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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5217/the-idea-of-liberty-is-western/

The Idea of Liberty is Western

June 23, 2006 by

The idea of liberty, wrote Ludwig von Mises, is and has always been peculiar to the West. What separates East and West is the fact that the peoples of the East never conceived the idea of liberty. The East lacked the primordial thing, the idea of freedom from the state. The East never raised the banner of freedom, it never tried to stress the rights of the individual against the power of the rulers. And, consequently, it never established the legal framework that would protect the private citizens’ wealth against confiscation on the part of the tyrants. FULL ARTICLE


Jim Fedako June 25, 2006 at 3:41 pm

I suspect if you asked Americans if they would trade the Bill of Rights for 10 years worth of gift certificates to Wal-Mart, Radio Shack or McDonald’s, most of them would probably say, “Hell, yeah!”

That’s an interesting comment. A local company does market research by paying people to participate in focus groups in order to discuss issues or review new products. The key is that they pay in cash for participating in their focus groups.

To participate, you have to sign away what appears to be all rights to your name and likeness relative to the research and product. Do they have a tough time getting participants, no way. Remember, they pay in cash.

The difference is the participants have traded certain rights for a good they desired more. When government does the same, it uses coercion and compulsion to force the trade. Trust me, there is a big difference between the selling your rights and have them stolen at the point of a gun

Keith Preston June 25, 2006 at 3:57 pm

“Keith:”And the restraint of power is usually rooted in historical accidents like geographical considerations or the inability of any one warring faction to gain the upper hand and completely repress the others. That’s about all there is to it.”

Now who is being naive about history? Give me one example of the above.”

For starters, classical Greece, the Roman Republic, the Holy Roman Empire and classical, colonial America.

“Venice, Spain, Portugal, Instanbul, Alexandria, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, all of the ports on the African coast, ports in India, Thailand and all over South America”

There’s a fair amount of wealth in all of those places. For instances, the elite of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro live every bit as opulently as any of the elites of Europe or North America. You don’t think there’s any wealth in Turkery, Egypt or South Africa? I have friends from all of those places who can tell you otherwise.

Back to my earlier question: If capitalism is required for the creation wealth, and the Dutch invented it, then where did the wealth of ancient empire like Egypt, Babylon or Rome come from? A lot of it was plundered from other societies to be sure, but how did the “plunderees” get it in the first place?

Juan G. June 25, 2006 at 6:40 pm

I would like some American protestant to explain to me how does the terror bombing of Germany and Japan during WWII squares with all this rant about how good and human christianity is ?

Also, how did the USA and Great Britain, wich supposedly were the antithesis of communism ended up doing the dirty work for Stalin so that the commies conquered half Europe ?

Is there any doubt that the ‘capitalist’ USA were in reality the handmaiden of Stalin ?

I find it very hard to accept that the West is ‘civilized’ after Dresden and Hiroshima.

I find especially disgusting that while the nazis are correctly regarded as evil, the RAF pilots are considered ‘heroes’.

The West has been half-fascist half-socialist for a long time now…

Roger M June 26, 2006 at 9:00 am

Keith: “Back to my earlier question: If capitalism is required for the creation wealth, and the Dutch invented it, then where did the wealth of ancient empire like Egypt, Babylon or Rome come from? A lot of it was plundered from other societies to be sure, but how did the “plunderees” get it in the first place?”

Good questions! As I wrote above, warfare was the main method of wealth enhancement for nations before the Dutch Republic. But how did one group of people accumulate enough wealth that others would want to steal it? The peasants would create wealth by farming, trade and mining. Then the nobility would steal most of it through high taxes, corrupt judges, usury and many other means. Certainly there were new inventions, and the use of money allowed for the division of labor and specialization, all of which increased wealth.

So how were those millennia different from the period after the Dutch Republic? Explosive economic growth. Read anything by Angus Maddison and you’ll see that economic growth was excruciatingly slow before the Dutch, often went backwards and was punctuated by frequent famines that killed huge sections of the populace.

In 1600, most of the world had pretty much the same standard of living, in spite of all of the plundering and wars in the preceding millennia. Since then, the West has grown at an explosive rate. The rest of the world has grown in wealth also. Third World countries are much richer today than they were one or two hundred years ago, but they haven’t grown at the rate of the West, led by the Protestant nations and capitalism. That’s the difference that capitalism makes. The East, Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea and others, have shown that the principles of capitalism aren’t limited to just Protestant countries; anyone can adopt them and benefit from them just as we have.

Mark D June 26, 2006 at 7:07 pm

I think the argument connecting Christianity with liberty is grounded in the concepts of 1. separation of temporal power and spiritual authority (see Augustine); and 2. the subordination of temporal power to the spiritual authority. This “de-divinization” of the temporal order left Rome without a civil theology, and probably contributed something to its ultimate extinction. In any case, these concepts liberated the idea that an authority existed superior to the temporal power and not controlled by the temporal power.

