From Protestant Toleration to Capitalist Neutrality

Liam Bright’s recent post – Why I Am Not A Liberal – was exciting, and I want to get in on the action. But others better qualified than me have replied to the philosophical points. Liam is linking some of those on the original post as he sees them. So I thought maybe I could make a historical-philosophical point. This is a rush job, and I’m shooting from the hip, so don’t hold me too hard to anything I say here.

Liam follows many contemporary liberals in tracing the roots of modern liberalism to early modern arguments for religious toleration. There’s a canon of big names that liberals are accustomed to dropping (let’s call it the Online Library of Liberty). The real big fish tend to be Protestants: John Locke and Pierre Bayle, for example. Modern liberals trace to them the notion that the state should be neutral on what Rawls called “comprehensive doctrines” and what early modern tolerationists would have called “confessions of faith”.

But of course this “neutrality” highly favours confessions that emphasise inner conscience over public sacraments, faith over works, etc. In other words, it sets the “level” playing field on a strong tilt towards various sects of Protestantism. Locke excludes Catholics from his scheme of toleration on the grounds that they “ipso facto, deliver themselves to the Protection and Service of another Prince [the Pope]”. You can see that this is self-serving by the way it doesn’t even accord with the facts; as Rosa Antognazza points out, it would have surprised Pope Clement VII, hiding in the Castel St’Angelo from the rampaging army of Charles V, that those Catholic subjects had delivered themselves to his Protection and Service.

In other words, I think I hold a view somewhat opposite to Liam’s. He writes: “what made it seem plausible that [toleration] was a solution to the problem of the wars of religion was that in fact very substantive consensus did exist among the various dominant Christian sects”. I think, rather, that toleration itself was a sectarian position; in other words there was less, not more, consensus in early modern Western Europe than people suppose.

Liam, in the sentence I quoted, references the narrative according to which liberalism emerged as the uneasy compromise that ended the age of religious wars. The accuracy of this narrative has been seriously challenged, for instance by Benjamin Kaplan in Divided by Faith. The great wars of the early modern period were not religious wars; they were power struggles between two Catholic dynasties, the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons, and what ended them was exhaustion rather than the compromise of toleration.

Toleration, I have suggested, was in large part a component in the Protestant propaganda machine. According to Kaplan, it didn’t even play a major role in ending the local sectarian struggles that played out across Western Europe. The lofty treatises on toleration that we find in classrooms today circulated only among the educated elite. The ordinary people came to the realisation that they would have to live with confessional divergence out of necessity, not by reading Locke and Bayle.

But the next point Liam makes I agree with strongly. Perhaps by coincidence, toleration had one dramatic effect among the ruling elites. It cleared the way for capitalism, or at least provided ex post facto justification for it. In the pre-capitalist world, prices were Just Prices, set according to a moral scheme (this is in theory though often not in practice, as with any economic system). Under capitalism, justice in that sense goes out the window. There is no moral scheme for the world; morality belongs to the domain of private conscience, and the price system becomes one of the things rendered unto Caesar rather than God. Each of us might think the economic arrangement to be very unjust according to our private inner confession. But prices are determined by a market mechanism that hears no confessional catechisms. The arguments for toleration justify this mechanism in replacing the institutional hierarchies that imposed a scheme of Just Prices upon the world – not least of which was, of course, the Catholic Church. The reign of Mammon could not begin among subjects who, as Locke might say, ipso facto delivered themselves to the Protection and Service of another Prince.

This is to say, I agree with Liam’s alignment of toleration and capitalism, and also with his suggestion that toleration is hypocritical. I just differ in thinking that the hypocrisy was present even at its early modern origins. The two points are connected. Take the doctrine of Just Price. This tells us the fair amount for a customer to pay for a commodity, and the fair way to split this among the labourer who produces the commodity, the merchant who transports and sells it, and the capitalist who owns the means by which it was produced. That must belong to some comprehensive doctrine: the force of “fair” there is moral or religious – it means fair according to the natural order or the manner in which God has ordered our estate. But different comprehensive doctrines will cry fair and foul in different places. Even among the early modern Christian confessions, even only within Protestantism, you would have divergence: Luther would apportion less to the merchant’s fair share than Calvin. The tolerationist, evolved into the liberal, will say: let’s be neutral, and not impose any Just Price at all, since we don’t agree on what the Just Price is. Simply let each self-loving agent charge what they can get.

