Monday, January 24, 2011

Peter Cunaeus’ Biblical Turn to the Redistribution of Wealth

Eric Nelson's The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought is an analysis of the origins of Enlightenment political liberalism. Nelson makes the case, that contrary to popular belief, Enlightenment political liberalism came out of not secularism, but early modern Christian Hebraism and its turn toward the Old Testament as a political constitution, particularly at the expense of classical sources. Aristotelian political thought could recognize monarchy, aristocracy and democracy as all being legitimate forms of political authority. For early modern Christian Hebraists, the Old Testament recognized one form of government as being legitimate, the republic.

One of the issues that Nelson discusses that caught my attention is the redistribution of wealth. He argues that before the sixteenth century all discussions about the redistribution of wealth took as their starting point Cicero's vehement rejection of Roman agrarian reform laws, whether that of the Gracchi brothers or that of Julius Caesar, which attempted to give land to Rome's poor. Even opponents of private property like Machiavelli and Thomas More based their opposition solely on civic morality and not out of a desire to create a more equitable society. According to Nelson:

When [Peter] Cunaeus, professor of jurisprudence at the University of Leiden, came to reflect on the equal division of land mandated by God among Israelite families and tribes – it seemed immediately obvious to him that this should be called an "agrarian law" (lex agraria), just like the one proposed by Licinius Stolo among the Romans. With one small gesture of analogy, Cunaeus rendered the agrarian laws not only respectable but also divinely sanctioned. If God had ordained agrarian laws in his own commonwealth, then Cicero had to be wrong. (pg. 64.)

Cicero's opposition to agrarian laws made him a hero for libertarians such as Hayek, who saw in Cicero the foundational figure of the principled defense of private property as the very basis of any law and order society. History vindicated Cicero as the agrarian laws turned out to be cover for Caesar's takeover of power and the destruction of the Roman republic. So who do we blame for the West's turn away from path of Cicero, the Bible or Christians trying to interpret the Bible and making a mess out of it (as usual)?


Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

I reject Cuneaus's logic, because it confuses God and the state: God can abrogate private property however He wants, but for us, the rule is, thou shalt not steal. God can tell us to leave peah, but for the state to create new laws based on the Bibical laws, is either geneiva/gezeila, or else bal tosif.

But we should realize that not all of the Christian Hebraists were like Cuneaus: I quote John Ponet, "A Short Treatise on Political Power": "The Anabaptists wresting Scripture to serve their madness, among other foul errors, have this: that all things ought to be common, they imagine man to be of that purity that he was before the Fall, that is, clean without sin, or that (if he will) he may so be: and that as when there was no sin, all things were common, so they ought to be now. ... But there are some in these days, not of the meanest or poorest sort, but of the chief and rich: that is, many wicked governors and rulers, who in this error excel the common Anabaptists. For the common Anabaptists do not only take other men's goods as common, but are content to let their own also be common, which smacks of some charity: for they themselves do not to others, but as they themselves are content to suffer. But the evil governors and rulers will have all that their subjects have, common to themselves, but they themselves will depart with nothing, but where they ought not: no, not so much as pay for those things, that in words they pretend to buy of their subjects, not pay those poor men their wages, whom they force to labor and toil in their works. But the manner of coming thereby is so divers, that it makes the justness of their doings much suspect. For some do it under pretense to do the people good: some by crafty and subtle means, color their doings: and some of right (but without right) claim them for their own. ... The third sort of these evil princes are those that claim all their subjects goods for their own, who allege for them this common saying: All things are the Kaisers, all things be the kings, all things be the princes. And as the devil brought forth Scripture to serve his purpose against Christ, so they abhorring all other parts of Scripture, that teach them their office or Christian duty, pike out only a piece that may maintain their tyranny."

So John Ponet seems to have criticized the Anabaptists for being socialists, and criticized the governing powers for acting like the Anabapists (who had altruistic and sincere motives, even if they were foolish, as Pirkei Avot says of the man who says what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine) but lying and saying it was for the good of the subjects, when it really was not.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Cf. Heinrich Bullinger, The Decades, the second decade, ninth sermon, very end:

"But, in peace and war, agreement and concord are much more available than money unjustly gotten; and stronger is that kingdom, and firmer that commonweal, which is upheld by the love and agreement of the prince and commonalty, although the common treasure there be very small, than that country or city which hath innumerable riches heaped up together and wrung out of the citizens' entrails, when as continual grudge and ill-will makes the prince and people at continual variance."

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

I'll note that a tremendous bulk of John Cotton's "Moses, His Judicials" (a constitution he proposed, which was rejected in favor of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties - and speaking of which, see its prohibition of government monopolies) is based on the Biblical model of property being transferred in a hereditary fashion, and for Cotton, cities took the places of tribes. Thus, his constitution, had it been accepted, would have treated marriages between two different cities as akin to marriages between two different tribes, and the whole arrangement with the daughters of Tzelofehad would have applied, mutatis mutandis.

This is of course not libertarian. But remember, Cotton was dealing with a new society, created from the state of nature, with all property arrangements being established from scratch. So there was no issue of stealing land to retroactively apply new social policies. Rather, the social policies, however non-libertarian, were being applied to a blank slate, and only to those people who wanted to live under Puritan rule in Massachusetts. (In all the arguments against the Puritans and their theocracy, no one notices that no one ever forced anyone to live there, and that everyone was free to leave. When Roger Williams was expelled, Cotton said, "The Jurisdiction (whence a man is banished) is but small, and the Countrey round about it, large and fruitful: where a man may make his choice of variety of more pleasant, and profitable seats, then he leaveth behinde him. In which respect, Banishment in this countrey, is not counted so much a confinement, as an enlargement.".)

And in "God's Promise to His Plantation," Cotton echoes Locke's theory that a man can acquire property by making a change to it, by investing his labor in it.

So I would say that even though Cotton's policies seem non-libertarian, we must remember that they were starting from a blank slate, and so whatever lack of liberty there was, was made up for by a preponderance of consent of the governed.