In Eastern societies (cosmological societies), these two — the temporal and spiritual — had been merged and were considered inseparable.

This was the end of the so-called cosmological societies in the West, and the beginnings of anthropological societies, that is, that a political community is not a reflection of God or Heaven (the perceived cosmological order) but rather is representative of either groups or individuals within the political community itself. This was a system of double representation that persisted through the Middle Ages: spriritual representation through the church and political representation through the prince, lord, or king (who was also subject to the spiritual authority of the church; cf. the Thomas More problem).

Kings weren’t considered tyrants. They were considered representatives of the realm (the spiritual union of all within the political community); the King represented the order of society. If the King betrayed his duty of representation and disturbed the natural order, it was considered legitimate to depose that King and replace him with a legitimate representative of the realm, so the “tyranny” could be removed from the body politic and right order restored.

I think there is some confusion between the concepts of “progress” and “liberty.” The concept of progress is dependent on one’s internalized conception of history and man’s place in history. Eastern societies (Hindu and Buddhist) view temporal history as an illusion, and they view time as circular. These understandings don’t motivate such societies to grant significant meaning to history as such (except as punishment and suffering). In contrast, Western societies, dependent on a Judeo-Christian conception of history, tend to invest history with significant meaning, both for the individual and the society. Judeo-Christian history, in contrast to Eastern conceptions of time, is also linear and hence progessive. If history has meaning and is related to God, a concept of spiritual and temporal “progress” — and its consolidation in time — can emerge.

Our notion of liberty began to emerge when the King was no longer considered an adequate representative of the realm, and that representation of truth no longer resided in the monarch but in the people (or classes of people) themselves. This development found its perfect expression in the French Revolution, where both the temporal power (Louis XVI) and the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church were overthrown simultaneously, and replaced with the sovereignty of the people (who proceeded to subordinate the Church to state authority, an arrangement adopted by Henry VIII in the previous century).

These developments had been presaged by the Reformation, in which it was proclaimed that each man is a priest and each man requires no mediator (i.e., the Catholic Church and its sacramental sytem) in his relation to God. Grace was a matter of individual experience and relation, and spiritual authority was removed from the Catholic Church and became a matter of individual conscience. This transformation had enormous political consequences in the long term, for existential and spiritual order resided now with the individual and not in an institution; it was inevitable that individuals would then consider that their individual truth would require adequate political representation, and the only method for such representation would be something on the order of democracy. Combined with commercial growth, increasing wealth, literacy, communications, trade, growth of cities, etc., it seems inevitable in retrospect that something along the lines of democracy and freedom of conscience would be demanded, and that individuals would proclaim “liberty” as a symbol of these aspirations and new power relations. Because Christianity had already established the principle that the temporal power was subject to a higher spiritual authority, when that spiritual authority became vested in the individual, the individual assumed sovereignty (in equal proportions with his brothers: liberty, equality, fraternity).

Roger M June 27, 2006 at 9:07 am

Mark, Good post! Just a few comments on the origins of religious liberty. Based on Israel’s history of the Dutch Republic, it seems to me that the Protestants opted for religious freedom mainly because they were simply tired of all of the killing. The Calvinists didn’t want religious freedom and tried to ban Catholics and Lutherans. But the influential politicians, and most of the people, followed a more mellow form of Protestantism that Israel calls Erasmian, after the great Christian humanist Erasmus. It doesn’t seem to me that the Dutch were trying to create a new, model society. They just wanted the killing to stop.

Mark D June 27, 2006 at 9:08 am

Another development that should be considered in the emergence of liberty is the existence and/or relation of the various loci of authority in Western society. I have in mind the sovereign (the king, lord, prince), the Church, the nation-state, and the individual.

It seems that the original dual loci of authority — the king (or the Empire) and the church — were gradually displaced by the nation-state, although monarchies were certainly active in the consolidation of the nation-state as a focus of authority and power. The first steps were the merger of the spiritual authority in the sovereign (France/Geneva), or the outright subordination of the spiritual authority to the King (England).

Ultimately, the temporal power either became sovereign (as in England), or the spiritual authority assumed temporal power (Cromwell, Geneva). Once the temporal power had been consolidated in a nation-state that had subordinated the spiritual authority, the issue became joined: the secular nation-state versus the sovereignty of the individual. This is the modern issue, and it is an issue that is still being negotiated today.

