Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Does Liberalism Lead to Absolutism?

Fall 2001

The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit by A.J. Conyers (Spence Publishing Company, 2001; xiv + 266 pgs. 1 )

A supporter of the absolute state might defend his cause with many slogans, but freedom of religious opinion, one would think, could hardly find a place among them. Professor Conyers disagrees: he maintains that in the history of modern Europe, toleration has had a distinctly illiberal outcome.

I was at first skeptical of our author's arresting contention, but another book has given me pause. Walter Berns's Making Patriots, reviewed first in this issue, perfectly illustrates Conyers's point. Berns defends religious freedom, but believers had better grasp their servile place within society. Woe to the believer whose conscience tells him a law duly enacted by the state is unjust! He must, Berns holds, put away his private misgivings and obey the state's dictates. By confining religion purely to the private sphere, Berns renders nugatory its impact on the social order. 

If Conyers is right, Berns is no accident. The substance of our author's argument is this: Kings who, starting in the sixteenth century, wished to centralize power faced formidable obstacles. In the Middle Ages, they found themselves everywhere hemmed in by competing centers of power and local customs. "The habitual contours of society-one might say its natural arrangement within the ebb and flow of informal authority-is a function of the family, the village, the locale, the trade association, and of religion. These sometimes smaller and always subtler arrangements of customary authority were always potentially in competition with the comprehensive political arrangements of the modern state. They were seen as natural obstacles in the project of erecting large-scale central administration, remote from local arrangements" (pp. 50-51).

In particular, aspiring absolutists had to do something about religion. The Roman Catholic Church, a formidable international power, blocked the way of any king who claimed total authority. And the Reformation churches, though often instruments of national consolidation, by no means always aided the growth of central authority. All the major Christian churches taught that a body of divine or natural law limited the government's power.

Given this structure of society, the course of action for a potential absolutist was apparent: He must endeavor to reduce the power of all institutions that limit his power, the church foremost among them. If individuals had to confront the ruler without the benefit of intermediate institutions, they would find resistance to his will a difficult if not impossible task.

But this bold agenda could not be achieved directly. People often adhered to their faiths with tenacious loyalty, and any attempt to abolish the church would necessarily prove futile. More plausibly, the king might attempt to construct a national church to serve as his pliant tool. But this scheme faced some formidable difficulties of its own. How was the king to deal with those who dissented from the official church? To allow them to practice their faith unhindered might lead to a "state within the state." Religious dissenters, like the Huguenots in France, exercised political authority in certain areas in virtual independence of royal authority. And if the king tried to compel dissenters to join his church, outright religious war threatened.

The absolutist king then faced a task almost impossible to fulfill. To hold unlimited power, he must control the church; but it appeared that he could not achieve this goal without bringing about consequences that from his point of view were undesirable. Our author suggests that a different tactic proved useful. If religion could be reduced entirely to private belief, would not the absolute monarch gain everything he wanted? Since each person was free to believe as he wished, dissenters need no longer fear persecution. But because the state divorced religion from public affairs, the absolutist king could proceed without hindrance from the church.

Professor Conyers's thesis suffers from a glaring weakness that I fear is fatal. He has identified with perfect accuracy a real issue: Institutions that shield individuals from powerful centralized states have lost much of their authority. No longer can the church bring a ruler to his knees in repentance. But it does not follow from these undoubted facts that theorists of religious toleration aimed to bring about an absolute state and an impotent church. Conyers fails to show that the major writers he discusses favored toleration for these purposes. (Hobbes favored absolutism but not toleration.)

Conyers's treatment of the greatest of the theorists of tolerance, John Locke, provides an excellent test case for his thesis. If he wants to claim that Locke's policy of religious tolerance promoted absolutism, he confronts a formidable obstacle: Locke defended individual rights and a strictly limited state. How, then, can one possibly argue that Locke's defense of toleration aimed to promote state power?

Our author fully grasps the difficulty, and one tactic, if successful, would resolve it. In the 1660s, Locke wrote favorably of absolutism; perhaps his early work provides the key to the real meaning of his later and more famous books. In the Two Tracts on Government (1660-1662), "it becomes clear that Locke was an `authoritarian' rather than a `liberal' in his view of public order. These early tracts were written to uphold the authority of the `supreme magistrate' over matters of religion. . . . Toleration is hardly in view in this writing, and when he raises the issue in 1667, in An Essay on Toleration, he clearly takes a position that is at variance with his famous "Letter Concerning Toleration," two decades later" (p. 125). In the earlier essay, he rejects liberty of conscience. 

