Monday, September 20, 2010

Libertarianism and Medieval Monarchy

What could a modern libertarian possibly have in common with a monarchist who looks longingly back on Christendom of the Middle Ages? Probably a lot more than one might think if they would open their minds only slightly. For one thing, it must be remembered that libertarians are not, by their very nature, a unified bloc. People from the most opposite extremes of social liberals and social conservatives identify themselves as libertarians. Probably the most dominant philosophical figure, in recent years at least, for libertarians is Ayn Rand who was a staunch atheist who viewed religious belief as a psychological weakness. Yet, many libertarians and even many of those who are admirers of Ayn Rand are religious people. That is because that religion and social values are not the dominant features of libertarian thought as much as the inviolability of private property rights and individual liberty. Ayn Rand herself said repeatedly that, as much as she disapproved of religion, she would never support any ban on religion or effort to eradicate it by force. She was also, unlike many libertarians today, not a relativist of any sort and certainly believed in her own moral absolutes and looked with contempt on those who advocated tolerance of everything and every idea for fear of labeling anyone or anything good or evil.

It must also be kept in mind that the religious basis of Medieval Christendom was quite different, at the very least outwardly, from the religious mainstream of today. For example, HH Pope John Paul I said, in one of his few public addresses, that private property was not an absolute right. However, in the Middle Ages, the Church and most everyone else viewed private property and vested rights as absolutely inviolable. Most religions today (certainly most religious leaders in the west) are against the death penalty whereas in the Middle Ages this was viewed by all as perfectly acceptable and necessary. Democracy is today advocated by most religious leaders and yet, again, in the Middle Ages such an idea would have been viewed as absurd. Once again, however, there are still some religious people, even if a minority, who still hold the same beliefs and values that their ancestors of the Middle Ages did regarding religion, politics, social norms and so on. Many if not most churches today support the idea of government playing a role in regulating morality and providing for the public welfare, both of which were the responsibilities of the Church rather than the state in the Middle Ages.

This, however, explains why most religious libertarians are Protestant Christians rather than Catholic or Orthodox Christians. Yet, it can at least be argued that the libertarian ideal (which has never existed) in many ways came closest to existence in the pre-Protestant Christendom of the Middle Ages. In many ways (certainly from the perspective of this monarchist) the Middle Ages were right in areas where libertarians and objectivists are wrong; such as in recognizing that truth and moral absolutes exist and that humanity is more than a machine, is fallible and not always rational and has an inherent need for spiritual as well as physical fulfillment. However, consider the extent to which government as we know it today did not exist in Medieval Christendom. This is where the similarities between the facts of history and the libertarian ideal become most noticeable and yet are most often ignored because the post-revolutionary world has viewed the Medieval period as one of blanket ignorance, intolerance and royalist absolutism. There is some truth in that, but, like rat poison, just enough misinformation to give the wrong impression.

Were the Middle Ages intolerant? Yes, they were intolerant of that which they viewed as wrong. Were they ignorant? For many people yes, the majority were uneducated though probably still more educated than is generally thought but there was also a minority of very highly educated people and many of the scientific theories and discoveries that are attributed to later thinkers actually originated in the Middle Ages. St Thomas Aquinas was certainly no intellectual featherweight! But, finally, what about royal absolutism? Monarchs in Medieval times were “absolute” but they were far from arbitrary. They did not rule through brute force but through what were essential free contracts between parties that were to their mutual benefit. This was the basis of the feudal relationship; security and the use of land provided in exchange for certain goods or services.

Not only was there no “government” as we would recognize it today, but even the monarchies were decentralized into subsidiary monarchies. This sort of relationship reached upward to the King, the Holy Roman Emperor and (for some) the Pope while also reaching downward to the princes, dukes, barons and free commoners. Yet, no one, not even bound serfs, could be forced to provide any good or service. It was, in many ways, the sort of privatized society that libertarians uphold as the ideal. Taxes were low, in some cases even nonexistent and only collected temporarily in times of necessity. At each level these “monarchies” were autonomous, entering freely into contracts with each other for support, profit and protection. Whether a prince or a landowning commoner, what you possessed was truly your own and no one could arbitrarily take it from you or tell you what to do with it; hence the old saying that, “an Englishman’s home is his castle”.

