Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Voluntarily From the Bottom Up

From the Preface to the First Edition (1603):

This plan and goal was conceived and attempted by me that I might possibly offer a torch of intelligence, judgment, and memory to beginning students of political doctrine.

Althusius dedicates this work to two “most distinguished and learned men,” both he describes as his relatives.  The first is Martin Neurath, a trial lawyer –Althusius’ wife was Margarethe Neurath.  The second is Jacob Tieffenbach.  So this first preface is a personal letter; it isn’t addressed to the general reader, but to two relatives, perhaps also close associates, if not mentors. 

…I have therein attributed [the rights of sovereignty] to the realm, or to the commonwealth and people.  I know that in the common opinion of teachers they are to be described as belonging to the prince and supreme magistrate.  Bodin clamors that these rights of sovereignty cannot be attributed to the realm or the people….

I know some read these words and will throw out Althusius almost as quickly as they would Bodin.  But this ignores the reality that people will organize politically – the only question is the extent to which coercion is introduced in the mix.  It is for this reason that I am attracted to Althusius – certainly he was unique in his time (and also in small company since the Renaissance) for his views on decentralization and subsidiarity.

…I am not troubled by the clamors of Bodin nor the voices of others who disagree with me, so long as there are reasons that agree with my judgment.

Althusius sees the prince or magistrate as a steward or administrator, but the rights are not his – the rights remain with the people (technically, within voluntarily-formed groups of people).  These rights cannot be renounced – in other words, they cannot be granted irrevocably or without recourse.  This seems to me an important point.

From the Preface to the Third Edition (1614):

Dedicated to the illustrious leaders of the estates of Frisia between the Zuider Zee and the North Sea most worthy lords.

The import of this dedication will be made clear shortly.

All copies of the earlier editions had been sold out.  Althusius, therefore, offers this third edition, “done during the odd hours permitted me between responsibilities to the Commonwealth.”  What was this “Commonwealth”?  It will be remembered that at this time, Althusius was the Syndic of the city of Emden; in other words, he viewed a city as a commonwealth – the highest political association.

This should be kept in mind as we move through the examination of his book – the commonwealth included a region that included people with common wealth: the key term being “common.”  Not in terms of communism, but in terms of what Althusius calls “communication”: the various exchanges done by and amongst a common group of people.

Of course, it could be argued that a modern economy does not allow for such a small commonwealth.  But is this so?  We need not confuse the trading of goods with the merging of polities.  We have Switzerland, we have Lichtenstein, we have Singapore.  Not every commonwealth need include hundreds of millions of people under one roof.

The Decalogue plays a foundational role in Althusius’ view:

For what would human life be without the piety of the first table of the Decalogue, and without the justice of the second?

We see all around us what that life would be: the piety of the first is lost, and the justice of the second is, at best, wobbly. 

I claim the Decalogue as proper to political science insofar as it breathes a vital spirit into symbiotic life.

So I am clear: a theocracy is not in my vision.  It is sufficient for me that Christian leaders teach this to their congregations: no laws, no force, no prisons, none of that.  Libertarians are OK with the idea of doing battle via ideas; I am merely suggesting that Christian leaders might consider the same.  I am also suggesting that institutionally there is no better-equipped body to take on the power of the state.

Do I suggest this for the sake of conversions?  No; within the context of this blog your eternal soul is not my concern.  I suggest it for the sake of liberty: apply laws against killing, theft, covetousness to the government; teach a moral and humble life; keep in mind that Christians have a duty to live thus on this earth, and not merely wait for the next.

Althusius again repeats his views on sovereignty: this does not rest with the supreme magistrate but with the people as a whole:

These rights of sovereignty are so proper to this association, in my judgment, that even if it [the people as a whole] wishes to renounce them, to transfer them to another, and to alienate them, it would by no means be able to do so, any more than a man is able to give the life enjoys to another.

If there is a fly in the ointment of Althusian political theory, it is that of the relationship of voluntarily formed groups to the commonwealth and the princes or magistrates above these.  And it is here that I will return to Althusius’ dedication to this third edition and the worthy lords of Frisia:

To demonstrate this point I am able to produce the excellent example of your own and the other provinces confederated with you.  For in the war you undertook against the very powerful king of Spain you did not consider that the rights of sovereignty adhered so inseparably to him that they did not exist apart from him.

…you declared that these rights belong to the associated multitude…you not only defended and conserved your commonwealth from tyranny and disaster, but also made it even more illustrious.

The commonwealth was not the same thing as the kingdom or empire.  It took war to exercise this right of the people as a group, but it is justified to Althusius within his political construct.


From what I gather so far, as advocated by Althusius:

·        The commonwealth was local, and its boundaries were not necessarily fixed.
·        Some moral rules beyond non-aggression are called for if one desires healthy communication (call it “relationships,” broadly speaking) with one’s neighbors.
·        The people (or rather, various groups of people) are justified – even to war – to remove themselves from a king who does not properly respect the people as a whole.

All points that most libertarians can get behind, it seems to me.


I think it is worth a few words about this war within the context of Althusius’ work:

The Eighty Years' War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648) was a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands.

Althusius wrote this preface in 1614, right in the middle of this ongoing conflict.  What was the situation at the time of his writing?  In 1581 – thirteen years into the war – the northern provinces established the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands.  In 1609, an official truce was established, lasting for twelve years; it was during this period that Althusius wrote his preface.

