Church, King and State – Decentralisation and Liberty
By Duncan Whitmore
It scarcely needs to be said that life as a libertarian theorist and political activist is an often isolated and lonely existence. Even though we often have the evidence to illustrate that we are correct, our ideas are ridiculed, if they are ever listened to in the first place. While “free-marketism” from the point of view of generating “economic efficiency” enjoys a seat at the table of the mainstream and may, depending upon the circumstances, disseminate views which are taken seriously by the highest echelons of government, radical libertarianism does not. We are a bare minority of extremist nutcases, deluded by the romantic fairytale vision of the industrial greatness of the nineteenth century, the reality of which, we are told, meant spoils for the rich and destitution for the masses. Our intellectual heroes are derided as dogmatic crackpots who would do away with all of the civilising achievements of our social democratic world order and consign us all instead to a vigilante society reminiscent of the “wild west”.
Having said of all of this, the endeavour to justify libertarian principles is only a small part of the battle. In fact, the biggest difficulty in such justification is not in crafting high quality arguments that will consign statism and socialism to the intellectual rubbish heap. Rather, it is the fact that the die is so heavily weighted in favour of statism, and that the willingness to accept any kind of confirmation bias, however minute, for the status quo is so eager, that even if one was armed with a fortress of insurmountable libertarian arguments the debate could still be lost. No doubt many libertarian has been in the position of having taken a horse to water only to find that he will not drink – and that, sadly, we must be prepared to wait for him to realise that he is dying of thirst.
Indeed, once discussions are devoid of these problems and reflect only on the fundamentals of libertarianism, much of what we have to say sounds eminently plausible and boils down to little more than basic common sense. For instance, just repeat the words of the non-aggression principle: “no human being has the right to inflict violence against the body or property belonging to another person”. Stated in such a stark, naked manner it is, in the experience of the present author, more difficult to find people who would dispute such a statement openly than it is to find those who, at least, nod their heads in agreement. Indeed, what kind of an individual is prepared to admit that a person should be able to murder another person? Or to steal? Or to rape? Of course, once you point out the raft of anti-statist ramifications of such a principle then things become a little more difficult. At least, however, from the perspective of one’s own intellectual assurance, it may be said that arguing about libertarianism with non-libertarians is not especially difficult. In fact, it is debates between libertarians on specific points of libertarian theory that are far harder and, indeed, more stimulating than debates with statists.
The other part of the battle is how to make a libertarian world a reality and there is, here, an important sense in which libertarian political activism is somewhat different from the activism of other political ideologies.
In the first place, choosing liberty is not akin to deciding between whether the government should, say, spend more money on schools or on building houses. It is not simply another option on the ballot paper that can be implemented within the existing state apparatus. Rather, our goal is to try and weaken, subvert and eventually tear down this apparatus and the existing political processes themselves. While, therefore, we may exploit such processes to further our ends when it is available – as Ron Paul used his presidential candidacy to spread the libertarian message – most of our activities are likely to be outside of them.
Second, our lynchpin of non-aggression constitutes a very basic, negative right. It simply tells people that they should be able to lead their lives with their own property as they see fit. It is the blank slate, the default position, which people must fill with their own positive values and choices.
Unfortunately, it is likely to be very difficult to rally people around such an abstract concept that is devoid of any positive substance. It is true, of course, that “freedom” has always been a revolutionary battle cry, but this has usually always meant “freedom” from a specifically tyrannous state or regime, and has rarely involved a transition to anything that resembles a world of liberty as understood by libertarians. For instance, communists no doubt believed that they were giving “freedom” to the workers but this, quite obviously, did not turn out to be so. And socialism more generally has always been attractive because of its promise of “freedom” from want and the supposed tyranny of the capitalists.
It is possible, of course, for British libertarians to preach about the specific burdens of the British state, and Americans the American state, etc. But in the absence of any particularly dire catastrophe akin to the death throes of the Soviet Union, it is still the case that the rallying cry for liberty basically boils down to the rather insipid and uninspiring mantra of “leave everyone else alone”. Such a stance could encompass so many different positive values, many of which are at odds with each other, that it is really difficult to unite everyone under the banner of “non-aggression”. And, as Jeff Deist points out, people are more likely to fight for themselves, their families, their friends and their communities (together with the positive values that fuse them together) than they are for mere abstractions1.
Here, then lies the problem for libertarians: preaching the substance of our theory is not necessarily the best way to make that theory a practical reality. We need, instead, to find ways in which to embrace and promote positive values around which people will rally but will, nevertheless, have the effect of bringing about a world in which aggression is reduced to a minimum. Exploring a possible solution to this conundrum that appears to have been effective in history is the task of this essay.
The Problem of Power
By far the most enabling vehicle for the commission of aggressive acts is the concentration of power. Such concentration is manifest today in the form of the state, a type of entity that managed to kill more than a hundred million people in the twentieth century while enslaving a great many more. The practical libertarian problem does not consist, in the main, of how to solve private crime or the question of whether a mother with three starving children should be allowed to break into a shop to steal food. It concerns how to reduce and/or eliminate the power of the state. Every other issue is, for the most part, insignificant noise.
One reason for the consolidation of aggressive power in large, state entities today is that intellectual endeavours to deal with the problem have focussed too much on the legitimacy of the source of power rather on its strength. So, for example, the power of kings is, today, said to be illegitimate because the king rules by birthright, and so this is “unfair” to everyone else. Religious power is illegitimate because, so the atheistic argument goes, God does not exist and, thus, bible wielding power is based on an illusion or superstition. One by one, competing sources of power have been rejected in favour of the democratic state, and that today, power is justified only if it emanates from the ballot box.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of liberty, this has been a grave error. Throughout history, the precise source of power has actually been a relatively insignificant factor in determining its effects. Rather, what has mattered is whether that power is checked by one or more competing or balancing sources of power, regardless of what that other source is. Eliminating those competing sources has allowed the modern, taxing, inflating, warmongering, democratic state to grow untrammelled.
