A short note on the Holy Roman Empire, “democracy,” and institutions

At the heart of Europe […] lay a hugely complex and fragmented political entity which resisted the ‘modernizing’ trend of national state formation, and preserved medieval arrangements conceived as rooted in antiquity: the Holy Roman Empire. After three decades of bloodshed retrospectively known as the Thirty Year War (1618-1648), the Empire had achieved a somewhat precarious equilibrium in which hundreds of semi-autonomous imperial estates co-existed under the loose authority of an emperor and a college of princes. Disparaged as a multi-headed monster by many […,] for Leibniz the Holy Roman Empire remained a preferable alternative to national and absolutist states. In his mind, the Empire offered an ideal of shared sovereignty in which limited territorial autonomy could be combined with a central imperial authority, and the main Christian confessions could cohabit peacefully in a balanced, representative Reichstag. Alongside his more famous works on logic, metaphysics, and mathematics, Leibniz wrote innumerable memos and proposals advising rulers on how to strengthen and re-order the Empire into a stable, supra-national political structure which could protect and promote common interests while maintaining local self-determination in territories and imperial free cities. In short, Leibniz regarded political unity in diversity under a supra-national authority as a better path to peace, prosperity, and stability in Europe than the ascendancy of competing national states.

This is from Maria Rosa Antognazza, a philosopher at King’s College London, writing for Oxford University Press’s blog.  (h/t Barry) Check out this map of the outline of the Holy Roman Empire in 1600 AD (it is superimposed onto the outlines of today’s European states):


It reminded me of this map I produced a couple of years ago showing the GDP (PPP) per capita of administrative units in Europe. What the map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

And here is a map, thanks to Vincent, of GDP per capita in European regions. What his map illustrates, generally, is a Europe where present-day Austria, western Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, and Benelux are much wealthier than the rest of Europe (sans Scandinavia).

Wow, right? Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic are poor today, but the rest of what was once the Holy Roman Empire is very prosperous. So, two lines of thought here. One, socialism is really bad for people. It not only destroys economies and political and civil liberties, it also destroys institutions.

The second line of thought is to wonder aloud a bit more about institutions and their long-term viability. The first question that needs to addressed is “what are institutions?” Today, many scholars use “democracy” and “property rights” as generic answers when explaining to the general public what good institutions are, and they are not wrong, but they don’t do justice to the concept of democracy (or property rights, for that matter). I think a better term might be “representativeness,” or “constitutionalism,” or “republicanism.” Anything but “democracy.” Democracy implies rule of the people, but this doesn’t describe what has happened in the West, in regards to political equality and economic growth (both are uneven, but undeniably real).

“Democracy” sounds better than “political institutions favoring separation of powers and coalition-building in parliamentary settings, as well as the inclusion of people who don’t pull the levers of statecraft (through the voting mechanism),” but this shorthand has obvious negative unintended consequences: many a demagogue will use the term democracy to mean something quite different from what actual self-governance requires institutionally.

There is more to the Holy Roman Empire than just path dependency (albeit stretched to its limits). For instance, you’d have to explore why representative institutions in the HRE eventually failed. My quick guess would be that HRE’s neighbors (Russian Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire, Scandinavian kingdoms) were pretty ruthless and thus made it impossible for more formal constitutional institutions to take deep root and flourish in the heart of Europe. Instead, because of HRE’s unruly neighbors, the Empire was forever in flux between a loose alliance of petty states and a confederation.

4 thoughts on “A short note on the Holy Roman Empire, “democracy,” and institutions

  1. I suspect the rise of Prussia to (more or less) great power status in the Napoleonic Wars, and with a taste for more, had a good bit to do with it as well. As long as Austrian was first amongst equals it sort of worked, when the power was bipolar, not so much.

    There’s also something to be said for the so-called Protestant work ethic, since most of those lands doing better then were historically protestant as opposed to Catholic, this observation would include Scandinavia.

    Far from my area though, and I’m just spitballing it here.

    • Thanks NEO. The balance of power between Prussia and Austria, as it relates to the HRE, is worth much more of our attention. Theory and evidence for stuff like decentralization, federalism, and foreign policy would be a gold mine if applied. I am sure the German language literature on this topic is much more robust than ours.

      On Protestantism, our own Jacques has a published article on this topic. It’s titled “The Beloved Myth…” and shows how Catholic France and Belgium industrialized just as rapidly as the Protestant heartland.

    • I suspect so as well, Brandon.

      On Protestantism, yes Jacques is (at least mostly) correct. I’ve downloaded it but only read the abstract so far. I don’t think it is so much connected with the Reformation as with a worldview, just as likely to happen in Republican France as in Britain. It has more to do with being Northern European than Protestant maybe, the civil structure rather than the church, the freedom to try and fail and try again.

      The US became a special case, I think, because survival was so dependent on doing for one self, and the chronic shortage of labor during the early industrialisation, that I’m not sure we don’t skew the record.

      But there are studies (that I can’t find at the moment) that indicate the Protestant lands were more friendly to entrepreneurship, being more open to new ways, many fewer laws, and even more truthful. But he is correct, France and Belgium started out very well, only falling behind in the late 19th century, which may have objective reasons, because they still produced good stuff at reasonable prices, just not as many of them.

  2. Fascinating thoughts, bringing in Leibniz. No one else is talking about this. It seems to me that the HRE is actually the cradle of freedom. The free cities, the Swiss, the Italian City states, all were offshoots of HRE politics with he pope and the dukes. Someone must have explored this somewhere….

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