How could society exist like this without government regulations or the government welfare state you may ask? For much the same reason that libertarians say their system would work today if any would try it. Services were provided privately. A king might provide a few national “royal roads” to facilitate travel but for the most part the landowners built roads themselves, maintained them and could charge for their use (and if you think the roads we drive on today are “free” because they are public just look at how high the taxes at the pump are next time you fill up). Everything was not completely libertarian of course (nor am I convinced that such would be a good thing) but there was no government regulation of economics. Such regulations as existed were enacted by the individual trade guilds. As for social welfare, the government left that to the Church which provided the most widespread and successful system of *private* social welfare in history, providing education, hospitals, care for the poor, homes for orphans and support for widows. All of this was done with relatively few taxes, even very little currency circulation, was based more often than not on trading goods or services and relied, not on arbitrary force, but legal contracts freely entered into.

Even in the most basic functions of government the monarchies of the Middle Ages were nowhere near as expansive as even the most limited models of today. The national monarch did provide for the national defense but a considerable portion and indeed often the bulk of his armies were made up of privately raised military forces led by the aristocracy who recognized that their own self-interest depended on coming together to support each other and their king in times of crisis. The monarch may have had the strongest military force (though not always as there were times when a monarch could have less wealth than his nobles) but he did not have the only military force which no doubt contributed to the fact that while he ruled absolutely he could not rule arbitrarily.

The monarch provided a legal system, certainly inasmuch as he was the highest secular authority in the land, but each group also had their own legal system. The Church governed itself and had courts of canon law for its members and jurisdiction and even the common peasants had their own courts by which they settled certain disputes among themselves. A village court would be presided over by a representative of the local noble lord but he had no more power than any of the other judges have (there were usually 12) to rule on a matter. These local courts, called halimotes, regulated themselves, devising, enacting and enforcing their own rules without any interference from the far-away King in Paris or London. This was a system, despite the seemingly powerful symbol of the “absolute monarch” in which power was decentralized, decisions made on the local level, in which each group looked after itself independently and where virtually all services were privately run and based on self-interest cooperation rather than arbitrary force. In many ways, quite libertarian and enough to make one wonder why objectivists would shudder so at the thought of the Middle Ages.

This was all underpinned by religion, these were the “Ages of Faith” after all, which many libertarians and certainly objectivists would recoil at, but these were also times in which people were guided by self-interest, mutually beneficial agreements. If the lack of freedom of religion seems intolerable, keep in mind this was when receiving communion was only absolutely required once a year and with all of the holy days people at the time actually received more “vacation” time than most people do even today. There was no “thought police” and because private property rights were so sacrosanct, as long as one did not try to influence others a person could think, believe or behave pretty much as they wished in the privacy of their own home or on their own lands. That, of course, is not to say that society was as liberal then as it is now -certainly not. Nor, at that time, was religion considered the sort of subjective, personal, private thing that most in the west regard it as today. However, as most should know by now, people did not live in fear of Church authorities or constantly quake with terror whenever the Inquisition was called. Even the Spanish Inquisition executed fewer people than the state of Texas in its time.

One of the problems with any political formula or ideology is that human beings do not easily fit into neat little categories, respond in expected ways or follow set patterns uniformly. The Medieval Ages were certainly not what your average libertarian or objectivist would dream of. Libertarians not turned off by the monarchy would probably be turned off by the moral absolutes and objectivists would dismiss them both as witchdoctors and Attilas. However, probably at no other time was the western libertarian ideal so close to reality. Never before, or since, was “government” so small or power more decentralized. Private property rights were of paramount importance, which libertarians would agree with, and what are issues of hereditary privilege but private property rights at heart? If something belongs to you, be it lands, a castle or a crown, you have the right to pass it on to your descendants without interference. Loyalty was pledged to superiors in the hierarchy of monarchies, not out of fear of force, but willingly for mutual benefit; a system at heart very much like the ideal of objectivists and libertarians even today. Far from offending them, this should give them comfort that at least some of their ideas have worked in the past and it should make all others think about the misconceptions they may hold about what life in the Middle Ages, the Ages of Faith, monarchial Christendom etc, was really like.