In fact, although we can compare the effects of different types of regime – monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, and so on2 – it probably does not matter all that much, from the libertarian point of view, precisely which is adopted. What is more important is how much that power can initiate acts of aggression. For instance, a smaller, weaker dictatorship is likely to be much more “libertarian” than a large, centralised democracy. Indeed, even a lay person can understand this to a degree. It doesn’t matter if the boot stamping on your head is on the foot of a Nazi, a communist, a religious inquisition, or Theresa May – it hurts just the same.
Therefore, the practical solution to the problem of power is not to challenge its legitimacy as much as it is to decentralise and diffuse it into as many competing centres as possible. In other words, while such a diffusion will still mean that we are faced with a world populated by states, it is better for us to put up with them if they are, somehow, smaller and weaker (relative both to each other and to the individual) rather than bigger and stronger. This will bring about a world that is subject to far less aggression against the individual, not just in wars and international conflicts, but also in the internal policies of each state.
In order to demonstrate this, the remainder of this essay will explore how decentralisation of power has been manifest in two ways historically – state vs. church and king vs. parliament.
Power and Divided Loyalties
The power of the state, regardless of how its political leaders are selected, is derived from at least the tacit acceptance of those to whom it is subjected. This fact owes itself to the simple law of numbers. In contrast to the mutually beneficial institution of voluntary trade and exchange, the exercise of state power is, ultimately, a parasitic process that allows its holders to leech off everyone else. It is always the case, therefore, that the powerful are a minority compared to the powerless, and the powerless could easily overcome the powerful simply by refusing to sustain their allegiance.
In contrast to what is typically supposed, no regime has ever been kept in power by force alone. Hitler would have been unable to roll his tanks into Poland if no one agreed to carry out his orders; the British government would grind to a halt if everyone went on strike. The fear of force may, of course, be a factor in sustaining a regime, but force itself never has been. In fact, in most cases, it hasn’t even been necessary to sway the majority in order to bring about a dramatic shift – it has been enough for there to be a change of heart at the layer of power just below the very top. For instance, the American Revolution was brought about by the merchants, professionals and businessmen who would later become the founding fathers; the Soviet Union collapsed partly because even the state bureaucrats and officials knew that their standard of living was lagging behind that of ordinary citizens abroad.
Decentralisation of power between church and state and between king and parliament achieved their effects because they served to divide this loyalty (or, at least, this tacit acceptance) between different centres. No one source of power could, therefore, claim the total allegiance of the people and so the specific power of the state was kept in check. Conversely, the unification of this loyalty to a single source of power has caused the state to grow.
State and Church
The division between church and state separated spiritual authority (the power of God) from political authority (the power of rulers). Until the Reformation, Western Christianity achieved this through a number of ways.
First, by asserting that there was only one God (in the very first of the Ten Commandments, no less), spiritual authority transcended the purview of any one territorial ruler, and the ability for rulers to deify either themselves or their offices was restricted. The latter was, for example, a feature in Ancient Rome, where it was typical to apotheosise deceased emperors – the result being that the distinction between these deified mortals and the original Gods was not always clear. This had the effect of idolising and consolidating imperial power by spawning a divine lineage of emperors that exalted both the office and its holders. And, of course, the Emperor Caligula happily declared his godliness while he was still reigning, an act which exceeded the norm even for the extravagances of Ancient Rome.
Second, all men, including kings, were held to be equal before God; God will judge all men impartially by their deeds3 and not according to either their status4 or their wealth5. We are all of one blood, all equal descendants of Adam, who was created in God’s image6. Indeed, while it is fashionable today, in more earthy matters, to ridicule the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” as horribly barbaric, it actually imparted the dispensation of justice with a sense of equality and proportionality. For it meant that the king’s eye was no more important than anybody else’s and that, should his eye be taken, his retaliation was restricted to taking the eye of the perpetrator rather than inflicting death.
More importantly, however, the equal subjection of kings to the judgment of God meant that they were not infallible, and that they could not sin against their fellow mortals. It was therefore easier to bolster enthusiasm for the overthrow of kings who had elevated themselves to the level of tyrannical, unjust rulers – as several of the Anglo Saxon kings and Richard II of England were to find out. Moreover, the allegation that King Harold Godwinson had broken a sacred oath granted William the Conqueror a pretext to garner support for launching the Norman invasion in 1066. All of this was later reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas, who stated that the king was subject to the moral and doctrinal superiority of the church; that he was there to rule for the “common good” rather than for his personal gain; and that he had no prerogative to violate natural law.
Third, the Church’s leadership, authority, ministry and practice have proceeded according to the doctrine of apostolic succession. This is the notion that bishops, through the physical “laying on of hands” by other bishops at the moment of consecration, are direct spiritual descendants of the apostles (and, ultimately, of Christ himself) in an unbroken line – with the Pope, of course, the apostolic successor of Saint Peter. Bishops, in turn, ordain priests, and so the authority to administer the sacraments, the Church’s visible rites, is dependent upon this doctrine. Thus, religious preaching, practice and authority circumvented the happenstance of any particular ruler, which helped to insulate these elements from their usurpation by aspiring absolutists. The Investiture Controversy at the start of the High Middle Ages was an important conflict in this regard, in which the Church sought to reclaim the power of the investiture of Church officials from European monarchs, thus leading to a decline of the power of the latter.
It is, at least partly, for these reasons that something akin to the modern nation state (or modern day imperialism) struggled to emerge during the Middle Ages. The period is, of course, noted for its wars, invasions, and skirmishes that frequently redrew the political map. However, any serious attempts at wide scale expansion or consolidation failed to materialise for long. For instance, the Carolingian Empire fractured in under a century, and England eventually saw off the Vikings. The Holy Roman Empire never achieved any kind of political unity, remaining a highly decentralised collection of kingdoms, principalities, duchies, counties, prince-bishoprics and free cities. In fact, what is probably the primary series of conflicts of the era – the Crusades – were fought to repel Muslim domination of the Holy Land and Southern Europe.
