The Early Roots of Libertarianism 11:13

David Boaz traces the history of libertarian ideas from the earliest known instances of libertarian thought to the Medieval period.

Transcript

David Boaz: I suppose the first impulse toward liberty came from the first man who resented some other man or a group of men exercising power over him. Liberty in that sense is a natural human impulse. But if we talk about when do we first see expressions of libertarian ideas, I think there are two that I would consider the oldest examples of that. A lot of people point to Lao-Tze, the old Chinese philosopher who talked in a way that’s not very similar to the way we talk in the West. It’s clearly an early example of Eastern philosophy. But he talks a lot about the benefits of governing a large kingdom lightly. Therefore, the sage says, “I do nothing, and the people make themselves rich.” That’s a fundamentally libertarian idea that may not have a lot of connection to libertarianism as we have known its development in the West.

In the West, I think the first example comes in the Bible. And for a long time in the Western world, everybody read the Bible. So it was very important that this idea was in the Bible. And the first place you see it is in 1st Samuel, chapter 8. Thomas Paine, Lord Acton, 2000 years later, are still citing 1st Samuel. And what the Bible says in Samuel is that the ancient Hebrews went to Samuel and said, “Make us a king to rule us like all the other countries.” And Samuel went to the Lord and said, “The people want a king like the other countries have. Should they have a king?” And the Lord said to Samuel, “These will be the ways of the king that will rule over you: He will take your young men to run before his chariots. He will take your young women to work in his kitchens. He will take the 10th part of your seed and your vineyards for his own uses. And you will cry out in this day because of the king you have chosen.” And Samuel went back and told the Jews this. And unfortunately, they said, “Yeah, still, we want a king.” So they got a king. And whether that worked out or not, this description was read by all literate people in the West for 2000 years. And what it told them, I think, was whatever you say about government or kingship, it’s not divinely inspired. The Lord warned you what it will be to have a king.

Then I think you also have, maybe a little bit later than that, the Greeks developing the idea of natural law. And one place that you see this is in the play Antigone where Antigone says that she will not carry out the orders of the king because the God’s unfailing and unwritten laws override anything a king says.

So these are elements of libertarian ideas being laid in different parts of Western heritage: the Jewish and Judeo-Christian heritage, the Greek heritage, and of course, over on the other side of the world, the Chinese heritage.

Jesus comes along then. Jesus comes out of the Jewish community, the Hebrew community. And he appears to be a rebellious minister. And he is asked, “What do we owe to the king? What do we owe to God?” And he says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” What he does, by saying that, is to say there are things that are not the king’s, not Caesar’s, and there are things that are only for God. So wherever you draw that line, Jesus has laid down the rule that there are some things that you don’t render unto Caesar, unto the government.

And since following Jesus for more than a millennium, the Western world, Europe was known as Christendom – Christendom meaning the land where Christ is king. All literate people read this. And people who were not literate had it read to them in church. So they heard render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. And they also heard what the Lord told Samuel about a king. So I think that’s the groundwork, the soil in which eventually, libertarian ideas developed.

Now a lot of people think that libertarian ideas are basically about economic freedom. In the 20th century, we talk a lot about economics and the role of the state, so it’s understandable. But I think you can make an argument that libertarianism really comes more from the struggle for religious freedom. For a long time in Western history, and in much of the world, religious freedom was an extremely important part of liberty to people, although they didn’t necessarily have much religious freedom. But when people felt the need for it, it was the most important thing in their lives because how you worship, how your children worship, this affects your immortal soul. So as far back as the second or third century A.D., we see Tertullian talking about the freedom of worship as a fundamental human right, very early discussion of religious freedom as fundamental human right.

And one of the ways that freedom developed is that both Church and State wanted to be the supreme power. Not generally in field of battle but legally and politically, they angled to be understood as the supreme power within whatever jurisdiction they were talking about. But neither one really every succeeded in establishing complete power. Therefore, historians say in the interstices between the Church and the various states, freedom could develop – freedom of worship sometimes, freedom of enterprise, freedom of thought. Even different kinds of law developed in the Western world. You had the Church law; you had mercantile law, the law of the merchant; you had the king’s law, but also the lord’s law, the feudal law. And sometimes, people could angle for which law do I want my case to be decided under. Can I move across a political line to a different form of law? Or can I simply say, “Well, I believe this belongs in the Church’s courts, not the king’s courts,” that sort of thing? That’s one of the ways that in much of the world, there was always a supreme power, and there were no interstices in which freedom could develop.

Two examples during this period, very similar, that I think are significant very early in the history of the Christian Church, the priest later known as St. Ambrose got into a battle with the king. And eventually, it resulted in the king having to make his apologies and return the Church to St. Ambrose.

Hundreds of years later, in England, people may be more familiar with the story of Becket. There was a great movie made about Becket. Henry II clashed with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leading representative of the Church in England, who was Thomas the Becket. And at one point, the king supposedly said something to his court like, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Whereupon, it is said, four knights took the king at his word, rode off, and killed Becket. This created an uproar, “The king’s court has killed the Archbishop of Canterbury.” There’s political conflict. Pope is involved. It results in Henry II walking barefoot to apologize for infringing on the freedom of the Church. Those sorts of battles helped to create a world that did not have supreme power. To some extent, you have kings, you have lords, you have the feudal system, you separately have the Church, and you have freedom being able to develop in that world. We think of the medieval world as the dark ages. And in some ways, they were dark ages. But freedom is starting to develop throughout that period.

Question: To what extent were the Church and State or king dependent upon one another in this scenario? I know liberty seemed to bubble up through the cracks when they disagreed, but had one element been removed, might you have seen more liberty during this time? Obviously, the king walking barefoot through the snow needed the Church’s power in order to keep everyone else below him.

David Boaz: Well, that’s a good question. Of course, they were dependent on each other. Kings worshipped. The Pope crowned some of the kings. I think probably in most European countries, a leading cleric would actually be part of the coronation ceremony. So yes, the king is claiming the authority of the Church, and therefore of God, for his rule. That’s why they talked about the divine right of kings and so on. However, we do have some comparative history, and it seems to me that what we see in other parts of the world, like Japan and China, the Arab world, is that where Church and State are unified, there’s less scope for freedom to develop. So if one simply disappeared if there were kings and there was no thought of religion, how would that had been? Well, I’m not sure we have much anthropological evidence on such a world.