The ‘Reactionary’ Libertarianism of Frank van Dun
The ‘Reactionary’ Libertarianism of Frank van Dun
By Richard Storey
Before I reached out to Prof. Frank van Dun, I had it all figured out. Like many anarcho-capitalist libertarians, I believed that the Church, far from being a hindrance to state growth, was the primary promoter of centralised statism in Northern Europe. Whilst many of the greatest intellectual defenders of liberty were Christians (Tom Woods, Lew Rockwell etc. etc.), I assumed they were wrong about the Church. Rather arrogantly, I thought them blind to the historical data and for emotional reasons. I contacted the good professor, hoping he could teach me a thing or two and, of course, confirm my conclusions. I got more of the former than I had bargained for. Permit me to outline the historical perspective I presented to Prof. van Dun before I provide his responses.
I agreed with the mainstream opinion, e.g. Martin Loughlin’s hypothesis in Foundations of Public Law – the development of modern statism was the logical conclusion of Christendom. Long before the Investiture Controversy of the 11th century, between the Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the tension between the Church and the State was unavoidable. ‘The problem with this symbiotic relationship was that, pursued to their logical ends, the positions of emperor and pope were not easily reconcilable.’ Yet, the two institutions could not question the existence or purpose of the other. ‘From the Christian perspective, the ruler exists and is equipped with power because of the existence of evil in the world.’ (Foundations of Public Law, p.23) The Old Testament, of course, presents a theocratic model of monarchy (2 Samuel 23:3), affirmed more specifically in the New Testament, in 1 Peter 2:13-14.
Pope Gelasius I, in the late 5th century, devised the division between the secular and spiritual powers to accommodate the role of the Roman State and also to declare that the emperor was under the authority of the Church, being a member of it. But ‘his view was never accepted by the imperial authority…and the reality was that popes were subjects of the empire.’ Loughlin argues that,
‘to avoid these dangers to the Church’s position…Pope Gregory I, at the beginning of the seventh century, turned towards the West. The greatest potential for the Church to extend its influence, it was felt, lay in the less well-developed system of government of the Germanic nations of the West.’ (Foundations of Public Law, pp.23-24)
The role of Roman public law and, thus, the State was developed by the Church after Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., making Nicene, Trinitarian Christianity the official imperial religion, cementing Roman Catholicism. So, influenced heavily by Roman jurists, even the language of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible contained Roman judicial language. Surely, it was no surprise that Latin, being the introduction to literacy in Northern Europe, was also the introduction of Roman, statist concepts of government. The evidence of their success couldn’t have been clearer to me, what with the inclusion of so much Roman law in the Germanic law codes produced between the 5th and 9th centuries. Therefore, I concluded, states in Northern Europe probably developed as kings sought out the same absolute sovereignty which the popes exercised.
To my mind, the development of the corporate state was nothing more than the secularising of the papal monarchy which led ‘the body of Christ’. In the New Testament, Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, the analogy of the body of Christ illustrated Christians as members of a single organism. Paul had a Greek education and it is apparent from the New Testament writings which can be attributed to him that he was skilled in rhetoric and Greek literature. He was familiar with the Greek corporate concept of society (sup. Plato’s body politic) and adopted this for the sparse congregations of early Christianity, using the same language to describe the Church – ecclesia. Papal authority began to more closely resemble a monarch, becoming more jurisdictional and issuing decretals to the churches. Trained as a Roman lawyer, Pope Leo I ruled that the famous passage of Christ building his church upon the rock, from the Gospel of Matthew, was in reference to Peter himself in a peculiar office. The effect of Leo’s ruling was to establish
‘the Church as a society of Christians—in Roman law terms, a corporation—and [authorize] a distinctive type of governing structure…a monarchy… It is on the basis of Leo’s formulation that the distinction between the person and the office—perhaps the most fundamental in the development of public law—has been drawn.’
In this way, the concept developed of a politico-corporate entity which granted particular state offices authority, even supreme authority; as did the vesting of responsibility with those offices instead of the individuals assuming them. Thus, papa a nemine judicatur (the pope is judged by no one). The sovereignty of the head of the household (the paterfamilias) had been taken over by a public authority. This, I believed, was the seed which would grow into the modern state, made of individuals who can assume ‘public office’ and, through a bloated, unrecognisable mass of public law, coercively tax their income from the population with impunity.