This effectiveness of the decentralisation between church and state was severely weakened, or even ended, by the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII’s split from Rome was enabled by the appropriately named “Act of Supremacy” of 1534, which established the king as “Supreme Head of the Church of England”. This was consolidated by Elizabeth I following the brief reign of the catholic Queen Mary, with all those seeking either church or state office required to take the “Oath of Supremacy” acknowledging the monarch as the now re-titled “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” (apparently, the title “Supreme Head” was discarded as it elevated the monarch to the level of Christ). Sir Thomas More’s famous refusal to take the original version of the oath so as to maintain his loyalty to the Church in Rome led to his trial and execution for treason. Thus, it was now clear that religious and political allegiance were rolled into one.
In Germany, the Reformation provided the princes and political rulers the excuse they needed to break with the authority of the pope and turn religious power into a state affair. Martin Luther himself supported and consolidated their position more explicitly through his emphasis of biblical passages stating that all earthy authority was sanctioned by God7 and that, consequently, to challenge such authority was sacrilege. In particular, his response to the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-26 is notable for its synthesis of disobedience to the state with faithlessness in God, describing the rebels as “faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish”.8 Such a mixture of adjectives meant that treason and blasphemy were now effectively the same thing – or, rather, that treason was a blasphemous act. Thus the full weight of religious sanction was now lent to the divine right of kings – “L’état, c’est mois!” in the supposed words of Louis XIV. The influence of this was to prove monumental in the course of events in England, with the consolidation of power by Tudor and Stuart monarchs leading up to the execution of Charles I.
It is notable that the so-called “separation between church and state” is a major plank of the United States Constitution, taking its place in the “Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clauses of the First Amendment. In the current climate of left wing, liberal re-interpretation of old principles, this is taken to mean that religion should stay out of politics. However, the motivating factor for the principle was, in fact, the other way around: that politics, or the state, should stay out of religion. The text of the First Amendment itself is clear that the restriction is upon the state and not upon any particular religion. Thomas Jefferson’s famous justification of the principle, from which the phrase itself is drawn, states that:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.9
Having witnessed the causes of monarchical tyranny back in Europe, the founding fathers were keen to ensure that the state was not the fountain of religious authority – that it could not use its decrees on godliness and sanctity in order to consolidate its power. The “separation of church and state” therefore regulated the form of the state, divesting it of religious authority, rather than gutting its substance of religious principles. So it does not mean that politicians and state officials should be unmotivated by such principles in their work, nor that the citizenry should refuse to judge the acts of the state according to their religious beliefs and religiously motivated values. Indeed, the founding fathers seem to have believed that such values were essential to the flourishing of a free and prosperous society.10
The growth of the modern nation state has, of course, coincided with the decline of religious authority altogether and the rise of atheism – a stance which is now fashionable amongst the leftist, liberal, intellectual elite. In this regard, there is one, further decentralising aspect of religious belief that should also be of interest to libertarians. This concerns not institutional decentralisation, such as that between church and state, but, rather, the decentralisation of the search for truth between faith on the one hand and reason on the other – what we may call a kind of “intellectual” decentralisation.
Faith and reason are typically believed today to be diametrically opposed in both the popular and academic mind – that you can, at least primarily, embrace either one or the other, but not both. This view is exacerbated by advocates on either side of the debate. For example, Christian theologian Alister McGrath has said that “all the important things in life lie beyond reason…and that’s just the way things are”, whereas the popular, hyper-atheist Richard Dawkins suggests that “reason has liberated us from superstition and given us centuries of progress. We abandon it at our peril,” while going on to state categorically that he “see[s] the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion.”11 In other words, one can either place one’s trust in an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God to explain the mysteries of the universe; or one can follow the scientific process of reason and discovery in order to properly understand and interact with the world.
A large part of this apparent dichotomy tends to ignore the fact that faith and reason often occupy different areas of human enquiry. For instance, in addition to addressing their attention to extra-worldly concerns, the faithful are most often preoccupied with questions of morality and living a virtuous life rather than, say, the properties of magnesium. Science, on the other hand, is value free except for its prizing of truth over falsehood – it doesn’t tell us what should be done with scientific knowledge, nor which sacrifices are justifiable in order to attain it in the first place.
More importantly, however, it will be suggested here that it is, in fact, the unique symbiosis of faith and reason that has been responsible for the foundation and flourishing of Western civilisation, and that both faith without reason and reason without faith are likely to be (and have been) major drivers towards the increase of untrammelled state power.
Faith without reason is immature and, ultimately, anti-human. As Ludwig von Mises taught us, the very essence of humanity is reasoned (or purposeful) action – it is the quality that sets us apart from dead, unconscious matter and from other animals. We act so as to direct means to desired ends because we know that those means have the ability to bring about those ends. If I let go of an apple, it will fall to the ground the first, second, third and every time that I repeat the action; if I reach my hand out to grab a door handle my hand will actually succeed in grasping it and I will be able to open the door; if I study the laws of mechanics and engineering, and proceed to build a bridge then, provided I have implemented everything I have learnt correctly, the bridge will actually be built and I can walk across it. There is, therefore, a discoverable regularity of cause and effect in the world that is independent of the volition of deities or otherwise invisible beings, a regularity that humans exploit in their actions.
The rejection of reason and the ascription of all earthly phenomena to some kind of independent will – i.e. that thunder means God is angry, or that rainfall is a reward from heaven for good deeds – will result in a society that will never get off the ground. It will fail to study the world around it and will spend all of its time instead developing bizarre rituals or performing sacrifices in order to please the gods and ensure a favourable outcome of events. Not only will it never engage in any serious capital accumulation and thus will remain, for the most part, close to impoverishment, but it will fail to develop any kind of significant intellectual fervour or achievement. In short, all of the treasures of civilisation will be lost to it.