  1. You know, I am very grateful for this post. I’ve been accused of being a Communist by American Conservatives and especially Neoconservatives as soon as I tell them I am a Monarchist, and they assume that a Monarchy is were one man sits up as a Dictator with absolute power and everyone else is a slave to him. Of course they admit that an Aristocracy exists, but they are the Kings Henchmen and simply excursive power overt he masses. They also seem to think a Monarchy would be a vast, sprawling Bureaucracy which would be exactly what the Socialists would want and were there would be no Free Market and no private Ownership. Never mind that the whole Feudal System was based on private Ownership to begin with, and thus not compatible with Communism, or how Monarchy itself is the very Antithesis of a Communist State, or how all Communists wanted a Centrally planned Government wholly alien to a Feudal Structure, and the ablation of all Class distinctions and end of all Crowns…

    But I digress. I find it incredibly Ironic that those who advocate the most for Libertarian Principles and believe in the Principles of the Free Market can’t see the Obvious things you’ve just written above. I’ve read several Articles that insist that Privately Owned Businesses will always work better than Government Run agencies. I’ve even read how a Privately owned and maintained Road will be more efficient. The Theory is that, because something is Publicly owned, really no one owns it, and it is maintained by Elected officials who have no personal vested interest in it. IE, a park owned by a City is not owned by anyone in the City, and those chiefly responsible or its upkeep, the City Counsel, do not actually pay for it out of their own pickets, nor are they impoverished if it suffers. It is said that a Privately Owned Garden or Park that allows the Public to come in is always kept better. It’s the difference between an owner and a tenet, the Owner always has a vested interest and is always thus more keen on caring for the property.

    I then ask them if this is true of anything and they swiftly say yes. Private contractors do better security, would be a better Military, would supply better Hospitals, ect…

    …Yet, when I note that our modern Notions of a Republican system, or a Democracy, are inherently flawed for the same reasons, and that a Privately owned Government would be a vast improvement, they balk, and go back to the usual claims that without Democracy we would not be Free, and ask the question of what happens when you get a stupid King? Hat about a Tyrant as King? How can a Government not elected by the people be truly legitimate? How can an Unselected Government be relied on to give us Freedom and Prosperity? Somehow they ignore the fact that we’ve had stupid Presidents, Many accuse Bush of this for example, and that many elected Leaders are Tyrants, like Hitler, and that being Elected has not really brought the Government into subjection to the Will of the people, and has never ensured our Liberty. They Imagine that as much as we have lost now, it’d be worse under a Monarchy, and go back to telling me about how bad life was in the Dark Ages. None know any of the real facts, just the usual idea that peasants were treated as Slave Labour in the Fields and a handful of Rich people ran everything, with one man on top making all the Laws.

  2. Still, the Modern Idea of Democracy direly contradicts the Free Market and Private Ownership principles they espouse, and the Government we live under is by definition a Public rather than private one. I merely think that a privately Owned Government would be vastly more efficient and less likely to curtail our Liberties.

    It’s the Logical extension of the Ownership Principle, and thus one of the Chief Reasons, in addition to my Faith and the study in the Nature of man, that make me a Monarchist.

    But I think the Romantic notions of how Democracy was brought about to end the Tyranny of Kings, and the Emotional attachment to the story of Great men fighting the great struggle to be Free has too much hold in them, as does the Emotional attachment to Democracy as an ideal in and of itself, for them to ever let it go and see the Obvious.

    Its such a Violation of all they have been taught and the basis of Modern Culture, and would undermine the Great Story of our Noble Ancestors Struggling to be Free of the Tyranny and Oppression of the Kings to build a Truly Fair society, that I don’t think they can bring themselves to accept it any time soon.

    To do so is to admit that Story is at least a Flawed Narrative, and the Philosophical Underpinnings of the Government that those men, now seen as Heroes, fought for was itself not good; that it was, in fact, a mistake. We should never underestimate the power of the Emotional Appeal of such stories and narratives, nor should we underestimate their hold on or present Generation. Indeed, even the Story of the Dark Ages has an Emotional Appeal, we know it, we are Familiar with it, and it gives us a Sense of Progress. More importantly, a sense of Identity. To abandon these Narratives is to abandon how we see the world, and to even dare to venture past that is to also risk thinking perhaps, just perhaps, what we lost was not lost because we replaced it with something better, but something worse.