However, Prof. van Dun would change my views. The following are extracts from his correspondence with me, outlining the case that the Church was in fact the greatest limitation to the rise of states in Northern Europe and, having had such a hard time with powerful centralised political powers in Southern Europe, they could hardly have wished to return to such conditions. The Church did not promote the statism of Roman law but, if anything, incorporated those prudent elements of it which were originally developed privately through civil disputes. Most importantly, the Church certainly developed a patriarchal system of spiritual authority in its own corporate hierarchy, but this does not mean it promoted absolute centralised political authority for secular rulers. Indeed, it did just the opposite, promoting personalism and neighbourly responsibility in the body of Christ; this made it the main institution to be overcome for rulers to attain the position of irresponsibility which would undergird the modern state.
By Frank van Dun [from e-mail correspondence]
Most of your comments fit what is still the PC-view of the medieval period and the role of the Church in it. In my younger years, I too took it in hook, line and sinker. It was what I was taught in school, and what was repeated in one form or another in the media and in entertainment. It fits the drive toward establishing state-controlled schools in the 19th century, and its tailor-made “ideology of Enlightenment”, which (as so much of later progressive ideology) had a vital interest in obliterating everything that was associated with the stateless order of the medieval period, and especially with the role of the churches in formal education. Most of it is wrong, as I discovered later. It is particularly tenacious, however, especially among English-speakers, who tend to extrapolate gratuitously from the English Middle Ages to the entirely different situation on the Continent.
The Common Law was an assertion of the power of the Norman kings, who claimed title to all the land on the island and also claimed the allegiance of every inhabitant. Nothing like that existed on the continent, where there was a plurality of overlapping, often competing jurisdictions, and where feudal relations were almost everywhere non-transitive (the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal, and is therefore not bound in law to be at my beck and call). Centralization of power was baked into the English system from the Conquest onward; it was virtually impossible to achieve on the continent until the gun-powder revolution gave decisive advantage to highly capitalized professional (mercenary and standing) armies. However, because royal absolutism did not last as long in England as it did on the Continent, “English freedom” became the model to follow in the eighteenth century.
The Origin of the State
The origin of the modern state in the West is indeed in the transformation of medieval “rule” into modern “political government”. It reached its full expression in the 16th century, when some of the major medieval kings became monarchs, pretending that their dominium extended as far their imperium. The idea that the king was essentially a primus inter pares [first among equals], with special prerogatives but no superior rights, was as good as dead. The other side of the coin was the emergence of the idea of a national economy that coincided geographically with the political territory controlled by the monarch. Its implementation required the formal organization of regular departments of government and their professionalization and bureaucratization — in other words, the organizational separation of the administrative (“technical”) aspects of government from the purely political aspects. It was an important factor in the rise of the bourgeoisie, which was not exclusively a commercial class but also and in many places (especially in state capitals and major centres of commerce) preponderantly the professional class from which “civil” and “public servants” were recruited.
That transformation was of course a drawn-out process with many local variations. Obviously, something like it had happened in different geographical contexts earlier in history. However, there was no historical or geographical continuity between those earlier manifestations of political-economic rule and the modern Western state. Moreover, none of those precedents were in their own times ever called “states”. The term itself is modern. It has been [mis]applied by moderns to almost every form of rule throughout history (the Greek City-State, the Medieval State, the Aztec State, etc.) whether or not the rulers even claimed to be able / to have the right to govern their subjects’ households; whether or not they ruled by customary prerogative or by “the rights of conquest” (the former excluding, the latter including the “rights” to legislate and to tax at will).
‘State’ derives obviously from the Latin ‘status’ (condition, e.g. my state of health, the state of the economy). In the fifteenth century, it began to be used in Italian principalities and cities to refer to their “political economy” (the realm, respectively city, considered as a single household). However, even today there remains an ambiguity: the state as a single economy (now usually called ‘a society’) and the state as the apparatus of rule and government within society (which puts every inhabitant of a country inside or outside the state apparatus).
Statism had its origins in the disasters and wars of the 14th century and the wars of the 15th century, but did not emerge until the crisis of the 16th century. Statism is the idea that the ruler should have not only the power to rule (as supreme commander in times of war, as diplomat, and as judge in some but not necessarily all disputes among his subjects) but also the power to govern. A medieval ruler ruled his realm but did not govern anything within it except his own household or «economy». Government (as distinct from rule) was a matter of private housekeeping. Every household had its own government. However, political or public government originated in the cities, when patrician families and, later, professional associations began to think of their city as a single household or economy under their management.
