By Ryan McMaken*
Historian Ralph Raico was one of the great popularizers and scholars of European decentralism. That is, Raico recognized and supported the idea that Europe’s traditions in favor of human rights and limited political power grew out of Europe’s long history of decentralized and fragmentary politics. Many historians over the centuries, such as Lord Acton, have noted how Europe — not including Russia and its frontiers — differed from other civilizations of the time in its lack of any single, centralized political power.
Although geographical factors played a role, the key to western development is to be found in the fact that, while Europe constituted a single civilization — Latin Christendom — it was at the same time radically decentralized. In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions.1
This lack of political power then eventually allowed Europe to become an economic power, since as Jean Baechler contended:
The first condition for the maximization of economic efficiency is the liberation of civil society with respect to the state… The expansion of capitalism owes its origins and raison d’être to political anarchy. (emphasis in original)
At the core of much of this was the de facto rivalry between church and state, which has its roots in the Roman Empire. It was during this period that the Church — especially in the West — began to take shape as an institution that could begin to compete with the power of the Roman state, at least in moral authority among the people.
In his lectures, Raico would use as an example of this rivalry the case of Saint Ambrose — whose feast day is on December 7 — who excommunicated and generally opposed the Emperor Theodosius in the wake of his massacre of 7,000 men, women, and children in Thessalonica in 390 AD.
Only after Theodosius was deemed to have been sufficiently and publicly humiliated over the matter, was his excommunication rescinded.
Churchmen were not always so successful in such efforts, and the exile of St. John Chrysostom (forced on him by another emperor despite the protests of the pope in Rome) illustrated there was to be no quick victory for either side in the church-state rivalry. Nevertheless, the actions of Church leaders like Ambrose set the tone for what was to come. Quickly fading was the idea that the Roman state must rule unchallenged for the sake of preserving peace and civilization. Rome had once mimicked an oriental despotism, in which the supreme political ruler was himself regarded as god-like, or even truly divine. By Ambrose’s day, churchmen had long since condemned such ideas. And they would not return until the rise of European totalitarianism centuries later.
This didn’t mean, of course, that Emperors and Churchmen were always at odds. As any well-informed cynical observer of politics would suspect, the Roman state supported church institutions when it was convenient — and opposed the church otherwise. Many Churchmen were happy to reciprocate.
Eventually, though, the opposition to untrammeled state power that was haphazard in Ambrose’s day would become institutionalized in later centuries. According to Raico:
Berman, moreover, focuses attention on a critical development that began in the eleventh century: the creation by Pope Gregory VII and his successors of a powerful “corporate, hierarchical church … independent of emperors, kings, and feudal lords,” and thus capable of foiling the power-seeking of temporal authority … In this way, Berman bolsters Lord Acton’s analysis of the central role of the Catholic church in generating Western liberty by forestalling any concentration of power such as marked the other great cultures, and thus creating the Europe of divided and conflicting jurisdictions.2
Thus, by the middle ages, it was clear that in Christendom, at least, there was to be no single political authority which could exercise monopolies over the rest.
In spite of this, many critics of religious authorities continue to make absurd charges about the Middle Ages, claiming that it was marked by “theocracy” or that it was even ruled by a “totalitarian” religious hierarchy.
The reality was anything but totalitarian or theocratic:
Decentralization of power also came to mark the domestic arrangements of the various European polities. Here feudalism — which produced a nobility rooted in feudal right rather than in state-service — is thought by a number of scholars to have played an essential role. Through the struggle for power within the realms, representative bodies came into being, and princes often found their hands tied by the charters of rights (Magna Carta, for instance) which they were forced to grant their subjects. In the end, even within the relatively small states of Europe, power was dispersed among estates, orders, chartered towns, religious communities, corps, universities, etc., each with its own guaranteed liberties. The rule of law came to be established throughout much of the Continent.3
Nevertheless, supporters of strong, large states in modern times insist on characterizing this period as too anarchic, disorderly, or irrational. For many of a modern mindset, political system should be uniform, planned, and above all, monopolistic. They want “stability,” by which they mean strong states that can easily force their will on all potential competitors. Calling for anything less, we are told, is “treason.”
Such thinking, however, would be alien to the mind of the typical man or woman of Christendom 1,000 years ago.
While high-minded political theories about perfectly planned societies look good on paper, the real-world experience of Christendom suggests otherwise. After all, the competing powers of church, state, nobility, towns, and monasteries led to greater demands for clear legal protections of property rights and political privileges.
By contrast, it was in those parts of the world were demands for political freedoms could be ignored with impunity:
The meaning of the European miracle can be better seen if European developments are contrasted with those in Russia. Colin White lists, as the determining factors of Russian backwardness “a poor resource and hostile risk environment … an unpropitious political tradition and institutional inheritance, ethnic diversity, and the weakness of such key groups limiting state power as the church and landed oligarchy.” … After the destruction of Kievan Rus by the Tatars and the rise of Muscovy, Russia was characterized for centuries by the virtual absence of the rule of law, including security for persons and property.4
The eventual rise of the modern nation-state in the West would give a taste to those far West of the Russian frontier. The Thirty Years’ War, the Great War, the French Reign of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, the Holocaust, and the Second World War, would all eventually provide countless examples of the down side of centralized power.
It has been no accident that in Europe (and in its outposts in Australia and the Americas) we find the birthplace of the liberal tradition we associate with so many freedoms in the economic and religious spheres, and with the unrivaled expansion of material wealth and scientific knowledge.
The calls we continually hear in our modern political milieu for ever-greater centralization and augmentation of political power pose a grave threat to this tradition.
About the author:
*Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
This article was published by the MISES Institute
- 1. See “The Theory of Economic Development and the European Miracle” in The Collapse of Development Planning, edited by Peter J. Boettke.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Ibid.