Christianity, Liberalism, and Jural Dualism: A Reply to Deirdre McCloskey

I like Larry Siedentop’s book arguing that Christianity made liberalism possible. Peter Olsson interviewed me, and Deirdre McCloskey wrote a critique of the interview, both in Svensk Tidskrift.

Like McCloskey, I see the arc of liberalism as a miracle. We agree about the crest of that arc, the crest’s timing and leading figures, notably Adam Smith, and its geography. How did it happen? The arc is more than its crest: Many, many centuries made Adam Smith possible. Like P.J. Hill, I think Siedentop is onto something.

The term “miracle” is apt because of that term’s positive valence and because we are talking about a one-time event. There has been only one arc of liberal civilization. The singularity of an event makes talk of causation tricky. We do not have multiple occurrences of the event to sift through for correlations, and we cannot do randomized controlled trials.

I propagate Siedentop’s ideas adding some spin of my own (here, here, here, and here.) But I do not claim any authority in the history treated. Engagement of Siedentop ought to focus on his work. Before dismissing his work (McCloskey calls it “nonsense”), one should listen to what he says. Neither Siedentop nor I say Christianity was a sufficient condition for the emergence of liberalism. When McCloskey points out that Christian societies have not always and everywhere manifested liberalism, she falsifies an unmade claim.

Here I wish to address a matter that comes up in McCloskey’s critique. It is a matter of subtlety and importance. Many libertarians stand in need of instruction in the matter.

In the final paragraph of the critique, McCloskey writes: “We need to know that liberalism is a natural human condition, as natural as the lack of hierarchy in the hunter-gatherer bands from which we descend.”

Along the lines of Christopher Boehm, I would agree that the primeval band of, say, 40 people lacked hierarchy in one special sense of the term. There were differences in strength and influence, as will be found within a family or a motorcycle gang. The small simple society of the primeval band can be likened to a voluntary organization, and the alpha male a first among equals. It would be inappropriate to liken the alpha male to ruler or sovereign. For one thing, anybody could kill anybody. Adam Smith was very good on these matters; his characterizations of the small simple “democratical” hunter stage of human organization often concord with Boehm.

The lack of such hierarchy in the primeval band undercuts McCloskey’s suggestion that therefore “liberalism is a natural human condition.” The primeval band was not a liberal society—nor a socialist or authoritarian or tyrannical society. Such descriptions would commit a category error. They apply descriptors to things outside the domain in which they work.

A key part of the Siedentop story is the process of jural integration that makes for the top polity we now know of as the nation-state. This part of the story involves the integration of canon law within the church domain, with papal supremacy. That model inspired temporal rulers to try to do something analogous within their fragmented and jurally confused territorial polities. The process of jural integration was a system of subjection, and the unit of subjection was the individual, understood along Christian lines: The individual is a soul with its own will, with a conscience, and with moral responsibility, a being made in God’s image, a vicegerent of God on earth. The individual was a child of God, a servant of God, that no puny king or emperor was to abuse. It was natural that, on Christian moral intuitions, the temporal subjection of the individual would bring with it doctrines about the limits of that subjection and the rights of the individual.

McCloskey scoffs: “Klein, following Siedentop, claims strangely that tyranny leads to liberty.” Sneering at the jural-integration element of the story, she speaks of “a nice taste for paradox” and “the delights of hasty paradox.”

But McCloskey herself would seem to embrace “tyranny.” In a recent essay, for example, she acknowledges government within her vision of liberalism. She sees plainly that it is only the governmental power that initiates and institutionalizes coercion openly and with wide legitimation. Were neighbors to try it on one another it would be readily declared criminal and put down by all – at least in functional, stable, jurally integrated polities. She writes: “Such a monopoly is greatly to be preferred to oligopolies of gangs running around physically coercing people.”

Here we have a dualism that McCloskey skates by and I study—carefully, not hastily. The resolution is a crucial part of liberalism, and in Adam Smith, building on a long tradition (see Brian Tierney, used by Siedentop).

Smith presupposes a jurally integrated polity and distinguishes two jural relationships, that of superior-inferior and that of equal-equal. The liberal idea is that there ought to be a presumption against the jural superior doing things that, in equal-equal, would be deemed initiation of coercion.

Classical liberals like Smith taught us to accept such jural dualism. They saw yearnings for jural monism, as it existed in the primeval band, as folly. In that other essay, McCloskey gets that wrong: “[A] secular, human lordship, an absence of liberty, is not inevitable, we moderns have believed since 1776…” Speak for yourself. Adam Smith did treat the superior-inferior relationship as inevitable. And we should, too. Smith worked to make a liberal nation-state.

McCloskey wants to have it both ways. She says that liberalism implies “No Masters. No Kings…. Equality of status.” McCloskey fails to see the paradox in her own words, and thus fails to resolve it. The same uninstructed fancy for jural monism shows in McCloskey’s critique of the interview. I have criticized libertarians on this point in a video lecture. If the reader is interested in liberal jural theory, see here, here, here, here, or here.

Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.