Moreover, if all natural phenomena and occurrences in the world that affect our lives are ascribed to the will of deities then it follows that the ultimate and only possible power in such a society is religious power – the power to interpret, understand, and motivate the will of the gods. Thus, those who can set themselves up as some kind of oracle possessing a unique ability to communicate with and/or interpret the will of the gods will, in turn, gain an immense degree of personal power and prestige. It is no accident, therefore, that faith and religion have always attracted to their ranks the greedy and the power hungry, and that they have, throughout much of history, been aligned with the state – limited not just to established churches, but, as we outlined earlier, to the extent that the king or emperor himself was elevated to the rank of a god. For if the ruler is either God himself or is the mouthpiece of God then who, on Earth, has the prerogative to even question, let alone depose, the ruler?
It is also no accident that such power should attract competition between different sources that claim to be the fountain of revealed truth. Consequently, the violation of the teachings of any one source has often been regarded as heresy punishable by death, as to permit a challenge to the existing structure of power and authority would cause it to crumble. For instance, the centuries-long resistance by the Roman Catholic Church to the heliocentric model of the solar system was probably more to do with maintaining power and authority than it was about truth. In the days when life was difficult and backbreaking, if people came to believe that God had not placed their world at the centre of his creation and was not, in fact, watching over them as a father tends to his children, then societal faith, purpose and order would disintegrate.
It is from the deadly calamities of religious competition, combined with the atheist assertion that God is merely imaginary, that critics of religion have ascribed to it the phrase “the root of all evil”. However, such competition is a consequence of the attraction of power, not of religion exclusively – it is demonstrated by all of those who cling to centralised and consolidated power, religious or non-religious. It provides a motivation for the leftist assault on free speech today as much as it did for inquisitorial torture.
Most of these shortcomings are dispensed with as soon as faith achieves some kind of symbiosis with reason. Reason allows man to investigate and understand the world around him and to use the gifts that the earth has provided in a manner of his own choosing. Reason allows us to develop science, philosophy and culture to heights previously unattainable. However, the importance of reason tempered by faith was manifest in the fact that humans understood that their endeavours were neither infallible nor unanswerable to some “higher” standard – that there were boundaries between right and wrong, good and evil that he could not cross. Man knew that, in the exercise of his reason, he was always seeking to understand and to utilise the gifts of God’s creation, and so his use of reason had to be in accordance with divine law.
This symbiosis of faith and reason could be seen in Western Christianity through the combination of faith and works – that, while salvation is determined by faith alone, faith is demonstrated, practised and exemplified by good works. While man was, therefore, tarnished by the original sin of Adam and Eve, he had to exercise his reason and his judgment in the course of his own life in order live that life well. More substantially, the symbiosis was cemented in Western theological and philosophical thought by influential figures such as St Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury and St Thomas Aquinas, all of whom grappled with the faith/reason relationship directly and the quality of man as a rational being, in addition to attempting to understand, elaborate and clarify tenets of Christian faith through the use of reason. Thus, reason and judgment were tempered by faith while faith was enhanced and clarified by reason. Faith, therefore, served as a vehicle for greater enlightenment rather than as a tool for demanding unquestioning obedience.
This contrasted with Lutheranism and Calvinism, both of which viewed man as inherently and fundamentally sinful, imbued with sinful impulses and whose deeds were permanently tainted by sin. This stance, combined with the emphasis on scripture as the only, final and sufficient source of authority on matters of faith and morality, relegated the use of man’s reason to a subordinate status. Thus, in tandem with the notion that all earthly authority is divinely sanctioned, it is not difficult to see why the power of rulers was consolidated and centralised after the Reformation – the people simply lost their capacity for the exercise of any independent will or judgment on matters concerning either their faith or how to live their lives.
A far more interesting contrast relevant to our times, however, is provided by unbridled reason as opposed to unbridled faith – the kind that has emerged with atheism and secular ideologies. When reason is shorn of faith, it is true that man will use his faculties to understand the world and will not, necessarily, succumb to conventional wisdom or accept pronouncements at face value (although we might note how astonishing it is that most of the self-declared “rational” and “free-thinking” intellectuals have swallowed a gargantuan amount of the acceptable and fashionable, but incorrect, dogmas in social science). The difference now, however, is that man’s own mind has elevated itself to the ultimate power in the universe. The ideologies that have served to replace religion – having expunged any notion of God and the will of God – have been shorn of any reference to what is good and what is evil other than the contents of the ideologue’s own mind. Hence, the magnitude of all creation simply becomes a means, or a plaything, for the ideologue to realise his grand vision. This includes every other human being who, devoid of his sanctified state as a child made in God’s image, can, as we have seen, be relegated to the status of a public slave.
In other words, the rational ideologue elevates himself to the role of God, and it is him who now throws the thunderbolts down to Earth. Hence, the costs of pursuing these ideologies, heaped onto everyone else, are either casually disregarded – such as crusades for democracy and “regime change” – or viewed as proud achievements when they exterminate political dissenters (the Great Purges), the racially inferior (the Holocaust), or any trace of a class and culture which represented an outdated and contrarian society (the Cultural Revolution).
Indeed, the arrival of secular ideologies has truly given birth to the worst type of zealot – the person who commits evil while he thinks he is pursuing good. Those who perform evil deeds with the full knowledge that they are evil, however much they may revel in what they have done, might at least possess some inkling of guilt or conscience. For the secular fanatic, however, the bodies piled high and the rivers of blood neither move nor shake him – they are unquestionably necessary ends towards a bright and happy future. Moreover, the casual disregard for the costs and consequences of a particular campaign can be more pernicious than the active pursuit of death and destruction. For example, the secular crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” during and after World War I fostered the deeply unstable situation in Central Europe which led to the rise of further secular ideologies such as fascism and Nazism resulting, of course, in the horror of World War II. And, as we indicated at the opening of this essay, the view that democracy is the only legitimate source of power has given rise to an unprecedented growth in the size, scope and power of the modern state.
