Liberty Matters

Applying the Levy Method to Other Traditions of Thought

Jacob has applied a powerful and very interesting method for analyzing the various streams of thought which eventually came together into the river of classical-liberal thought. As I read through the book I kept thinking that this method could also be applied to other political traditions, such as socialism and Christianity. Here are some brief reflections on how his methodology might be applied to them.
The development of the early Christian churches in the 300 or so years before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire is a classic example of Jacob’s “pluralism” at work, with many private groups forming churches and congregations, which administered “services” of many kinds to their voluntary membership. A great diversity and rich tapestry of church groups emerged, which was successful in increasing their membership across the Roman Empire. On the other hand, we had the temptation offered by official endorsement of their views and practices, which enabled the Church to begin working towards turning itself into a state-sanctioned monopoly, a position it enjoyed in many parts of Europe for 1,500 years.
We can also see the emergence of countercurrents within the Church, such as monastic institutions with their private rules, canon law which emerged as a parallel set of legal practices, and institutions which both lay outside of the secular monarchical legal system and also served as a competitive alternative to it on occasion. There is also the fluctuation which Jacob argues is inevitable between the top-down “rationalism” of the hybrid body of “Church and State” (or “Throne and Altar”) and the constant pressure for religious ”secession” and independence (i.e., “pluralism”) as shown during the Reformation and the settlement of North America by a plethora of competing and independent churches.
After the intellectual challenges provided by the Enlightenment and the rise of the initially limited constitutional liberal state, in our own era there is an uneasy equilibrium, at least within Christianity if not yet in Islam, between religious “rationalism” and “pluralism,” which has created a situation where there is mostly religious toleration of competing religious groups and a fairly tolerable “live and let live” policy towards nonbelievers and secular groups. The Islamic world, on the other hand, persists in attempting to follow the “rationalist” tradition of the bureaucratic, centralized, and coercive form of religious organization and practice which had been common in Europe for over a thousand years.
My second example, which I will not delve into deeply here, concerns the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century. It began as “pluralist” and voluntary among workers associations and unions, and there is a strong tradition within socialism of experimental breakaway communities (the Fourierists and their communities in the United States) and a form of anarchism based upon worker-owned and controlled workshops (Proudhon and his followers). Then there is the polar opposite of “rationalist” top-down coercive socialism either in the parliamentary form of labor parties (Britain, Australia, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth) or social democratic parties (such as the powerful one in Germany in the late 19th century), or in the ultra-rationalist and bureaucratic form which emerged in the Soviet Union.
Where socialism differs from Christianity is in how the pluralist stream seems to have atrophied or even disappeared while the rationalist social democratic stream has become the de facto standard across the industrialized world. The ultra-rationalist stream of socialism has, thank goodness, followed Leon Trotsky’s observation made about the defeated Menshevik faction and left to take up residency in “the dustbin of history.”
I think Jacob’s methodology might provide rich insights into these other traditions, as it has done in his study of classical liberalism. I hope he one day writes a larger history of political thought tout compris using this approach.