Bryan Caplan  

Why Question the Protestant Reformation?

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A reader asked me, "Would you mind clarifying exactly what your takeaway message was in your Reformation post?"  I'm happy to oblige.

Popular views about the Protestant Reformation are absurdly sugarcoated.  It's tempting for libertarians to jump on this sugarcoating bandwagon and praise the Reformation as a triumph of religious freedom.  But given the staggering body count - not to mention the violent fundamentalism of the leading Protestant reformers - it's actually a telling counter-example to libertarian optimism.  Despite all its oppression, "corrupt" pre-Luther Catholic Europe was far freer than the multilateral bloodbath that succeeded it. 

So how's a thoughtful libertarian to respond?  Leading possibilities:

1. Libertarian absolutism.  The Protestant Reformation was a disaster, but there's still an absolute duty to leave religious dissenters alone until they actually start violating the rights of innocent people.

2. It could have been worse.  Many millions were killed, but even more would have been killed under continuing Catholic hegemony.

3. In the long-run, it was worth it.  Despite a century of horrors, Luther and Calvin unwittingly built the foundations of modern freedom.

4. An exception to religious toleration was warranted.  The consequences of the Reformation were so godawful that the Catholic Church (or anyone else) would have been justified in preemptively coercively suppressing it before it endangered the peace of Europe.

5. Libertarian presumptivism.  While the Reformation turned out to be a disaster, people at the time could not have foreseen the horrors with sufficient certainty to overturn the libertarian presumption in favor of religious freedom.

Ultimately, I believe #5, but #4 is my second choice. 

P.S. Ilya Somin seems to hold a mix of #2 and #3.

P.P.S. Followup from Ilya:

A small correction: My view on 2 is not that things would have been even worse under Catholic domination, but that such domination was likely to be seriously challenged by a fundamentalist movement in the 16th century even if Martin Luther had been suppressed early on (or remained loyal to the Pope). I am not actually certain that 2 and 3 are correct. But I give them a much higher probability than you do.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Bedarz Iliachi writes:

But what about the property rights of the Catholic Church that invariably got violated by the State wherever the Reformation succeeded, wholly or partly?

Advocacy of violation of the property rights of the Catholic Church was invariable theme of even pre-Reformation heresies. The Reformation only accidentally led to free speech.

Gena Kukartsev writes:

Do you assume that there is a universally correct answer? If yes, why? Seems reasonable that someone with a personal stake might have a different view than someone like you or me a thousand miles and a thousand years away.

If no, then is that just your personal choice about something that you cannot influence hence meaningless?

Matthew Moore writes:

I'm interested to know if there are any non-obscure religious factions or sects that you think #4 currently applies to.

shecky writes:

A thoughtful libertarian could also try to avoid shoehorning everything into a libertarian perspective. But I guess such a person wouldn't be much of a libertarian after all.

Dan C writes:

While ideologically motivated wars are nothing new, it seems that the reformation was more of a classic rebellion of local rulers against Catholic hegemony rather than a theological dispute. Most of the theological differences could have been handled in-house, assuming the Church refrained from burning dissenters at the stake. The biggest fights appeared to be over *who* gets to tell other people how to behave and what to believe.

Daniel Klein writes:

You seem to imagine a counterfactual no-Reformation universe, and be saying that that universe is a better universe than the actual universe.

What else is in the no-Reformation universe? Does your no-Reformation universe also feature widespread 1500AD support for libertarianism?

Vegas writes:

Rights of Catholic Church to property acquired by crusader conquests and serf work is highly dubious concept.

Chris writes:

A couple observations on #3 using your death toll argument. Libertarians usually link mass death with government power. The Church in the 1400s was a major secular power - actual governance of much of Italy and effective governance of much of Europe. The disruption of this secular power led to the deaths in the 1500s. You could blame this disruption and death on the corruption of the Church (Luther's argument), the growing power of princes in the Holy Roman Empire (government competition is violent), or even the invention of the printing press. So death is not "worth it," but death and not apathy seemed fairly inevitable in this case. It is difficult for me to see a counterfactual with less death and more eventual human freedom.

Nathan Smith writes:

If you're willing to entertain #4 in the case of the Protestant Reformation, what about the hair-raising anti-religious freedom passages in the Old Testament law? For example:

"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them." (Deuteronomy 13:6-8)

I find this passage very troubling, but then, Jewish monotheism's immediate rivals were cults of Baal and Moloch that practiced human sacrifice. Was Yahweh justified in imposing such drastic penalties on Jews who might have turned to such noxious cults?

Despite all its oppression, "corrupt" pre-Luther Catholic Europe was far freer than the multilateral bloodbath that succeeded it.

The Reformation did not cause the religious wars. Protestants just wanted to be left alone, ie, laissez faire. Catholic kings had decided to murder all Protestants the could, as they tried in the Dutch Republic and in France with the St Valentine's Day massacre. Protestants were merely defending themselves.

The question could be restated: if the socialists in the US decided to wipe out all libertarians and a deadly war ensued, would it have been worth it? The answer is that self-defense is always worth the effort.

Libertarians should be grateful for the Reformation because there was no religious freedom, especially for atheists, before it. Protestants of the Dutch Republic invented religious freedom, even for atheists.

Also, books by Rodney Stark, Helmut Schoeck and Larry Siedentop prove that economic freedom came from Christianity because Christianity gave the world individualism and human rights. However, only Protestant nations implemented those ideas. Catholics regressed after the Reformation.

The Protestant Dutch Republic invented capitalism according to Adam Smith, Jan de Vries and many others. They did so by implementing the religious principles regarding property of the theologians of the University of Salamanca.

Atheists and deists of the French Enlightenment invented socialism.

Sebastian H writes:

What percentage chance do you put on some of the 'Reformation' wars happening whether or not the Reformation happened? I tend to think most of them would have happened anyway, in which case the good long term effects don't have to be weighted against nearly as many bad short term effects.

robc writes:

#1 is the only option without the horrible stench of utilitarianism all over it.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Vegas,
Per von Mises, the Austrians do not care about how the property was initially acquired. Indeed, he writes
"The history of private property can be traced back to a point at which it originated out of acts that were certainly not legal. Virtually every owner is the direct or indirect legal successor of people who acquired ownership either by arbitrary appropriation of ownerless things or by violent spoliation of their predecessor."

This is not to say that I agree with the above statement but only that libertarians need not be concerned how the Church acquired private property.

Again, your point about Crusade must be largely mistaken. Kings and other secular lords must have acquired property through conquest (and it was legal --the right of conquest), but I am hard put to say how the Church materially acquired property through Crusades.

The Church property was in Europe and built through centuries of peaceful labor and accumulation. See monasteries and their agricultural estates which were also important centres for innovation in Dark Ages.

And as for serf labor, it was legal and norm at the time. See also property rights in slaves being justified in America in 19C and later.

Vegas writes:

Bedarz, Church and monasteries in Europe used to own serfs, and much of conquest and pillage was done by religious orders when monks carved for themselves entire states.

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