The purpose of this essay is not to justify any particular source of power as an inherently good thing. Rather, we are trying to illustrate the general effects of balances of power and so we are, to this extent, indifferent as to the precise sources of balanced powers or whether those sources have, from time to time, gotten away with doing bad things.
Nevertheless, in light of what we have just noted, it seems appropriate to conclude this section with some remarks concerning how best to respond to atheists who insist that faith in God and religion are wholly unjustifiable, and that the course of human history would have been better off without them. As may already be clear from this essay, it is, in fact, likely that Western civilisation would not even have been possible without Christianity. While we have shown this to be true from the point of view of restricting state power, it may well be true in a more positive sense as well. For it is not possible, as some atheists and republicans are wont to do, to ascribe all of man’s greatest achievements to secularism while heaping the blame for all of his most horrific evils onto religious zeal (or to skirmishes between kings or emperors).
In the first place, it cannot be denied that, until recently, the very vast majority of the celebrated Western scientists, philosophers, thinkers, artists, poets, writers, composers and so on were, in some way, Christians, and that a lot of what they produced was, if not at the direct service of religion, religiously motivated. J S Bach, the foundation of Western classical music, spent his entire life in service to the Church; one cannot appreciate either Hamlet or King Lear without understanding their religious tensions and undertones; disciplines such as philosophy and science were, for a long time, heavily intertwined with theology, and so it is not always possible to hermetically seal “secular” morals, principles and discoveries from the religious. In this latter regard, St Thomas Aquinas (whom we have already mentioned) and scholasticism may be familiar examples for libertarians – but to take an example even closer to home, how much was Adam Smith’s identification of the “invisible hand” and the social benefits of the marketplace motivated by a preoccupation with Christian altruism?
Indeed, it is especially mistaken to underestimate the religious fervour of Enlightenment thinkers, whom we associate with the triumph of reason and the decline of faith. This association we have identified in retrospect yet, at the time, these people were emerging from a Christian millennium, and so it is ridiculous to assume that the influence of the latter was not still prevalent. The strength of religious conviction on some of the most influential movers of the period, such as René Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Sir Isaac Newton, is still a matter of unresolved debate.
Second, while knowledge itself may be value free, the pursuit of knowledge is not. In general, abstract terms, we could ask why is truth valuable and why is uncovering it a matter of importance? More specifically, the motivations for pursuing particular lines of enquiry, together with the methods chosen to do so, depend upon our values and choices. In other words, while the laws of science may be true for all of eternity, those which we choose to uncover and how we do so is value laden. We study the effects of monetary inflation because we use money and we wish to know what increasing its supply will do to us.
We investigate the healing properties of certain medicines because we do not wish to be afflicted by disease. The effects of money and medicine will be true for all of time, but we bring them into the circle of our realised knowledge because we have consciously appreciated reasons for doing so. Similarly, but under motivations of evil, the Nazis experimented on Jews by freezing them alive and forcing them to swallow seawater, as they wished to understand physiological reactions in these conditions for military purposes. Investigating properties of money and medicine is clearly a civilising process, whereas experimenting on live human beings is barbaric. But how do we know whether to choose one path or the other? Moreover, even if we were to attempt to pursue knowledge for its own sake, we would still run into the problem of scarce time and resources, and so we would need, at some point, to resort to a method of determining which lines of enquiry to abandon in favour of others. And how do we know what we should do with the knowledge we gain once we have it? If we become experts on nuclear fission should we choose to build nuclear power plants or atomic weapons?
Finally, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the ideologies that succeeded in producing the greatest degree of untold misery, death and destruction in human history – namely, fascism and communism – were explicitly atheist or anti-theist. As Alister McGrath puts it:
The 20th century gave rise to one of the greatest and most distressing paradoxes of human history: that the greatest intolerance and violence of that century were practiced by those who believed that religion caused intolerance and violence.12
Indeed, the basic problem faced by those who advocate for untrammelled reason and rationality is that the age of its flourishing ended up producing what is surely the most terrible era that humanity has ever faced. Rather than religion being the “root of all evil” it at least seems plausible that religious fervour, as a balance to other sources of power, had some hand in preventing the twentieth century’s descent into war, socialism and mass democide from occurring earlier.
Therefore, the conundrum for atheists who believe that religion is, and always has been, a drag on human progress is that, if religious (specifically, Christian) values were to be expunged from the whole of history, what would be the replacement set of values which would have prevented our descent into barbarism and motivated instead the development of Western civilisation? Moreover, what would have been the origin of these values, and how would they have come about at a point in human history that was neither philosophically nor scientifically mature?
This does not mean to say that secular value systems are categorically incapable of creating a civilisation. But Western civilisation built upon Christianity has been not only successful but, moreover, entirely unique in the extent and finesse of its achievements. This is the example from history that we have – it is, to use the favoured buzzword of today, the “evidence”. Thus, there is, at least, a heavy burden of proof on the shoulders of those who deride the Christian foundations of Western civilisation to demonstrate how an alternative value system would have produced something similar.
King and Parliament
Moving now onto the decentralisation of power between king and parliament, this concerns more broadly the division between the power of the monarch and the power of the demos, i.e. popular power. For much of British history the latter has usually been constituted by the landowning class or the aristocracy, but today means the power of faith in the ballot box.
