Friday, April 20, 2018

Popular Sovereignty in an Unlikely Context: Spanish Scholasticism

A century before John Locke, a Spanish cleric named Juan de Mariana articulated what would become known as key Lockean concepts. In his writings, which are part economics and part political science, Juan de Mariana asserted that a king cannot claim that he owns the property of his subjects.

Juan de Mariana is analyzing feudalism, and more particularly, a late form of feudalism as he encountered it in Spain. In such a structure, all land was ultimately understood to be royal property - understood as the king’s personal property. Through layers of subinfeudation, it was parceled out to vassals and serfs.

This economic system is often called ‘manorialism’ or ‘seignorialism.’

Earlier Germanic forms of feudalism featured a mutualism or reciprocity in which the lord and the serf each owed things to the other. This later form of feudalism had decayed into more of a top-down structure.

As a scholastic, Juan de Mariana developed his thought systematically. It is noteworthy that he took property rights as an axiom in his logical system. This foundation entails political liberty and personal freedom.

Writing about him, Jesus Huerta de Soto notes that

From this, Mariana deduced that the king cannot demand tax without the consent of the people, since taxes are simply an appropriation of part of the subjects’ wealth. In order for such an appropriation to be legitimate, the subjects must be in agreement. Neither may the king create state monopolies, since they would simply be a disguised means of collecting taxes.

The notion that each individual person can have property, and that the king may not violate the property of his subjects, is foundational to other human rights and civil rights.

Juan de Mariana is formulating something very near the ‘consent of the governed,’ a phrase which would become associated with Locke’s thought, although Locke himself seems not to have ever written this exact phrase.

As an economist, he was alert to the subtle ways in which the king might violate the property rights of the ordinary people. Jesus Huerta de Soto writes:

And neither may the king - this is the most important part of the book’s contents - obtain fiscal revenue by lowering the metal content of the coins. De Mariana realized that the reduction of the precious metal content in the coins and the increase in the number of coins in circulation is simply a form of inflation (although he does not use this word, which was unknown at the time) and that inflation inevitably leads to a rise in prices because, “if money falls from the legal value, all goods increase unavoidably, in the same proportion as the money fell, and all the accounts break down.”

Segueing from economics to political science, Juan de Mariana went on to note that as the total number of laws or regulations increases, the likelihood of an individual being aware of any specific one of them decreases. A state with a high degree of regulation will find itself therefore unable to accurately enforce all of them.

He lived in Spain, which at the time was shaped by the Habsburg absolutism. There was no parliamentary body.

The laws would therefore be enforced on a hit-or-miss basis, and as the general population becomes aware of this pattern, corruption and lawlessness will increase. As a state legislates more and more laws, these laws will receive less and less respect.

A state with few laws will be more likely to be able to enforce them consistently, accurately, and thoroughly. Juan de Mariana’s advice to the monarch is, therefore, to make as few laws as possible.

He articulated principles of Lockean political liberty and personal freedom, and did so long before Locke.