City government became the model of the state, when rulers (kings, dukes) in their turn began to think of their realm as constituting a single city-like household (a civitas) and of themselves as the heads of its government. With its often very intrusive regulations and ordinances, city-government foreshadowed what would become the prerogative of states: detailed legislation, monopoly of law enforcement, “public rights” of forced entry, expropriation “in the public interest” and taxes construed as contributions to “the public treasury”. The idea that the realm of the king was a single household (an “economy” in its own right) was a crucial step toward the concept of the modern state. Much later, separating the functions of ruling from the functions of governing became a central concern of the advocates of the constitutional state against absolute monarchy: Le Roi règne mais ne gouverne pas [The King reigns but does not govern]. The basic idea is that a ruler, by definition, is under the law, whereas the function of government is to act opportunistically in the interests of “the economy”. As the idea of the state emerged, so did the idea that everything that goes on within the state is part of its “economy” (its fictional household) and therefore subject to its government.
However, the Church could always be counted on to stand up for the autonomy of real households against attempts to merge them into a single fictional economy under a central government — in particular, attempts to transform kingdoms into monarchies. Of course, as the states grew stronger, the Church’s margin of influence dwindled. She too was forced into the fictional household of the state, to make concession after concession, and to enter into an alliance of Throne and Altar (under the very real threat that the local church would be taken over completely, perhaps even plundered, by the local rulers — as happened in England and in Protestant regions in Northern Europe in the 16th century).
The Church and “Private Law Systems”
If you consult the historical record then you notice soon enough that the medieval Church was the great protector of “private law systems” — although it would be more accurate to refer to them as private systems of governance. Yes, in medieval times, free cities, universities, mercantile associations, large estates, etc. developed their own systems of governance as more or less closed (private) economies (households or associations of households). They did so under the protection of the Church.
The Church was as eager to stop the centralizing drift toward “the absoluteness of political power and the worship of the might of the mighty” as kings and monarchs were eager to promote it. In addition, the Church’s insistence on the natural law kept those “private systems” compatible with each other as to basic principles and prevented them from turning into separate collections of special-interest privileges. To use a market analogy, the Church oversaw the integrity of the market system without interfering in the internal ordering of individual households or associations of households, at least in so far as they did not threaten to take over the market by forcefully eliminating the independence of other households or to subvert the authority of the principles of natural law.
Not having an army of her own, the Church had to rely on the good will of others, i.e. on her moral and theological prestige and authority (her intellectual capital). In diminishing the Church’s authority and by robbing her of much wealth and income (and by implication, bargaining power), the Protestant crisis certainly undermined the major pillar of support for the medieval “private systems of governance” that you apparently cherish. Few of them survived the turmoil of the Reformation, from which the state emerged as the clear winner.
Corporate Christianity vs. Corporate Statism
The Church as the “body (corpus) of Christ” certainly is a “corporation”, but despite a few structural similarities, it was never a corporation in the modern legal sense of the word. The medieval Church was anchored institutionally in the local churches (bishoprics) which were doctrinally “unified in the faith” but not at all “governed” from a single centre (“Rome”). There was no household or economy of “the Church” (i.e. of “the body of Christ”). The “provinces of the Church” (archbishoprics) were not related to “Rome” in the way the Roman “Provinciae” were related to the imperial seat in Rome, Constantinople, Ravenna, or wherever the Emperor held court.
Until the 11th century, the practical unity of the Church consisted in the practice of local bishops asking the Bishop of Rome for advice, mainly on doctrinal matters concerning the faith and Christian ethics and occasionally on questions of a diplomatic nature. It involved sending letters (which took weeks, months, sometimes more than a year to reach their destination, if they reached it at all) or taking the opportunity to discuss certain matters with a visiting papal “legatus“. Doctrine apart, the pope had no authority over and was not liable for anything a bishop did or tolerated. “Excommunication” was the only fairly effective means “Rome” possessed for keeping a measure of control over the bishops (or other lords, including emperors), but it was effective only to the extent that it had widespread support among the general population (which had to learn of it through other channels than those controlled by the targeted bishop or ruler). Other “official reprimands” were largely symbolic, easily ignored expressions of displeasure.
In the 12th century, the canon law was codified, but it was not an instrument of central Church government. It remained unchanged until Benedict XV issued a new edition toward the end of WWI. The first attempts to set up a central office of Church affairs date from the 15th century and consisted mainly in organizing systematic and comprehensive archives of correspondence received and sent by the pope. Formal Church government, the Curia, was organized in the middle of the 16th century, when the “modern state” was rapidly becoming the new European reality, local and not-so-local conflicts exploded into devastating wars, and managing the Church’s diplomatic relations turned into a virtual nightmare.