Those that claim that truth can only be represented in and through the state are likely to use the machinery of the state for realization of that truth (Soviet Union, fascist Italy). Those that view the nation-state as a threat to truth, but nevertheless a necessary evil, trend toward constitutional republics (the American founding, which so little feared the spiritual authority as a threat or rival to temporal power that it was left unfettered by the First Amendment).

The issue of liberty then emerged as a contest between the individual and the nation-state. The individual had used the nation-state to subordinate other rivals to sovereignty and authority — the monarch and the Church — but now found himself in a new contest. The ultimate solution was to subordinate the nation-state to the individual himself: popular sovereignty and representative government. This is an imperfect solution, as the machinery of the state has implicit incentives to bear down upon and restrict the sovereignty of the individual.

Mark D June 27, 2006 at 9:41 am


It seems there was killing at every stage.

When Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire, the Romans killed Christians for their universal presumption that the temporal power (Rome) was subject to some higher spiritual authority (the Kingdom of God). Augustine tried to reconcile these conflicts through his “double representation” schematic.

When the double representation schematic began to break down — at the latest in the Reformation — the killing began again. The first assault was upon the spiritual authority of the Church itself, and came from within the Church on specifically spiritual grounds. The temporal power was not idle however, and immediately took advantage to subordinate the spiritual authority. This urge, too, provoked violence.

Then, a contest developed as to which spiritual authority would be represented by the King: the Catholic or the Protestant. Each faction fought vigorously over this contest: the Protestants won in England, the Catholics won in France, and no one won in Germany.

The upshot of these conflicts was the inevitable triumph of the nation-state, whatever “official” religion it might have endorsed. The nation-state became the arbiter of spiritual authority throughout the realm.

Once the nation-state had become the undisputed focus of both temporal power and spiritual authority, the modern battle was joined between the individual and the nation-state. The final “solution” was to subordinate the nation-state to popular sovereignty, and this transformation also required some killing, as in 1789 France.

But, yes, the killing became tiresome. The final configuration of our Constitution can be viewed as an expression of weariness over these conflicts. The US Constitution more or less declared that the killing had ended, the conflict was over, and sovereignty rested exclusively in the people. It also declares implicitly that spiritual authority rests not in the nation-state but in the individual, and the nation-state has no legitimate power to divest this authority from the individual. One could argue that this investment of final spiritual authority in the individual is the ground for “rights” as against the nation-state; the nation-state is vested with temporal power, but it is subject to the final superior authority of individual rights and conscience (which rights may be interpreted as spiritual and outside the competence or jurisdiction of the temporal power).

Hence, some commentators call religious freedom the “first freedom.” Once the modern nation-state attempts to become the arbiter of spiritual authority, it represents both a regression to the 17th Century conflicts and an effort to constrict individual sovereignty.

Doyle June 27, 2006 at 10:17 am

The Protestants won in England

Surely the Catholic Church of England won in England?

Peter June 28, 2006 at 1:02 am

This article from 2001 relates to the topic.

Jude Chua Soo Meng June 29, 2006 at 5:17 am

I just recently read this article by Mises. I think he understates the achievement of Chinese (philosophers) and their tendency to resist the state: remember that before Chin Shi Wang, China was a collection of many little states fighting each other, and generals would resist their lords and form a little state themselves. And during the Wei-Chin period, philosophers (influenced by Daoism) defended the political doctrine of non-interference (wu-wei), aimed at giving people the freedom to follow their own innate (moral) tendencies.

But I’ve been rereading Mises’ analysis, and it has a point. I’m an Asian, and I appreciate it when he points out how culturally, there can be a desire to “please the authorities”. This is precisely the criticism that Wang Bi, a 3rd century (very important) commentator of the Dao De Jing had for the very prominent and authoritarian emperor. His criticism was encoded in the phrases of the Dao De Jing: “The Nameless and Formless Dao was the origin of the ten thousand things”–meaning, only if the ruler did not use Forms (laws) to form people into the desired moral forms, and only if the ruler would refuse to use Names (gifts of official titles and appointments) to lure good behavior, would there be the flourishing of the citizens, who of themselves (ziran, naturally) become moral(truly, and not just to curry favor and secure material rewards), and prosper.

If the ruler (state) is too prominent, whether one likes it or not, there will be many who will perform a kind of self-censorship, and do and develop what pleases it. If on the other hand the ruler becomes formless (invisible, hidden, does not dictate things), then like the Dao creative goodness (that is authentic) will naturally arise. Wang Bi says this, and I will not disagree with him.

I think, tactless though Mises is, he’s got a point.

Cutreda May 6, 2008 at 11:19 pm

It’s so interesting:,

Cutreda May 6, 2008 at 11:21 pm

It’s so interesting:,

Bobrila June 11, 2008 at 11:28 am

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matar_cd July 1, 2008 at 5:55 pm

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