  3. The reason that the idea does not comfort the Libertarians of today is because they are sold on Democracy too. They have their heads filled with the narrative that Democracy is the highest ideal, and that it alone secures our Freedom. By Democracy we are Free, and anything else is Tyranny. It is an instinctive revulsion that comes with the Modern Times we live in. It makes no difference if it is rational or not, it is what is perceived, and it doesn’t even matter that the Logical end of Libertarianism is a Feudal Government. What matters is, Feudalism has strong, negative connotations to them, and so does Monarchy. They need a central elected Government, because this s something they have been taught to believe in.
    It leads to absurdities, the chief being they want a duly Elected Government, but want it to have no power and to let them have their way with their own land and belongings, as if the idea of a communally controlled society is compatible with individual Liberty.
    Democracy and Republicanism lead to what they resist, but they cant let it go, and can’t see the obvious. They instead want to get their Libertarian Ideals to work in the context of a Democracy, and veen have to invent an excuse for why their Libertarian ideals only work in a system of Government that is at odds with it by its very Nature. They will claim that their principles cover only private Property an not Government, and yet the Government will buy land, and by virtue of its existence find things to do… and won’t like those limits. The Irony is, if the Libertarians ever had their way, they’d recreate a Feudal society of sorts, but the Titles would be different. Mr. Instead of Lord, president of a Company rather than Baron… but in the end the same. And in the end, if you allow yourself to see logically, you cannot support a Philosophy of the supremacy of Private Property Rights, and a Democracy. You must either cede Private Property rights to the will of the Community as exercised by the State as supreme, or else cede that the State should be Privately owned. But people prefer their Schizophrenic view that the one must grow out of the other, even though they are Mutually at odds.

  4. That is true for the most part but libertarians/objectivists are not quite as devoted to democracy as some people -so there may be room to work in that area. Ayn Rand said democracy should have limits and I think they would all agree that democracy can never be used to violate the property or individual rights of another. For example, the majority voting in favor of a land grab for the "public good" or something like that. If their ultimate goal is what they claim it to be there would be little need for a great deal of democracy since the "state" would have so few responsibilities and be so small.

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  6. You've certainly introduced the hammer to the nail head in this post MM. You've nailed the point that feudalism was entered into voluntarily, and that it is the basic foundation of all forms of government, that power must be ceded in exchange for certain things. For example, in order to trade with another county, your lord and the lord of the other county must meet, agree on various standards (weight and measurement, or legal tender), so that you can be wealthy. If there is a criminal on the loose, then the people must catch him, and bring him before the lord for judgement and sentencing (because the people policed their land). When war came, the lord would raise his forces and fight for their land and king.

    It's a simple formulation of government that can be easily enunciated and understood.

    Another note on libertarianism - the problem we have today is that our culture has become relativist. In the past, government didn't really need to enforce the law because it was enforced culturally, by censure and ostracisim and honour. Now that we are a relativist culture, where there is no good or evil, those who disagree with this notion attempt to enforce their morality on us, only to ultimately lose (for whatever reason), and the power they took to government being used to further the relativist march.

    Of course, by trying to stand for everything, we end up standing for nothing. No wonder everyone feels so cold in today's society.

  7. There have been links between libertarians and monarchism; see for instance

    By the time one becomes a follower of Mencius Moldbug - e.g. - one pretty much has to call oneself an ex-libertarian, but that's what Moldbug and most of his clique are

  8. Hi, I followed a link here from Foseti and am very impressed! It's so nice to find another monarchist writing wisely.

  9. Thanks for the comments. As for relativism, we see the consequences of such absurdity every day. I find it extremely telling that even so staunch an atheist as Ayn Rand was horrified by the moral relativism that was crippling society (and still is). If we refuse to call good, good and evil, evil and refuse to discriminate between success and mediocrity we can be assured only of the continuing growth of evil and mediocrity.

  10. A brilliant piece of writing MM! To add something to a clearly made point I can only mention that most of the polish monarchists (and my humble person) are strongly supporting free market.

    Due (or thanks) to the activism of minor, conservative-libertatrian mainstream party The Real Politics Union monarchism is closely linked to free market in popular belief (please don't see me as one of their activists making some propaganda, I don't advise to vote generally).

    Anyway, the KISS rule aplies to the state too. The more Simple it is the more effectiove it is functioning.

  11. Interesting read. Yet one point I must make. You said most religous leaders in the west didn't approve of the death penalty. However every pastor of every church our family has been a member of directly supported it! We have supported it ourselves.

  12. Great article. As a Canadian Libertarian, I see the importance of some form of Monarchy.


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