But is that neutral? Here is the hypocrisy point. The “neutral” position described above is, after all, precisely what somebody who wasn’t neutral at all would want – an ideological free-marketer, for instance, or prosperity theologian who believes that unrestricted capitalism is God’s march through the world. What is the difference between “neutrally” imposing no Just Price, and very committedly implementing the comprehensive doctrine according to which the Just Price is the outcome of uncontrolled exchanges among “free” agents (the labourers “free” in Marx’s dark sense – free of any property)?

Neutrality is a logically hollow notion, ripe for hypocritical exploitation. What is the neutral position on the question “the Just Wage is the full value of what labourers produce”? Is it neutral to pay the labourers the full value? Of course not: that takes the “yes” side of the question. So is it neutral to pay them less than the full value? Of course not: that takes the “no” side. The negation of a value judgement is itself a value judgement! There is no neutral side to a two-sided coin.

We shouldn’t be too surprised by this if the idea of liberal neutrality has its origins in the early modern tolerationist literature. After all, that wasn’t even designed to be neutral. As I say, a great deal of it was straightforward Protestant propaganda. Should there be an established church whose magisterium is distinct from the powers of the secular sovereigns? Well it wouldn’t be neutral to say yes, so let’s be “neutral” and take the no – that is, the anti-Catholic – side. Liberalism lets you defend anything by saying “I’m not committing to my side, I’m being neutral with respect to yours”. In practice it favours the faction that can best appear to be on the side of individual choice against institutional control: inner conscience against outer magisterium; faith against works; the free market against the medieval social organism.

The same point is made by the Confucian ultra-conservative Jiang Qing in his debate with Joseph Chan (found in this book). Chan worries about the illiberality of Jiang’s proposal to install Confucian values at the heart of the Chinese constitutional system. He proposes, as an alternative, a liberal Confucianism, in which the constitution is built on a basis of Rawlsian neutrality, though the governing authorities can endorse Confucianism as their private comprehensive doctrine. Jiang’s reply is brazen: “Rawls’s political liberalism is hypocritical”. He goes on: “in matters of religious belief, values, and political thought, Western liberal-democratic society is not a completely level playing field”. More specifically: “The leading values in society come from a Protestant value system, and the directing thought in politics is based on constitutional democracy, which comes from the natural theism of Protestant Christianity”. He distrusts a doctrine of liberal neutrality according to which the neutral “consensus” position happens to be precisely what somebody fully signed on to a particular comprehensive theology would endorse as a matter of non-neutrality. He is right, I think, to suspect this. And so is Liam.

But if liberal neutrality is out, what is in? The state must after all implement some comprehensive doctrine – or what was previously and perhaps more accurately called a “confession”. Which one? Liam presents his own preference: a commitment to abolishing the institution of private property, justified not on liberal grounds but on the basis of a confession. At least, he writes of “the promise of Enlightenment”, and since this can’t be interpreted to mean liberalism, it must mean the sort of civil religion associated with the Enlightenment (Jiang, by the way, thinks that this civil religion is still just a form of Protestantism).

Well of course that won’t work for anyone whose confession includes the sanctity of private property. Even among the others, there is the question of what resources are to be produced and how they are to be distributed. Different confessions settle this question in different ways. What is the procedure for selecting among them? We can’t say something like “democratic consensus” without deciding on a confession that favours it. Some do (vox populi vox dei). Others do not: Jiang, for example, argues that the desires of the people are often immoral (according to his Confucian standards), and so the democratic mandate carries no legitimacy at all.

This leaves us, then, in an awkward place. Perhaps the wisest council is that of Bernard Crick: there is no substitute – not liberal neutrality, nor the fantasy of decisively elevating some confession into the catholic faith – for plain old politics. By this Crick means the messy business of power-struggles, compromises, alliances of convenience, and horse-trading among diverse interest groups. But Crick’s position should come with a warning label, and on the warning label we should print the famous (and felicitous) mistranslation of Clausewitz’s aphorism: “war is politics continued by other means”. The worry is that we end up with the stark truth that violence is the child and parent of all things, but then maybe that’s just what my confession tells me to say.

One thought on “From Protestant Toleration to Capitalist Neutrality

  1. I think the problem – and I do think it is a problem – is that you & Bright’s analysis of liberalism rests on the idea that England is important for liberalism. No evidence is offered for this, other than that the Albions say so. Why would that Tory confessor empire which ran on slavery be the center of any political thought? Voltaire was famously unimpressed by them, the “parliamentary dictatorship” model was adopted by exactly nobody and to this day if you ask a Londoner about free speech they will crow about how Mary Whitehouse & Super-Injunctions are better than “free speech absolutism”.

    I wrote a different analysis here, hope you enjoy


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