Rules of Community, Economy, and Society

As I think further on Koyama and Johnson’s interesting use of the typology of rules, it strikes me as particularly relevant to the question of how certain conceptual and institutional forms relate to each other.

Specifically, it is critically important to understand that different rules will predominate in different forms of human association. This is an old point that goes back to both Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber. In this instance, however, Koyama and Johnson’s narrative affords a very useful way to see the process by which individuals move from the application of rules of status and identity, in one sphere of their lives, to rules of more general application in another sphere. It is always going to be a process of learning.

Initial rote learning by imitation is the the foundation of our first conceptual orientation to ourselves and those around us. This is the role that family and community play, and it is why concepts of who we are are so powerful. They fill up the categories of meaning that give us our most basic notions of what to pursue and what to avoid, what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, defining substantive ends to be sought. This is Gemeinschaft, or community.

General rules are almost always means to an end, and have use for all individuals, regardless of specific substantive notions of the good. They are in fact useful for the pursuit of substantively different ends, so long as they are not invariably in conflict. Rules of economic life tend in this direction. This is Wirtschaft, or economy.

And finally there is a realm where both types of rules meet each other, and are coordinated through specific institutional forms as varied as customary practices and organized associations. This is Gesellschaft, or society.

Whether we speak of the theoretical understandings of Douglass North, Joel Mokyr, or Deirdre McCloskey, we are speaking of competition as processes of learning. And this is ultimately why I think the specific conditions of pluralism of various political and civil forms in the Middle Ages must have given rise to the formation of an earlier orientation to a general rule of personal liberty in faith than our authors’ explicit answer would admit.

It was not for the sake of freedom that modern states enforced general rules. It was because they recognized the usefulness of such rules in the amassing of wealth, as shown previously in cites.[1] Their capacity for war was not first, but came after states secured the allegiance of their inhabitants. The idea of such a rule, however, must have drawn initially from the economic realm in which modern civil society had had its first inklings. The processes of learning, the processes of competition, precede the state, and most certainly precede the modern nation state. Exhaustion in the religious wars was just one way competition of a very brutal sort promoted learning, but the tools in their toolkit must have already been there, at least in the form of useful analogies from other civil associational forms.

Again, we must look to the cities.


[1] The references to the League of the Rhine in my previous comments come from a collection of tracts that were among the favorites of a scholar who was both a mentor and a friend to so many of us, the late Professor Leonard Liggio. The documents dealing with medieval city life can be found in the last section of this volume.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.