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Calhoun's Defense of Poland's Unanimity Rule

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Historians have a standard story about the partition of Poland in the 18th century: Poland was unable to defend itself effectively because it had a crazy unanimity rule that gave every nobleman a veto over everything. Seems plausible.

But yesterday I read a second opinion from an unexpected source: John Calhoun's Disquisition on Government. (It's required reading for a Liberty Fund conference on supermajority rules that I'm attending). It's thought-provoking:

It is, then, a great error to suppose that the government of the concurrent majority is impracticable—or that it rests on a feeble foundation. History furnishes many examples of such governments—and among them, one, in which the principle was carried to an extreme that would be thought impracticable, had it never existed. I refer to that of Poland. In this it was carried to such an extreme that, in the election of her kings, the concurrence or acquiescence of every individual of the nobles and gentry present, in an assembly numbering usually from one hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand, was required to make a choice; thus giving to each individual a veto on his election. So, likewise, every member of her Diet... possessed a veto on all its proceedings... And, as if to carry the principle to the utmost extent, the veto of a single member not only defeated the particular bill or measure in question, but prevented all others, passed during the session, from taking effect...

Doomed to failure, right? Well, it lasted about as long as the U.S. has so far:

And yet this government lasted, in this form, more than two centuries; embracing the period of Poland’s greatest power and renown.

And then I suddenly remembered the scores of neat maps I've seen with super-sized Polands, like this 1648 beauty.

So what went wrong? Here's Calhoun's verdict:

It is true her government was finally subverted, and the people subjugated, in consequence of the extreme to which the principle was carried; not, however, because of its tendency to dissolution from weakness, but from the facility it afforded to powerful and unscrupulous neighbors to control, by their intrigues, the election of her kings. But the fact, that a government, in which the principle was carried to the utmost extreme, not only existed, but existed for so long a period, in great power and splendor, is proof conclusive both of its practicability and its compatibility with the power and permanency of government.

This reminds me of David Friedman's verdict on medieval Iceland's approximation of anarcho-capitalism:

[M]edieval Icelandic institutions... might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions. Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a "parliament," seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary, output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens. (emphasis added; footnotes omitted)

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Randy writes:

Interesting. I've been thinking lately that we need an amendment stating that no law which authorizes the use of force against any citizen shall be passed without a two thirds majority. This would, in my opinion, reduce the quantity and complexity of legislation, stop the back and forth of laws which change every time the party in power changes, reduce partisan bickering as only a very convincing argument would have any hope of becoming law, and last but not least, enhance the protection of minority interests.

There is one case in which it might be worth going as far as the Poles, that of declaring war or authorizing the use of force in international affairs. Here I think a 90 or 95 percent approval should be reqired. The public is fickle. We have no right to ask soldiers to risk their lives for a mission that we feel free to change our minds about. No commitment - no war.

Mox writes:

Calhoun was a brilliant man. It's such a same that much of his work has been dismissed because he took the wrong side on the slavery debate.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, it is widely accepted among historians that it was this liberum veto that underlay the defeat and partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century. It should be kept in mind that there are a lot of Poles, a fact again on peoples' minds since they have entered the EU, where they are one of the "big countries," along with Germany, France, UK, Italy, and Spain, more in population than all the other transition countries that joined with them together. That they could not maintain an independent state is a pretty strong sign that something was badly off, and pretty much everybody agrees it was this liberum veto.

Randy writes:


I'd say that the liberum veto was not a great idea, but a much bigger problem for the Poles was the lack of defensible borders. That they have survived at all is a testament to their character. Perhaps it is a mistake to underestimate the value of their belief in themselves as a free people.

mjh writes:

With such veto power, wouldn't the resulting society almost have to become anarcho-capitalist? With such an easy way to get dissent (bribe any one of the legislators) I would think that it would be difficult for any law at all to be passed. Which would result in the government essentially doing nothing.

Is the eventual fall of poland demonstration of the inability of anarcho-capitalism to provide for the common defense?

TGGP writes:

mjh, no you would have to compare it to a state that lasted longer. It lasted about as long as the United States, and it wasn't actually anarcho-capitalist (I don't think that would have lasted as long).

Steve Perry writes:

I would think the fall of Poland no more demonstrates the "inability of anarcho-capitalism to provide for the common defense" than the fall of France in 1940 demonstrates the inability of the state to provide for the common defense. Or the fall of Rome. Or of Babylon. Or of any of the myriad empires, states, principalities, republics, etc. that have fallen through time immemorial. By what logic does the state get to take a pass on all these disasters, but anarcho-capitalism is "refuted" from one example?

On the primary point, the triolgy of the great Polish novelist, Henryk Sienkiewicz is surprisingly instructive. The three novels (titled in the Hippocrene Books edition "With Fire & Sword," "The Deluge," and "Fire in the Steppe") detail the troubles in Poland in the mid-17th century when it was beset by a gruesome Cossack rebellion aided by a Tartar invasion, simultaneous invasion by Sweden, Russia and the Cossacks, and then invasion by the Ottomans. The undercurrent in the stories is Sienkiewicz's desire to re-awaken Polish nationalism (they were written in the late 19th century). The end of the trilogy shows Jan Sobieski stepping to the forefront (he has not been elected king yet) to save Poland from the Ottoman threat, and of course the reader is supposed to know that it was this same Sobieski, as King, who raised the seige of Vienna in 1685, one of the greatest feats of Polish military history.