Leo Strauss and his many followers argue that Locke never really abandoned his early absolutism; he only disguised it. Conyers cites in this connection Robert Kraynak, a follower of Strauss: "Kraynak finds it remarkable that they [non-Straussian scholars] do not consider the possibility that there is a deeper, underlying principle to which Locke is perfectly loyal: `They have not considered the possibility that absolutism is the original form of liberalism'" (pp. 125-26).

One may readily grant Kraynak's premise that his contention should be examined; but having done so, why should we accept it? Why is it naive to think that Locke, having discovered good arguments for individual rights, abandoned his youthful and derivative Hobbesian proclivities? Straussians themselves favor rule by a philosophical elite, hidden beneath the form of liberalism. To them, classical liberalism is obvious nonsense, if taken at face value. No significant thinker can, then, genuinely hold this view; and this is why they dismiss as naive the standard interpretation of Locke. If Locke in his later writings meant what he appears to be saying, Conyers cannot use him to show that liberal toleration aimed to promote absolutism.

Conyers's next step appears obvious; he must show that the Straussian reading fits the texts better than the "face_value" position. Oddly, he does not do so. Instead, he lists four possible interpretations of Locke, including the two just mentioned (pp. 135-36), and two that stress Locke's complexity and confusion. He offers no grounds for choosing between the conflicting views. Does he not realize that his failure undermines his argument? To claim, absent any evidence, that Locke's liberal works have a hidden authoritarian agenda helps Conyers's thesis not a whit.

But our author goes on to deploy a somewhat better argument. Locke, he contends, suffered from a "bipolar disorder." "In Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government . . . he writes consistently as if the relationship between the individual and the commonwealth were the only relationships that mattered so far as political theory and policy are concerned. He takes note of smaller associations, but only as they figure into the evolution of the grand arrangement between the individual and the state" (p. 139). He contrasts Locke unfavorably with Althusius, who was fully alive to the importance of families and associations. 

But from the fact that Locke did not say as much about intermediate groups as Conyers would like, how does it follow that he wished to eviscerate them? Locke constructed his political theory around individuals and their rights, true enough; but this is perfectly consistent with thinking associations between the state and individuals supremely important. Locke wrote a good deal about education, a fact that should suggest he did not neglect the family.

At this point I can imagine Professor Conyers complaining, "You have misunderstood me completely! I do not contend that Locke consciously aimed to promote absolutism. My thesis is rather that his bipolar political philosophy led to an increase in state power. Haven't you heard of unintended consequences?" (I do not, in fact, think he would say this, since I think he inclines to the conscious-aim view; but as always, I try to make the best case I can for my authors.)

This reply falls before the counterargument already considered. Conyers can show to his entire satisfaction that Locke viewed churches, from the standpoint of his political theory, as contracts between individuals. It does not follow that the effects of this theory reduced their importance. Conyers, following Tocqueville, de Jouvenel, and Nisbet, rightly stresses the value of associations; but he does nothing to show that Locke, whether by intent or otherwise, had anything to do with their decline.

Conyers's book deals with other thinkers than Locke; but whether Pierre Bayle and John Stuart Mill lend better support to his argument I shall leave to readers to decide for themselves. I do not think that they do, but I have thought it more useful to consider one writer at length than a number in less detail. Conyers has hold of an important truth. There is, just as he says, a quasi-Hobbesian position that promotes religious tolerance in order to aggrandize the state. Of that Walter Berns is proof. But he does not show that any of the major theorists he discusses adopts this view. His book, though, does contain much that is excellent, such as the discussion of Mill and Calvinism (p. 161). One can even forgive him for thinking Richelieu a minister of Louis XIV (p. 58).

Mises Review Archives


Image of Mises Coat of Arms Ludwig von Mises Institute
518 West Magnolia Avenue
Auburn, Alabama 36832-4528

334.321.2100 Phone
334.321.2119 Fax
AOL-IM: MainMises

Contact us button
Mises.org Menu