English (and later British) political history from the Norman Conquest until the twentieth century demonstrates much “toing and froing” between the power of the king and the power of Parliament. As we indicated earlier, no one individual can rule alone; the king relies upon the support and consent of, at least, his most powerful subjects if his rule is to be accepted and sustained. In particular, under feudalism, the land holdings of the nobility carried with them a tremendous degree of economic power that provided a source of funding and military resources for the king, lending them the ability to curb the arbitrary power of monarchical rule. Magna Carta is probably the most famous document that attempted to regulate this relationship. Parliament itself was derived from the “Great Councils”, which had consisted of the nobility and senior clergy called by the king for consultation and consent.
For much of the Middle Ages, kings and potential kings were often so busy fighting each other that they had little time left over to prey on their subjects. The Plantagenets consumed the entirety of their last 150 years fighting first the French and then each other until the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III at the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. This event marked the long rise of Tudor and Stuart monarchical despotism, culminating, of course, in the execution of Charles I, who had asserted an all but undiluted form of the “divine right of kings”. Unfortunately, the authoritarian “Protectorates” of the Cromwells proved to be no better, lasting a mere eleven years until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 instituted the structure of “constitutional monarchy” which, at least in a formal sense, we have had ever since.
An important segment of this constitutional monarchy is the notion of the “King [or Queen]-in-Parliament” – that an Act of Parliament, which forms the law of the land, is the product of the fusion, or the coming together, of the powers of the monarch and Parliament. Although the “King-in-Parliament” is typically contrasted with the constitutional model of “separation of powers” (which seeks to delegate specific functions to different bodies), it actually achieved just that – that the king acts in his legislative capacity with the “advice and consent” of Parliament.
Initially, post-1688 monarchs played an active role in the political process. They frequently vetoed Acts of Parliament, as Queen Anne did when she blocked the Scottish Militia Bill; hired and fired their ministers, as when William Pitt the Elder was appointed by George III, who exploited Pitt’s ministry to boost his own political aims and popularity; they successfully influenced government policy, as evidenced by George III’s continual opposition to catholic emancipation; and, of course, they were active in foreign policy, as, again, George III was in regard to relations with America and France.
It is likely that the decentralisation of political power between monarch and Parliament under this constitutional arrangement served to limit the size and scope of the British state as a whole, playing an important role in the subsequent prosperity of Britain that was sustained until the eve of World War I. Although it is difficult to determine precise cause and effect, it is surely no coincidence that this balance of power correlated with the sweeping away of mercantilism in favour of free trade, and the fostering of the legal environment of property rights that enabled the Industrial Revolution – propelling Britain to the heights of the world’s most powerful nation. This is in contrast with countries such as France, which retained monarchical absolutism throughout the eighteenth century, and subsequently failed to settle on any particular regime following the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Consequently, industrialisation in France was sluggish, lagging considerably behind Britain, Germany and the US.13
Over the course of the next two hundred years, however, the political power of the monarch diminished gradually into the situation we have today where our present queen is little more than a figurehead. Parliament – and especially the executive which, although governing formally in the queen’s name, is now drawn from the elected legislature – has become, in turn, increasingly powerful. Republican-inspired events abroad such as the American and French Revolutions were, no doubt, major factors in bringing about this change, but the situation was probably not helped by personal calamities such as the “madness” of George III and the self-imposed, secluded misery of the widowed Queen Victoria, the longest reigning monarchs of the period. In his seminal work The English Constitution, political theorist Walter Bagehot had, by 1865, downgraded the monarch’s political role to “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn” – hardly an effective check on political zealots seeking aggrandisement of state power, one might say.
The situation now is that, constitutionally, the queen remains immensely powerful as the nominal head of the executive, but she has been reduced to a monarch who “reigns but does not rule”. All of her power is exercised by elected officials drawn from the legislature rather than by people of her own choosing. Thus, all de facto political power is vested in people who are cut from the same cloth, deriving that power entirely from the ballot box. It is true that the executive must govern with the approval of the legislature and, theoretically, can be removed by a vote of no confidence. But the executive is drawn from the party that has won the most seats in a general election, and party loyalty has resulted in control of the legislature and the legislative process remaining, in practice, firmly in the hands of the executive.
We have, therefore, ended up with heavily centralised and consolidated political power in the elected government, which draws all of its power from electoral victory – a situation exacerbated by the fact that very little political power is devolved to more local bodies such as county councils. This de facto control of the executive over the entire legislative process has led to the enormous growth of the British state over the past two generations, and, moreover, has been identified as one of the major causes of high profile and expensive government blunders in the 1980s and 1990s.14
The extent of the barely significant role of the monarch today can be observed by comparing the political involvements of the most recent three monarchs with those of their earlier predecessors that we outlined above.
In 1936 – the “year of three kings” – we are presented with the curious case of Edward VIII. The official narrative of this man, in both historical and artistic depictions, is relatively uniform – that he was a pleasure seeking dilettante with treacherous Nazi sympathies who shirked his royal duties before having to abdicate his role as monarch for the sake of his love for a brash, tasteless, divorced American, Wallis Simpson, who was a quite “unacceptable” candidate for queen consort.
While much or even all of this may be true, the completeness of this explanation must, to anyone with an understanding of the machinations of the state, seem suspect at best. In the first place, it is not as if English kings had failed to marry either commoners or foreigners before. For instance, of Henry VIII’s six wives, four were commoners, while Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were both from the continent. Moreover, cynics would say that the entire royal family itself has been basically German since the House of Hanover. In fact, Edward’s own mother, although born and raised in Britain, was the daughter of the Duke of Teck in the kingdom of Württemberg. Further, morganatic marriages – the type that would have allowed Edward to marry Mrs Simpson without her being crowned queen – had long established precedents in European royal families. It is, therefore, difficult to believe that, had the will been there, at least some kind of solution that would have kept Edward on the throne could not have been found .
It is far more likely that Edward was deliberately expunged by the British state because of his tendency to wade explicitly into political matters and to express officially unacceptable views. This, combined with his immense popularity, made him a danger to the democratic wing of the British state which had made a creeping consolidation of all political power for itself over the preceding two centuries.