But Sienkiewicz tells the story better than he knows, I think. For the troubles begin in the first book with the Cossack rebellion which is quite clearly provoked by unscrupulous Polish nobility who are trying to manipulate their way into more complete control of the monarchy, so that it can be used to centralize power on their behalf. Then in the second book, the resiliency of the Commonwealth's institutions is amply demonstrated by the gentry's initially accepting the Swedish invasion with an attitude of "it doesn't matter who's king" (consistent with their republican outlook) and then rising against and throwing out Charles Gustav as soon as it becomes clear that he means to tyrannize them. (The celebrated events surrounding the icon, "Our Lady of Czestokowa" date from this conflict.) In this story too, it is a Lithuanian nobleman who has dreams of holding consolidated power who is the enabler of Swedish conquest, while the Polish King, Stephen, who has no standing army or centralized power to turn to, triumphs by embodying the soul of the Polish people and nation.

What I'm saying is that though it seems to me Sienkiewicz may have been seduced by the idea of a Polish "state" like the other states of Europe, if only one could come into being, (and I'm not certain he was) his story tells a different lesson, because it is the independence of the Polish gentry and the de-centralization of their commonwealth that gives it the resiliency to survive three massive wars in a period of less than 10 years. I know it's "only a novel," but I think it's instructive nevertheless.

By the way, it's no argument to say that most historians blame the liberum veto, because their wisdom is precisely what is in question. Besides, most modern historians are statist to the core, and cannot wrap their minds around a polity that does not fit the paradigm of the modern state.

Robert Schwartz writes:

Calhoun's take on the facts is not bore out. The following is from The Columbia Encyclopedia article Poland:

The Jagiello dynasty ruled Poland (from 1386) until 1572; this period—especially the 16th cent.—is considered the golden age of Poland. Although involved in frequent wars ..., the closely allied Polish and Lithuanian states maintained an empire that reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea. ...

In 1505 the gentry forced King Alexander (reigned 1501–6) to recognize the legislative power of the Sejm, or diet, ... The liberum veto, which allowed any representative to dissolve the Sejm and even to annul its previous decisions, was applied with growing recklessness in the 17th and 18th cent.

Class Divisions and Foreign Conflicts

The Polish kings had always been elective in theory, but in practice the choice had usually fallen on the incumbent representatives of the ruling dynasty. After the death (1572) of Sigismund II, last of the Jagiellos, the theory that the entire nobility could take part in the royal elections was newly guaranteed.

In practice, this meant that internal factional rivalry prevented the establishment of any great Polish dynasty; contested elections and insurrections by the gentry were frequent. ...

John II (1648–68) reign came to be known in Polish history as the “Deluge.” During his rule discontent in Ukraine flared in the rebellion of the Cossacks under Bohdan Chmielnicki. In 1655, Charles X of Sweden overran Poland, while Czar Alexis of Russia attacked from the east. Inspired by their heroic defense of the monastery at Czstochowa, the Poles managed to regroup and to save the country from complete dismemberment. The Peace of Oliva (1660) cost Poland considerable territory (including N Livonia), and by the Treaty of Andrusov (1667) E Ukraine passed to Russia. The Vasa dynasty ended with the death of John II. John III (John Sobieski; reigned 1674–96), who defended (1683) Vienna from the Ottoman Turk invaders, temporarily restored the prestige of Poland, but with his death Poland virtually ceased to be an independent country.

After John III, the fate of Poland was determined with increasing cynicism by its three powerful neighbors—Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Fearing that all Poland might fall into Russian hands, Frederick II (Prussia) proposed (1772) a partition plan to Catherine II, which later in the same year was modified to include Austria. Three successive partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) resulted in the disappearance (1795) of Poland from the map of Europe.

The King could stand a paralyzed parliament because Poland was not a modern bureaucratic state. The country, however, could not stand the subversion of the electoral process that unanimity required.

Poland went from greatness to its Deluge in 76 years, a single lifetime. And from thence to being removed from the map in less than 200 years. The process of dissolution would have been faster but for the good geographic luck of being located at the intersection of 3 growing empires, Prussia, Austria and Russia. This meant that for a long time, if one empire made a move against Poland, two others propped it up. Further, France, the richest and strongest continental power of the age, was also motivated to intervene to keep Prussia and Austria at bay. When France weakened, the empires finally conspired and that was the end of Poland.

The US Federal Government was designed with just those problems in mind. Accepting Calhoun's theory would have meant the eventual dissolution of the Federal union, and potentially the partition of the US by European powers. Fortunately, the North won the Civil War.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Robert S.,

Tsk tsk. You are clearly merely another victim of propaganda by "statist historians," whose judgment has been "called into question."

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