However, even then, the Post-Reformation Church remained decentralized where all “economic” matters were concerned. The “body of Christ” owned no property (in the modern sense of ownership) at all. The Pope spoke with moral authority for all the faithful, but had neither dominium nor imperium (except in the Papal State, where most of the time, the local aristocracy elected one of their own to the Papal See). Under Church law, the pope, like other bishops, was a steward or manager of the property donated to the Church (the “body of Christ”) for the purpose of serving the interest of the faith, not the interests of any local grandee or ruler. Hence, the (always relative) tax-freedom of Church lands: to tax Church land — more generally, to use it for political purposes — would be a betrayal of the trust of the donors and hence violate their right to dispose of their property for lawful purposes. (In some Protestant countries, making a donation to the Catholic Church was made a criminal offence. This involved deliberately portraying the pope as “a foreign prince”, i.e. obfuscating the distinction between the Church and the Papal State in central Italy.)
Today, the best-known brand of anarcholibertarianism is probably some kind of “Rothbardian” anarchocapitalism, which (as do so many other modern Anglo-American theories) presupposes a (what I call) Lutheran individualism, upon which is superimposed a structure of property and contract relations but which does not pay much, if any, attention to questions of responsibility and justificatory arguments. (Rothbard himself was aware of this deficiency, but he never got beyond a few references to the medieval theory of natural law, which of course preceded the advent of “Lutheran” individualism (‘‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise’’). He remained virtually silent on the wide gap between the medieval concept of natural law and the modern, post-Reformation “theory of natural rights”.)
Almost unknown today is the original medieval libertarianism, which was anarchistic not only in the sense that it was concerned with and situated in a stateless environment but also in the sense that it was intended to be anti-state (i.e. opposed to the concentration, a fortiori centralization of political power in monopolies of government, enforcement, legislation, adjudication and much else). Consider this quotation:
“[It] says no, and must say no, to the absoluteness of political power and to the worship of the might of the mighty in general… and in doing so it has shattered the political principle’s claim to totality once and for all… it forms the only definitive protection against the power of the collective and at the same time implies the complete abolition of any idea of exclusiveness in humanity as a whole.”
What does the bracketed ‘it’ stand for? If you answer ‘libertarianism’, you might think the quotation is from a text by or referring to Murray Rothbard. In fact the author is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), and ‘it’ stands for “the Catholic faith”. Ratzinger always stressed the continuity of Catholic theology from its ancient and in particular medieval formulations to the present. That theology was explicitly libertarian — albeit not in the sense of modern (i.e. Lutheran or post-Lutheran) individualism. In medieval times, there was as yet no Lutheran conception of man as “an individual” (i.e. an individual body). Instead, there was the very Catholic conception of man as an individual person-among-persons — a concept that corresponds to the Christian Trinitarian idea of God: God is not one person, but nevertheless an individual personal being: neither the Father nor the Son nor the Spirit is thinkable as being independent of the other two. Likewise, no human person is thinkable as an independently existing human body, regardless of how indivisible (individual) and biologically independent it may be. In fact, each of us is an individual person, regardless of any progress in science that might lead to the possibility of making human bodies divisible.
We are persons among persons: unless «You» and «I» are thought of as «we», they do not stand for persons. The Catholic idea and valuation of the human person, in conjunction with the etymologically correct idea of conscience (con-scientia) as shared, common knowledge, gave us the idea of humanity (humaneness) as distinct from mere humanness. Conscience can be determined only through public argumentation. The Church was (and is) committed to vouchsafe the integrity of that argumentative process in the same way in which a judge is supposed to vouchsafe the integrity of the proceedings in his court.
The Lutheran Reformation introduced the concept of private conscience. However, ‘private conscience’ is an oxymoron of the same order as ‘private physics’, ‘private mathematics’ etc. It is properly conscience only in relation to God (whose supposedly privately given agreement with one’s interpretation of Scripture justifies the opinion that one acts conscientiously): “I answer only to God, not to anybody else.” It is not con-scientia in relation to other human beings. Relations among human beings are thought to be “secular”, i.e. bereft of any dimension that transcend time and place. In short, they are purely physical; they are power relations. Conjoined to another “modern” invention, the academic reconstruction of what was supposed to be the pure Roman law (freed of medieval and Christian elements), this idea of a purely secular “world of man” led to the view that law was a system of property and contract relations. “Property” defined the sphere in which one was legally free to act irresponsibly, and “contract” was the only way in which such spheres of property could be redefined legally, so that legal relations would never stray too far out of line with respect to power relations. Law was to be maintained through negotiation (the skilful use of whatever bargaining power one is able to muster).
