Religion and the Birth of Liberalism

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 both professors at George Mason University and are affiliated with the Mercatus Center, which on first blush might make them a little suspect. But there are some very good historical insights here, which are well 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, quotes are from Koyama unless noted otherwise..

The book’s insights dovetail with what we’ve been talking about recently: the rise of the modern, liberal absolutist state. The thesis is that religious freedoms were basically the foundation for the rise of capital-L Liberalism—Liberalism being the idea of society as an assorted collection of solitary, self-directed individuals who must be free from any sort of predetermined social identity. Because this notion of has become the hegemonic assumption of the modern world, we fail to recognize just how novel it really 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.”

Medieval European society gets the closest look, because it is 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 that’s an important point. Ancient multi-ethnic states did not have true religious freedom. You will often find this asserted in various history books, but this is a misunderstanding. They had religious tolerance; that is, they permitted subcommunities to openly practice their religion. It was a sufferance, but they allowed it because it was better than the alternative.

This was a categorically different concept from religious freedom as we think about 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 often co-opted local rulers and other notables, who subsequently became “Romanized,” but they weren’t out to transform society. To that end, subjugated ethnic groups were allowed to maintain their cultural and 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 practices 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-day conception of religion—as a creed freely chosen. But in ancient societies, religion was an essential and inseparable 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

For me, the biggest takeaway was 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 different 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 the local level, where everybody knows everybody else such as a small self-governing village, but it doesn’t scale up.

When large empires came on the scene, they imposed identity rules, where law enforcement was based largely 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. The capacity simply wasn’t there. Plus, the very notion of an individual as having an identity wholly separate and unmoored from the larger group to which he or she belonged was much less common in the ancient world than in our modern one. That is, ancient societies were collectivist by default. And so, rules were based on one’s ascribed group identity: one’s clan affiliation, social status, guild, corporate group, religion, 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.

The Trouble in Getting to Denmark (Cato Unbound)

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. That’s important to keep in mind.

[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.”

Religious Legitimization

The rulers of ancient states relied primarily 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 of the earliest ruling classes everywhere claimed some sort of special connection to the divine entities that were the object 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,” with 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 played a role 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, then appealing to religion was a “cheap” way for rulers to claim legitimacy in these types of societies. It was also crucial to the creation of coherent group identities, which were necessary for identity rules to function. Often it involved special treatment for clergymen, or some sort of power-sharing accommodation with religious officials. But that also led to fairly weak states, with little power to expand the rulers’ prerogatives.

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 by rulers to raise revenue. For example, in many ancient empires, taxes were collected at the village level, with the collection delegated to local elders. Taxes might be assessed differently depending on the group in question. Merchants might be taxed differently than farmers, for example, and often times nobles weren’t taxed at all! Different ethnic groups might face different levels of responsibility and taxation. For example, Jews were the only group allowed to lend money at interest in Catholic Europe, so they were frequently used as cash cows by Christian rulers:

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.

Social Equilibrium

Low state capacity, identity rules and religious legitimization all combined and interacted with each other to form a self-reinforcing social equilibrium, argue Koyama and Johnson.

What is a self-reinforcing equilibrium? This is a tricky one. It’s a concept developed by a Stanford political scientist named Avner Greif. He distinguishes between “institutions as rules” and “institutions as equilibria”. The following is my interpretation, such as I can make 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 are prescriptive, and are set and enforced from above. They change very slowly.

Rules as equilibria is a concept developed from game theory. In this conception, rules are an emergent phenomena from consistent, repeated interactions between groups of people. There is no overall enforcer, rather the rules develop through “playing the game” over and over again. Consequently, rules as equilibria are more likely to develop out of repeated voluntary interactions between groups rather than individuals, and are enforced by intra-group norms rather than an all-powerful “referee” overseeing everything. The rules of the game are not static; they develop as time goes on. This approach emphasizes the incentives and motivations of the groups which are interacting.

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. 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.

Institutions: Rules or Equilibria? (PDF)

An example he gives is 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 and solidarity 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 an all-powerful state enforcing contracts from above. Your reputation, and your relationship with the group, was paramount.

The authors also 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 together in maintaining a stable equilibrium. Eventually, though, that equilibrium was disrupted.

Disrupting the equilibrium: The Reformation and the printing press

The Gutenberg printing press, expanding literacy, and the Protestant Reformation were all intimately connected, and provide 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 many more religious minorities, disrupting the old stable equilibrium. Perhaps even more significantly, you have religious minorities that are allied across national boundaries. This is something that did not really exist before.

[23:00] “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.”

They then discuss a concept called multivocal signaling. In an era of low information flow and primitive communication technologies, rulers could target alternative messages to different groups of subjects. Each message was tailored to that particular social group, and was designed to appease them and keep them in the fold. The rulers’ identity became a Rorschach ink blot designed to be interpreted many different ways by many different groups of people.

But once information became easier to disseminate and access, different groups could compare notes. Now it was 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. This concept 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… The spread of reformation, in particular, made it difficult for dynasts to engage in polyvalent signaling across religiously differentiated audiences…

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 emergence 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 fabric of society during this period, people wanted to be directly ruled by people “like them” and not by “outsiders.” Ancient states, by contrast, did fairly little besides collecting taxes, guaranteeing safe travel, and keeping basic order, with underlying ethnic identities remaining mostly intact.