One prominent incident occurred during a visit to the depressed industrial areas of South Wales. 1936 was, of course, the height of the Great Depression, and the area was blighted by the decline of mining and industry that resulted in an unemployment rate as high as 75%. An apparently warm and charming individual with a genuine concern for his people that contrasted with the remoteness and reservation of his late father, Edward was clearly moved by the plight of the people whom he met. After the conclusion of the visit he decided to make the bold declaration that “something must be done”.
Whether or not “something” could, would or even should be done, the establishment was up in arms at the apparent usurpation by the king of political matters. An editorial in The Times declared that
The King’s Ministers are His Majesty’s advisers and to contrast his personal and representative concern for the well-being of a section of the people with the administrative slips of his advisers is a constitutionally dangerous proceeding and would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.15
Many of the major political leaders of the day, such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain, were disturbed by the king’s ability to highlight political problems through the prism of his popularity, hoping instead that he would vanish into Buckingham Palace and “work at his boxes”. It did not help, of course, that this specific incident involved the plight of labour, which, in an international milieu of spreading socialism, was itself a threat to the British establishment.
In short, it was clear to everyone that the king was supposed to stay out of politics. And yet, two hundred years previously, this kind of involvement was precisely the role of the king – or at least it would be exercised though ministers of his own choosing. Moreover, regardless of whether he was politically careless or flippant with his remark that “something must be done”, it is possible that Edward was simply making a humanitarian gesture towards his people. One wonders what he was supposed to have done otherwise – force an awkward smile as he shook their hardened hands? Has it not traditionally been the role of the king to care for his subjects?
Thus, it is likely that the debacle with Wallis Simpson – together with the huge extent that the state went to malign her character – was more of an excuse to dispose of Edward rather than a reason, replacing him instead with his more pliable and traditionally minded brother, Prince Albert, upon whose frail temperament the burdens of kingship eventually proved heavy enough to push him into an early grave.
Another interesting feature of Edward’s short reign that demonstrates the (far more serious) consequences of the decline of the monarch’s power relative to that of Parliament concerns foreign policy. Edward was viewed as problematic in this regard also, and there were genuine concerns that his German sympathies led him to operate a de facto back channel in foreign relations – or, at least, that he practised an overly loose tongue when discussing sensitive state matters with foreign dignitaries.16 His apparent enthusiasm for fascism – embodied by the infamous photograph of his meeting with Adolf Hitler following his abdication – may well be deplorable in an absolute sense, but what is overlooked is the fact that he viewed a strong Germany as an important bulwark against Soviet communism.17 It therefore seems likely that, had he remained on the throne, he would have pushed for peace with Germany in order to stave off what he regarded as the greater threat.
Justifications for World War II has been exhausted by reference to the terrible nature of the Nazi regime, but even without this there is a tendency today to view world affairs in black and white – that what is “evil” must be vanquished without question and what is “good” must be sustained, an attitude exacerbated by the notion of “collective security” and its all-or-nothing categorisation of “aggressors”. However, it is often the case that the best option available is to accept a lesser evil in order to prevent a worse one from materialising. In this regard, the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi in comparison to that which followed them may be cited as good examples. Indeed, the precise outcome of World War II was – just as Edward feared – that the Soviets swept across Eastern Europe and subjected the same territories that Germany had occupied to communist slavery instead of Nazi slavery. The horror of Soviet communism is frequently underplayed in the west in order to preserve the myth that World War II was a success, a necessary crusade to crush a terrible evil. And yet, surely for Britain, it was a strategic failure? Not only did we lose millions of lives and our cities were subjected to mass bombing, but the financial cost of the war practically bankrupted the country, hastened the end of the British Empire and ended Britain’s status as the world’s foremost power – all for the sake of allowing one dictator to take over from another. It is no small wonder that Churchill succumbed to the “black dog” of depression in his final years.
Imagine, however, if Edward had remained king and had been successful in keeping Britain out of war with Germany. Most likely, the latter would, at some point, have come to blows with Russia in Eastern Europe, and the two could have been left to fight it out amongst themselves while we sat on the sidelines. None of our young men would have been lost; our cities and industry would not have been destroyed; Europe would not have been divided by American domination in the West and Soviet control in the East; there would not have been forty years of seething rivalry between East and West under the Cold War (and, thus, probably no Korean or Vietnam Wars); no Berlin Wall; probably no atomic bomb; and, at least, a delayed ascendancy of the US as the world’s most formidable power. It is even conceivable that the Holocaust would not have happened; although the invasion of Eastern Europe brought millions of Jews under German control, it was only after being boxed in by war on both sides that extermination was sought ahead of other options such as resettlement.
Moreover, would not the likelihood of Edward’s success, if he pushed for staying out of war, have been greater had the king retained his traditional share of the balance of political power that had been enjoyed two centuries earlier? Surely the kind of clout that George III wielded would have been taken far more seriously, particularly if he had personally appointed his ministers? In fact, the chances of success may have been very high – or, at least, an influential voice such as the king’s may have tipped the balance in favour of staying out. Ironically, the point at which Britain ended up entering the war (the invasion of Poland) was, both morally and militarily, the weakest point to have done so and, thus, when the justification for staying out was strongest. The fact that Hitler had already been allowed to get away with so much in violation of the post-World War I settlement meant, simultaneously, that there were few principles left for Britain to defend (other than her pride) and that Germany’s military position was far more consolidated vis-à-vis the under-prepared and underfunded Britons than it had been.18
Thus, while any proposition of alternative history is highly speculative, it is not too outlandish to suggest that the decline of the power of the king – the power that, in balance with the power of Parliament, had led to two centuries of British prosperity – at least made it easier for one of the most terrible events in our history to occur and for the decline of our nation to accelerate.