It followed that a new modern theory of natural law had to be formulated and adapted to the Roman law (or what was thought of, and taught, as the Roman law). The new emphasis on property and contract led to propertarian and contractarian substitutes for the old idea of the natural law as man’s participation in the unfolding of divine (and therefore objective) reason. That participation required intensive, ongoing argumentation to keep it free from subjective, idiosyncratic distortions and prejudices. Thus, with the advent of “modernity”, the medieval, Catholic culture of responsibility was jettisoned.
The Rise of the State
The (modernized) Roman law obviously appealed to the early modern rulers (i.e. political monarchs, no longer mere kings or heads of their tribe) because it derived all authority from the emperor through a hierarchical ordering of societal positions, each of which was responsible only to higher authority, not to its peers let alone its own subjects. In other words, it was a system of distributed irresponsibility. The emperor (now the absolute monarch) was responsible to no one, and no authority was responsible except to a higher authority for anything it did within its own legally recognized domain or area of legal competence. Hence, the absolute power of the Roman pater familias over his household was tempered only by custom and tradition (“decorum”) and could be curtailed legally only by imperial legislation. Combined with Lutheran individualism, this resulted in a new type of libertarianism, focussed on the individual as the absolute master of his estate, responsible to no one for what he did there, but free to make treaties and contracts with the owners of other estates. Propertarianism and contractarianism, the dominant forms of modern libertarianism, are in fact legal systematizations of modern “Lutheran” individualism.
Distributed irresponsibility was a perfect match for the Lutheran insistence on private conscience, which also excludes responsibility to any outsider (except God). Thus, the medieval idea of freedom, which was derived from the conviction that, at least in principle, every act may be publicly questioned as to its justifiability was replaced by the modern idea of freedom, which centred on a “private” sphere within which one need not worry about justification (except as matter of private conscience). The rise of the concept of sovereignty was the logical deployment of this new concept of freedom in the political sphere. The Sovereign (at first the absolute monarch, later the independent state) is the absolute master of his territorial domain and is not responsible to anybody else for what he does there. Thus, the whole spectrum of modern political thought from anarcholibertarianism to absolutist statism formally fits the same idea of law. Moreover, it is logically possible to move from one end of the spectrum to other, simply by re-arranging property rights and obligations by way of contract or donation. Social contract theory made ample use of this possibility in attempts to justify the state.
Modern anarcholibertarianism has no logical objection to this, if it accepts the elimination of the “old” theory of natural law (with its emphasis on person-to-person responsibility) and accepts the modern theory (which declares ownership of material resources and freedom of contract to be the only “natural rights”). If it does that then it makes it possible to assign property and rights to artificial persons (corporations, which may be political or business corporations) in such a way that no natural person is liable for the corporation’s debts with his own “private” wealth. Neither the head of state nor the members of the government or the citizens of the state are personally liable for the public debt. Not one of the corporate directors, managers, shareholders or employees of a “public” corporation is personally liable for its debt. Libertarians may well protest that states are in fact created and vitiated by past injustices, but so are many if not most private-property holdings. Most libertarians (in fact, most people) accept doctrines such as title by prescription and possession vaut titre, which make it possible to consider past injustices no longer legally relevant. This is a breach of strict property-and-contract law, but a sensible attitude from the perspective of the old theory of natural law, which is not concerned with maintaining “a legal system” but with working out practical and just solutions to the problems of coexistence by appealing to the common (not the “private”) conscience of men.
Whereas modern anarchocapitalism remains an armchair exercise, medieval anarcholibertarianism was an actual experience. It would be disingenuous to try to understand it without an appreciation of the Church’s role as its moral authority and guardian. Although anarchic, medieval Catholicism was of course not anarchocapitalist. The conditions for capital formation did not yet exist in Latin Christendom. They had to be built up from scratch in an environment, where there was no infrastructure to speak of, apart from a few remaining, largely decrepit Roman villas and towns. The Church played a large role in starting and maintaining the process of capital formation, not the least through her embrace and protection of monastic orders: monasteries cleared land, improved agriculture, made saving a way of life, served as stores of wealth, and provided refuge in times of danger. By chartering monasteries, the Church placed them under the protection of local bishops without diminishing their self-government.