The Roman Empire, again, provides an example. You can’t look at a map of the Roman Empire at its height without pondering, “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 day-to-day lives probably differed very little from those of their remote ancestors. The empire just provided an organizational framework, and little else. Even a standing army could only move as fast as a soldier could march, and communicate as fast as a horseman could ride. Rulers moved the army about strategically, like pieces on chessboard, in order to maintain order and quell revolt. Actual interaction with government officials, however, was limited to a small coterie of aristocratic local leaders. For most ordinary people in the ancient world, the “empire” they were nominally ruled by was just a remote abstraction. With the rise of strong, centralized states, that was no longer the case. Even today separatist conflicts abound, such as in Catalonia or Kurdistan.

The Emergence of general rules and modern Liberalism

And so we finally come to the introduction of general rules—rules that are written to treat everybody equally, regardless of their group identity, doctrinal creed, or any other ascribed social status. Whether you were Protestant, Catholic or Jew (or even atheist!), the law was the same. Of course, this was an ideal often not lived up to, but it started to become the common expectation. This eventually came about after every other approach was tried by Early Modern rulers and failed. It’s hard to win a win a war against a belief system. But what this approach also did was free up Early Modern rulers to expand state capacity in other ways that they could not have done before, and appeasing religious officials was no longer paramount. For example, Napoleon considered his law code to be his finest and most durable achievement, surpassing even his military victories. All sort of archaic and feudal rules were swept away.

Yet there were often many attempts from below to push back against this kind of governance, and hence there were significant roadblocks on the way to more modern systems of professional, bureaucratic governance, democracy, and the expansion of 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 the 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.

European rulers eventually had no other choice but to acquiesce to the freedom of religion as we now know it. Edicts of Toleration were signed all over Europe. 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 period of conflict where modern Liberalism was born.

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 and communes had always been places for nonconformists in Medieval Europe to flee to in order to escape the stultifying conformity of the countryside and shed their traditional social obligations. These sophisticated, 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:

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 modern states, particularly the need to raise ever-larger amounts of money to fund them. In our history of money, we saw how international merchants’ use of paper instruments of credit, such as bills of exchange, existed alongside the ruler’s legal authority to raise taxes and coin money. Bills of exchange and trade credit allowed these merchants to coordinate their activities across international boundaries. This was enforced not by the state, but by private networks of merchant-bankers (i.e. via rules of equilibrium). When the bankers’ ability to issue paper credit became conjoined with the state’s ability to levy taxes with establishment of the Bank of England, you had a major step forward toward the creation of the modern welfare-warfare state. 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 soveriegn, absolutist nation-state. These developments, in turn, led to the establishment of a professional Weberian civil service, supplanting the patrimonial states governed by hereditary aristocrats, i.e “depatrimonialization”. Per Wikipedia:

[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 general rules and contracts, and haute finance, were the key requirements in creation of Market Society. Market Society—where everything including land and labor was for sale and theoretically allocated according to impersonal forces of supply and demand—was not merely an expansion of the kind of activities that had gone on generations prior. Rather, it was something altogether new and radically different, and done with the full blessing of the elite ruling classes. Patrick Deneen notes the connection in his book, Why Liberalism Failed:

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 paper ownership claims (in deeds, stocks bonds, and accounts) which can be passed down in perpetuity. 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 influence in comparison with the rest of us, something which makes a mockery of so-called “liberal values.”

Also, under Neoliberalism repatrimonialization and rent-seeking have exploded. Monopolies and oligopolies control practically every major industry. The feckless rich are bailed out while ordinary citizens are left to their own devices. Prices have less to do with actual production costs than sheer market power, and rules are written and re-written by the industries themselves in order to privilege existing actors and keep out competitors (including governments themselves). Parasitic financial gambling has become the highest-return activity rather than providing useful goods and services. Incompetent cronies and family members take over key positions in the public and private sector. The upper class uses elite universities as a moat to maintain their elevated status, despite their demonstrated lack of judgement or competence.

Capitalism as it currently stands also commonly makes rules that favor certain groups over others. Professional classes like doctors, lawyers, engineers, and so forth, are shielded from international competition by 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 more lightly than wages. Meanwhile, most average workers are left to “sink or swim” in a harsh, competitive globalized job market with no protections whatsoever. This is all rationalized as an “inevitable” force of nature. Dean 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 conclude, “[W]e 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. 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 toiling away for pennies an hour with “dignity.” And it hard to have “autonomy” when the base condition of existence for most of us is having to constantly sell our labor or face utter ruin. Liberalism is—or should be—more than simply allowing the rich the “freedom” to make whatever rules they wish for their own benefit, to the detriment of society as a whole. If that doesn’t happen soon, then don’t expect Liberalism to last much longer.

3 thoughts on “Religion and the Birth of Liberalism

  1. Fascinating. Increasing individual freedom requires increasing statism. As individualism advances, we are approaching a world where every action is mediated by money.

    Perhaps we can only be free together.

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