direction once we zoom out and take a big picture perspective…Its not obvious to everybody at the time in what direction they should go. Even if it were obvious, getting there is very difficult.
A prime example of repatrimonialization is ancien régime France:
The classic example here is ancien régime France, whose aristocrats and financiers purchased parts of the state for their own benefit, in the form of tax-farming franchises and heritable offices. It was, Fukuyama writes, an “early prototype of what is today called a rent-seeking society. In such a society, the elites spend all of their time trying to capture public office in order to secure a rent for themselves.”
It was just this sort of rent-seeking that the original Classical Liberal writers inveighed against. For example, a well-connected insider getting a Royal Charter to be the “official” tea merchant to the Crown—barring all other rivals-—excluded competition and hurt consumers for no other reason than protecting existing wealth and status. This was the sort of thing they were against. Adam Smith famously declared that, ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices’.
European states eventually had no other choice but to acquiesce to the freedom of religion as we know know it. The Founding Fathers of the United States, for whom the wars of religion were still recent history, recognized this and enshrined it in the Constitution. Its birth was much more painful in Europe, beginning with the often radical atheism of the leaders of the French Revolution. This kicked off the Long Nineteenth Century—the century of revolution—where modern Liberalism was born. Edicts of Toleration were signed all over Europe.
With religious affiliation now being something “freely chosen” according to one’s own individual conscience, other forms of ascribed identity soon fell by the wayside. Free cities had always been places for nonconformists in Medieval Europe to go to escape the stultifying conformity of the countryside and shed their traditional social obligations. These cosmopolitan urbanites—the bourgeoisie—became the nucleus of the new social order based around “freely chosen” social affiliations, flexible and ever-shifting personal identities, and explicit (as opposed to implicit) contractual obligations to others:
In our argument it was not that the Wars of Religion simply exhausted confessional and doctrinal disputes. Rather there was a transformation at the institutional level. The leading European states shifted away from identity rules towards more general rules. This shift was related to 19th-century historian Henry Sumner Maine’s discussion of the passage from status to contract: Status was imposed and ascriptive. Contracts, in contrast, are the outcome of voluntary choices. Status-based rules are invariably identity rules. Contracts provide the foundation for a system of general rules.
Moving from a fixed status to a contractual society helped set in motion a range of developments, including the growth of markets and a more extensive division of labor. But it had the unintended consequence of diminishing the political importance of religion, and this made liberalism feasible for the first time in history.
The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)
Wars played a major role in the emergence of absolutist states, particularly the need to raise money to fund them. In our history of money, we saw how the high-level merchants’ use of paper instruments of credit, such as bills of exchange, existed alongside the state’s legal authority to tax and to coin money. Bills of exchange allowed merchants to coordinate across international boundaries. This was enforced not by the state, but by networks of bankers (i.e. though rules of equilibrium). When the ability to issue paper credit was joined with the state’ ability to levy taxes in the Bank of England, you had a major step forward toward the creation of the modern state’s ability to tax and spend. The end of the Thirty Year’s War in the Peace of Westphalia led to the concept of what political historians refer to as Westphalian sovereignty—the basis of the modern “welfare-warfare” state. These, in turn, led to the establishment of a professional Weberian civil service bureaucracy supplanting the patrimonial states governed by hereditary aristocrats, i.e “depatrimonialization”.
[Max] Weber listed several preconditions for the emergence of bureaucracy, including an increase in the amount of space and population being administered, an increase in the complexity of the administrative tasks being carried out, and the existence of a monetary economy requiring a more efficient administrative system. Development of communication and transportation technologies make more efficient administration possible, and democratization and rationalization of culture results in demands for equal treatment.