The stateless Middle Ages were the only example of a functioning anarchic order in the West. Its common religion of peace and conscience had a barely sufficient but still remarkable influence in curbing the most egregious manifestations of violent power- and wealth-seeking. In the absence of armed enforcement, only moral restraint can work, but it must have an institutional backbone. The medieval Church, for all its all-too-human shortcomings, made the “anarchic” (stateless) medieval order possible. The disappearance of the common faith in the Reformation period put an end to the Church’s diplomatic function. It led almost immediately to an orgy of violent conflicts that ran on until the establishment, in 1648, of the European system of sovereign states — a market-sharing agreement among consolidated territorial defence monopolies.
In the light of history, can you imagine what may happen in an anarchocapitalist “system” that allows the formation of large or mega-corporations in the armed-enforcement sectors of the economy? As per most modern anarchocapitalists, there is nothing wrong with such corporations, even if they are structured in such a way that is impossible to find who owns it (and is therefore personally liable for its debts and other obligations). And anyway, even if owners could be identified, who would enforce “the law of the market” against them? Who would break up their market-sharing agreements? Surely, it is no good answering that the corporations would act against their owners? As so often, Plato has the last word: Who would enforce the law against the law enforcers? Modern anarchocapitalist theory seems to presuppose that crime does not pay and that therefore the market for justice will always be more profitable than the market for injustice.
Conservative vs. Libertarian Values
As you know, Hoppe has been moving away from the strictly individualist positions that there are no “public goods” and that all references to culture, traditions, etc. are no more than devious statist ploys. The phenomenon of mass immigration, which is probably what most prompted him to do so, arguably poses a serious threat to the already emaciated conscience of the West. This may have driven home the point that having the opportunity to do what you want (with your own property) may be any individual’s ideal of personal freedom but does not do anything to advance the cause of freedom in the long run. Specifically, it provides no educational focus on fostering conscience of the common values and virtues that people must be able to appeal to if they are to settle peacefully, almost routinely and in a spirit of mutual respect for each other’s freedom, the many small and large conflicts that are the spice of daily life.
Many, perhaps most American libertarians like to present themselves as adhering to a “modern” (scientific, nearly value-free) philosophy. They pretend to have no need for appeals to a common conscience, and claim that they can do with appeals to every individual’s self-interest or profit-seeking. As an educational philosophy or program, that does not sound very reassuring. It goes back to Hobbes’s reduction of ethics to the psychology of passion and desire, and in particular to Hume’s dictum ‘‘Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions’’ to vindicate the claim that the rational (i.e. calculating and prudential, but otherwise unprincipled) self-interested pursuit of profit works out to the benefit of all. As Hume intended it, his dictum states a necessary universal truth. As such, it should apply to education as well any other human activity. However, one may well wonder: Is it what Hume would have taught his children, if he had had any? Would he have approved of today’s universities, which come frighteningly close to institutionalizing his idea as ‘‘Higher education is and ought to be the slave of politics’’ (taking politics to be the expression of the balance of the passions at the societal level)?’
The Common Conscience
Many people believe that the abuse of the monopoly of the means of defensive violence can be held at bay by the strength of faith in a single moral code, shared by rulers and subjects alike (“the real constitution, written on the hearts of men and preserved by education”).
If — as was the case in the Middle Ages — the faith or code covered a far wider geographical area than any local political or associational jurisdiction did then the common sense of “what is right” made it relatively easy to organize not only local opposition to local abuse but also external coalitions to exert pressure upon, in extremis to go to war against rogue rulers. Whether or not there is a common conscience to which one can appeal makes a huge difference. Confucianism and Taoism arguably performed a similar function in the history of China, but they did not challenge the centralization of political power in the hands of the emperor. In that respect, they were more like the Stoicism that prevailed for a while as the more or less official philosophy of the Roman Empire than like the Latin Church, which worked hard to prevent both the resurrection of an empire in the West and the adoption of anything smacking of “caesaropapism” along Byzantine lines. The admittedly only partially successful struggle for the independence of the Church was the decisive factor fashioning European culture and civilization.
For further reading, I would highly recommend Prof. van Dun’s recent article, Uprooted Liberalism and Its Discontents. Here is just a taste:
‘Forgetting the medieval institutions that made a stateless civilization possible, liberals became intellectual hostages to the belief that faith in force needs to be institutionalized in the State, if the world is to be held together. They fell prey to the illusion that they could preserve liberty by taming the State or even control and use it to liberate and empower individuals.’