Edward’s demise was followed by an emphasis on royal “duty”, something which his successors, George VI and Elizabeth II, have supposedly given us in spades. Yet it is difficult to understand, politically, what effect this “duty” is supposed to have had, as it seems to be constituted by little more than total public silence on political matters and signing on the dotted line.
Certainly, this “duty” has had very little to do with curbing the power of the state. George VI may have grimaced in his first photograph with Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (pictured left), but he was powerless to prevent the latter from instituting the sweeping nationalisations of industry, the birth of the welfare state and the cementation of the so-called “Keynesian consensus” that dominated the economic policy of all parties for the next thirty years. Our present queen enjoys a once weekly audience with the prime minister, and most of them have spoken highly of her frankness, knowledge and sharp political insight. As, however, these conversations have never been documented, we can only judge by the results, and these, from a libertarian perspective, are surely wanting. The first half of Elizabeth’s reign was a long slide into socialised industry, high taxation, inflation, industrial strife, and sluggish growth that made Britain the “sick man of Europe” – so sick that we worked only three days a week in 1974-5 and needed a bailout from the IMF in 1976. The second half has seen us transformed into a state corporation under the aegis of increasing authoritarian governance and a vassal state of the European Union. The latter, in particular, is quite notable. Some of the queen’s predecessors of prior centuries fought wars in order to keep British sovereignty out of the hands of a foreign power, and one can scarcely imagine even her grandfather being short of outraged at the prospect.
In some ways, the queen may have been a willing accomplice to much of what we have experienced. Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have grumbled in private that the queen “would vote for SDP”. Regardless of what she thinks, however, the queen has, somewhat ironically, retained her popularity precisely because she has “kept schtum” and hasn’t dirtied her hands with the grubbiness of politics – which just serves to demonstrate the complete takeover of the political process by the power of democracy. One senses that Elizabeth was slow to learn of the evolution of her people’s temperament that her political silence permitted. She misjudged the public mood badly following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and yet the hysteria surrounding that event – the vacuous idolisation of the image of a celebrity, the over-sentimentality, the disconnection from reality – were natural consequences of the cultural transformation that state growth will eventually beget.
In contrast, Elizabeth’s heir apparent, Prince Charles, is much more outspoken on concrete political matters (or at least on certain issues that matter to him), and so it will be interesting to see how the tide turns once he ascends the throne. Is there a chance for the political role of the monarch to make a return? Or is it more likely that the whole institution will be done away with?
The decentralisation of power between king and parliament in Britain has had parallels in countries without a monarch, notably the United States. Although Americans today tend to wax lyrical about the “greatness” of their democracy, it is often forgotten that the US was not founded as such. Indeed, the founding fathers seem to have been keenly aware of the fact that balance of power is more important than its source. Not only do the institutions of state follow a “separation of powers” model (the presidential executive, the legislative congress and the judiciary), but originally only one half of one third of these institutions – the House of Representatives – was elected directly by the people (and grants representation that is proportionate to the population in each electoral district). In the Senate, however, each state, regardless of size, was represented by two senators who were appointees of the state legislatures so smaller states could not be taken advantage of by any populist excesses in larger states. The President was (and still is) elected by an “electoral college” of electors who were, again, unevenly distributed between the states and appointed by the state legislatures, and the voting protocols were, again, a matter for the states.
It is only relatively recently that this set up has changed in favour of greater democratic participation. Since 1864, the electoral college has been chosen by popular vote on the presidential election day, and, following passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 (coincidentally – or not – the same year as the birth of the Federal Reserve and the institution of the federal income tax) senators are elected by popular vote. The subsequent expansion and centralisation of power in the Federal Government is surely no coincidence.
To reiterate, the purpose of this essay has concerned not the legitimacy of any specific source of power. We are neither advocating for nor ruling out a belief in God, adherence to a religion, or monarchism as inherently good things. Rather, what we have tried to illustrate is that sources of power that lead to aggression have, historically, been minimised when they have been balanced with one or more other sources – when power itself has been diffused into competing centres for loyalty. Whereas theoretical libertarianism concerns the justification of power, practical libertarianism (or libertarian activism) has to concentrate its intellectual efforts on understanding how power can be reduced to a minimum. The transition we are trying to create is not, say, from a world where there are states to one where there are no states whatsoever. It is from a world populated by enormous states with powerful militaries causing havoc and destruction across the entire globe to a world where states are so puny the worst they can do is cause minor skirmishes in some remote corner which the rest of us can more or less ignore.
Thus, libertarians should take a keen interest in the kinds of historical decentralisation outlined here and how something similar may be implemented in the world today. Some suggestions in this regard will be made in a later essay.
1Jeff Deist, For a New Libertarian, Speech to the 2017 Mises University, https://mises.org/wire/new-libertarian
2See, for instance, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God that Failed, Transaction Publishers (2007)
3Romans 2:6, 2:11, Galatians 2:6
5I Peter 1:17-19.
8Martin Luther, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, (1525)
9Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptists, US Library of Congress (1802)
10For further quotations of the founding fathers on this matter, see http://truenews.org/Religious_Freedom/separation_of_church_and_state.html
12Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, Doubleday (2004)
13This should not be taken as a ringing endorsement of post-1688 “constitutional monarchy” as a stable or ideal situation which did not, in some way, sow the seeds of its own destruction. Indeed, one could see it as a step forward towards the kind of descent that is described in the following section. It is probably best for libertarians to view this period in a way similar to how they should regard the gold standard: that while, viewed in isolation, the gold standard furnished a period of relative peace and prosperity, it was, in the long run, a stepping stone towards the elimination of the freedom of money.
14Anthony King & Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of our Governments, Oneworld (2016), p. 361
15The Times, November 24th, 1936
18If Germany was going to be stopped then it really needed to be so before the Anschluss with Austria, for this was the first domino. Once Austria fell, Czechoslovakia was encircled; as soon as Czechoslovakia was taken out, so was Poland, etc.