As Karl Polanyi extensively documented, strong states–capable of enforcing contracts—and haute finance were the key requirements in creation of Market Society. One could not exist without the other. Market Society—where everything including land and labor is for sale and hypothetically allocated according to impersonal forces of supply and demand—was not merely an expansion of the kind of trading that had gone on before. It was something altogether new, and done with the full blessing of the rulers. Patrick Deneen notes the connection:
Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state. In distinct but related ways, the right and left cooperate in the expansion of both statism and individualism, although from different perspectives, using different means, and claiming different agendas. This deeper cooperation helps to explain how it has happened that contemporary liberal states–whether in Europe or America–have become simultaneously more statist, with ever more powers and authority vested in central authority, and more individualistic, with people becoming less associated and involved with such mediating institutions as voluntary associations, political parties, churches, communities, and even family. For both “liberals” and “conservatives,” the state becomes the main driver of individualism, while individualism becomes the main source of expanding power and authority of the state. p. 46
Our main political choices come down to which depersonalized mechanism will purportedly advance our freedom and security–the space of the market, which collects our billions upon billions of choices to provide for our wants and needs without demanding from us any specific thought or intention about the wants and needs of others, or the liberal state, which establishes depersonalized procedures and mechanisms for the wants and needs of others that remain insufficiently addressed by the market.
Thus the insistent demand that we choose between protection of individual liberty and expansion of state activity masks the true relation between the state and market: that they grow constantly and necessarily together. Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism. For all the claims about electoral transformations–for “Hope and Change,” or “Making America Great Again”–two facts are naggingly apparent: modern liberalism proceeds by making us both more individualist and more statist. This is not because one party advances individualism without cutting back on statism while the other does the opposite; rather, both move simultaneously in tune with our deepest philosophic premises. p. 17
The authors display their libertarian biases toward the end of the article with this line: “While the far left has never accepted liberal values such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion, antipathy towards liberal values is now evident in mainstream progressive publications as well. Liberalism is indicted because it is perceived as legitimating inequality and failing to endorse social justice.” Notice the lack of citations here.
A nice strawman, but liberalism is not indicted, capitalism is. Capitalism is inherently undemocratic, since it invests disproportionate power in an unelected minority capitalist class, whose power stems from control over paper ownership claims (in deeds, stocks bonds, and accounts) which are passed down through time. As Deneen notes, in practice this simply replaces one aristocracy with another. And we all know that the rich can buy special treatment under the law due to their disproportionate wealth and power in comparison with the rest of us, something which makes a mockery of so-called Liberal values.
Also, under Neoliberalism repatrimonialization and rent-seeking abound. Monopolies control every industry. The feckless rich are bailed out while ordinary citizens are left to their own devices. Prices have less to do with the production costs than market power, and rules are written by the industries themselves which privilege existing actors and keep out competition. Financial gambling is the highest-return activity instead of providing useful goods and services. Incompetent cronies and family members take over key government positions. The upper class uses elite universities as a moat to maintain their status, despite their demonstrated lack of judgement or competence.
Capitalism as it currently stands also makes rules that favor certain groups over others, as economist Dean Baker has tirelessly pointed out. Professional classes like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so forth are shielded from international competition by artificial government restrictions. Patent and copyright laws enforced by strong states prevent the copying of innovations by others and preserve existing wealth distribution. Wealth is taxed less than wages. Meanwhile, most workers are left to “sink or swim” in a harsh globalized job market with no protections whatsoever. Baker has written a whole book about it called Rigged:
Rigged: How globalization and the rules of the modern economy were structured to make the rich richer (Real World Economics Review)
In the end, the authors say, “we think the core characteristics of a liberal society are the rule of law and reliance on general rules.” and “Liberalism is valuable because it is the only form of social order we know of that is consistent with a high degree of autonomy and human dignity.”
Well, under that definition, socialism would fit the bill just as well, if not better. And it’s hard to see a lot of “dignity” and “autonomy” with the amount of people struggling in modern-day America. It’s hard to equate the millions of prisoners in jail working for pennies an hour with human dignity. And it hard to have freedom where the base condition for most of us is having to constantly sell our labor or face destitution. Liberalism is—or should be—more than simply allowing the rich the “freedom” to make the rules for their own benefit to the detriment of society as a whole. If that doesn’t happen soon, then don’t expect it to last much longer.