War resumed for the Dutch, generally corresponding with the start of the Thirty Years’ War.  This war between the Netherlands and Spain ended in 1648 only with the Peace of Münster, which formed a part of the Peace of Westphalia:

Scholars have identified Westphalia as the beginning of the modern international system, based on the concept of Westphalian sovereignty.

Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is the principle in international law that each nation state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory.

So much for voluntarily forming groups, provinces, and commonwealths.


  1. I really appreciate the fine point you put on the word "common wealth" as I never liked the word based on my modern day connotations associated with it- in other words, I always felt it had some communistic overtones by nature of the meaning of the words "common" and "wealth" in today's vernacular.

    So after reading this, I went back and looked at the etymology which refers to "commonweal", where "weal" is considered "well being" instead of "wealth" as it's understood today.

    Thanks for that tidbit.

    There's still potential for the whole "general welfare" clause style corruption in that wording, but I think that notion has been corrupted in part due to the decay of morality in the US, especially in the last 90 years.

    The other thing I found interesting about the word "common wealth" is that according to one etymology site it was initially used circa 1520 to distinguish from "commonweal" IN A SECULAR FASHION.

    Very interesting indeed, as the "google" definitions include the following:

    "a community or organization of shared interests in a nonpolitical field."the Christian commonwealth"

  2. "I claim the Decalogue as proper to political science insofar as it breathes a vital spirit into symbiotic life."

    Government bound by the 10 Commandments sounds great to me so long as the punishments are proportional to the offenses. Note that the Decalogue does not prescribe earthly punishments for breaches of the Law, and in Leviticus and Exodus the principle of "eye for an eye" is invoked, if somewhat inconsistently, which seems to suggest proportional punishment for offenses is in line with God's Law.

    Jesus rebukes "eye for eye" at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Luke but only in favor of a much less severe punishment (turning the other cheek), not a more severe one. I'm getting into the weeds of theology here, so I'll cut it off there.

    "So much for voluntarily forming groups, provinces, and commonwealths."

    War tends to do that. Sometime I wonder if making the argument with historical evidence that decentralized warfare is more effective (ceteris paribus) than centralized warfare would be the most effective argument to getting people to accept the libertarian creed.

    1. Decentralized warfare - the Middle Ages. For the most part, the nobles fought each other - they didn't send others to do their bidding. The wars were more like family feuds - Hatfield and McCoy kind of stuff.

      Separate from the Viking and Muslim invasions, a different subject but also these were not under Christendom.

    2. BM have -or are you- listening to The British History Podcast? I am currently on episode 83 where he describes this kind of "warfare".

      Btw I like the podcast, but the creator only seems to have a rather narrow grasp of things, limited to history only.

    3. Rien, I am not listening to it. Too many books and other things - plus that nagging thing called life, always getting in the way!

  3. That is a good point you bring up ATL. Decentralized organizations in general are stronger, more flexible, and much more difficult to defeat in war or control. Which is why I think Jesus' structure of the Church was decentralized in the beginning. It doesn't get centralized until hundreds of years later.

    One thought I have had over time is that large centralized states will never give up power. They will never sign a treaty giving up part of their land. It will only happen in 2 ways 1) the state essentially fall apart financially or some other way where their ability to project power decreases because of mismanagement or neglect 2) war.

    Does your or Althusius' ideas about competing power structures include militias formed by those bottom-to-top organizations? Does the family, clan, guild, church, university, common wealth, city trade organization, etc need to have a military aspect to them? Did they in Althusius' day? They don't currently.

    1. When the Europeans went to southeast Asia and demanded "take me to your leader," the locals really had no idea how to respond.

      It is interesting that even today in Afghanistan, the west must put in place a figurehead - a "leader," thus making it possible for all outsiders to pretend that there is someone to talk to.

  4. Bionic, why was the church so beneficial for our liberty? I dare you do go further back with an open mind.

    Also, are you sure viking were invaders? Or could it the “invasions” of monasteries across europe (like lindisfarne monastery) be in response to the church sending people up north trying to change their way of life.

    I am a Norwegian and can only speak of our history. We did not voluntarily become Christians. It happened top down by kings consolidating power, and it was the church that gave the king a pretext to tax its people with the 1/10 as well as giving the king a divine right.

    Prior to christianity we had assemblies (thing) were land owners met yearly to vote on important issues facing every one. Rules applied to whole families. And it was on rules agreed upon by landowners that the country could prosper. Landowners all had “odelsrett” which a allodial title of property which has survived today, but without the significance it once had for the community.

    When you look at Europe at the time when several european dynastic monarchies were set up by norse/rus/viking conquerors/people. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the areas they ruled later became sovereign states since it was regarded as the rulers own allod. Christianity gave them a legitimate pretext to both tax and rule.

    The modern state looks to me much like a replacement of the church. Neither beneficial for liberty.

    “Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself too soon must die, but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
    fair fame of one who has earned”

    1. Olav, I am aware of the history and I am aware that there were many tribes who did not accept Christianity voluntarily - Charlemagne killed by the thousands.

      Also, from what I have found, the law as was developed in medieval Europe was the longest lasting and closest to what I would describe as libertarian law.

      "The modern state looks to me much like a replacement of the church."

      The modern state has replaced the church; it has also replaced decentralized secular governance.

      I will suggest that one of us is not aware of the historical relationship of secular authority and ecclesiastical authority during the medieval age in Europe.