From the Comments: Ottoman autocracy, Turkish liberty

Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at Islam without Extremes (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

(Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality.)

This is from Barry Stocker, responding to Jacques’ musings on the Ottoman Empire and libertarian arguments that are sometimes in favor of it. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, though Dr Delacroix has yet to respond…

The Ottoman Empire and Libertarianism

Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East. The question is interesting on several counts, one of which is that the regions affected by the Islamic State today, Arab and Kurdish alike, plus all of southern Iraq, plus Kuwait, plus Jordan and Palestine (including the current Israel), plus, more loosely, all of the Arabian Peninsula, were more or less under Ottoman/Turkish control until the end of World War One.

Libertarians allude to the “millet” system under which many different ethnic or national groups co-habitated peacefully for several centuries. Those are pretty much the same groups that have been eviscerating one another for several years and pretty much every time a strong and dictatorial leader does not clamp down on them. There is one large fault in this happy vision: the attempted genocide of the Armenians begun under full Ottoman power in 1895 and nearly completed as the empire was falling apart during World War One.

The millet system of governance should be of interest to libertarians who generally wish for less government, less expensive government, more responsive government and, especially, less intrusive government. Under the millet system, at least when it was fully functional, the Ottoman governor of say, the province of the empire that now encompasses Lebanon and Western Syria would summon yearly the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He would address him as follows:

“Your Eminence is well I trust, and his family, and I hope that his sons are brave a wise. I am happy to hear that Almighty God has blessed Your Eminence with many grandchildren. And I am told your community is thriving. Now, based on the figures your office gave me and based on my own information, I think that the Greek Orthodox community must deliver to our master the Sultan, one hundred pounds of gold and three hundred fit young men of military age this year. Agreed? Thank you for your visit and may you and your community, Your Eminence, continue to prosper under the benign, enlightened and fair rule of our great sultan.”

Then, the governor would ask over the main Ayatollah of the Shiite Muslims and deliver himself of a similar oration. And so on.

But I must pause for a confession. The quote marks around the above monologue are metaphorical. I am not reproducing a real monologue. Something like the monologue above must have been delivered thousands of times but I must admit I was not present to hear any of them. (On the other hand, I spent time in Turkey on vacation ten years ago and I regularly drink coffee with Turks. And, I like Turks in general.)

Again, the millet system is a good historical example of extreme decentralization and of minimally intrusive government. It was also very inexpensive to administer. It had little permanent bureaucracy to speak of that could grow upon itself and reproduce itself endlessly thus forever shrinking the area of individual autonomy. At the same time as the comparable Hapsburg Empire was developing a large bureaucracy, at the time when territorially much smaller France was perfecting the art of centralized bureaucracy, at the time when the small Kingdom of Prussia was developing the very model of modern bureaucracy that was to become a model for the whole world, the millet system endured in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Ottoman government was small and it seemed to be treading lightly on the land, you might say. It sounded a little like a sort of libertarian dream.

But, wait a minute, I need to complete significantly the imaginary monologue of the Ottoman governor above. On parting, the governor would have probably added: “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves. Everything will be fine unless I hear too much about you. If I do, bad things will happen to your community.” Or, he did not even need to utter the words. Everyone knew about the bad things that would happen if disorder arose. Some of these bad things were community leaders’ heads on a spike in village centers.

The Ottoman Empire that relied on the light, non-invasive, decentralized millet system was also famous for the fierceness of its repression. And this haven of diversity disintegrated swiftly throughout the 19th century with a speed that must give pause.

The unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began around 1805 when the large and important Egyptian subdivision gained all but nominal independence through an armed revolt and even waged successful war on the Empire. During the rest of the 19th century, the areas of the Empire now comprising Greece, Bulgaria and Romania decisively seceded. In the meantime, much of the rest of the officially defined Empire drifted away, such as Libya and Tunisia. Later, during World War One, the British (Lawrence) and the French did not have much trouble talking the remaining Arab areas of the empire into open rebellion. And yes, there was an attempted massive genocide of Armenians, in two phases. The first phase was under full Ottoman power in the 1890s; the second, much larger step occurred during the waning days of Ottoman rule starting in 1915.

Now, one can argue – and historians routinely do – that the spectacular disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was due to external pressures from the rising, fast industrializing European powers. Yet, the fact that national (ethnic) entities took up every opportunity to leave the Empire does not speak well of the effectiveness of Ottoman administration. The fact that they sometimes did it a a cost of great bloodshed, the Greeks in particular, does not strengthen the idea of contentment of the administered. The fact is that the subject people of the Ottoman Empire including the many governed through the millet system described above seem to have left as soon as the opportunity arose.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poses a conceptual problem: Did it fall apart in spite of the admirable millet system of government or because of it? Was internal peace maintained in the Empire for a long time because of the virtues of the millet system or because of the ever-present threat of a large and fierce army facing a divided and unarmed populace?

Was the Ottoman Empire taken apart from within, and also from without, because the administrative principles behind the millet system impeded the supply of the means of self-preservation?

Beyond this lies an even graver question for anyone with libertarian aspirations: Do systems of administration that share the main features of the millet system, decentralization, low cost, and low-level invasiveness contain the seeds of their own destruction? Does administrative lightness actually nurture violent intervention from above and/or from outside?

I don’t know the answers to these serious questions. I think libertarians of all feathers don’t discuss these and related issues nearly enough. I suspect libertarian circles harbor their own form of political correctness that paralyzes such essential inquiries. I do what I can. I know it’s not much.

We can’t engineer our way out of this

Folks on the left have been getting more interested in science lately (though history tells us that might be something to worry about). They’re right to celebrate the incredible results of scientific progress–but scientific victory isn’t uniform across disciplines.

In some areas (including just about all areas on the cutting edge), scientists disagree with one another.It’s a big, complex world we live in, and we don’t understand it fully. That disagreement doesn’t mean we should discount science entirely, but it does mean we should be careful with it.

Imagine a world where engineers disagreed about the capabilities of their techniques and the strength of the materials they use. Some might be beholden to special interests (which gives me an idea for a public choice version of the Three Little Pigs), others might be dogmatic/superstitious. But even without concerns of systemic issues, we should be hesitant to try to get to the moon. That disagreement should tell us that we aren’t certain enough in our knowledge to make anyone but volunteers put their lives in the hands of those engineers.

Social scientist in particular frequently disagree with each other. Most are trying earnestly to apply the scientific way of thinking to understanding the social world, and it’s worth considering their view points. But applying that knowledge should only be done in a decentralized way. Applying the incredible insights of behavioral economics from the top down is appealing, but it’s probably best to do it piecemeal.

Social engineering and social science are harder than physical engineering and the physical sciences. Part of the problem Western governments face is that they’re trying to engage in social engineering. And politicians are promising them greater degrees of social engineering to improve the well-being of their constituents.

The trouble is two-fold: 1) those social engineering techniques aren’t good enough, even if they’re sometimes appealing. 2) The cost to decision makers of buying snake oil is too low in voting booths.

To my friends who are looking to the government to make things better: whether your hope is for government to help people be better versions of themselves, or to stop bad guys, we should push as much of that policy to the local level as possible. It might be nice if the whole country were more like Berkeley or Salt Lake City, but trying to make it happen at the national level is a recipe for conflict, disorder, and doing more harm than good. Keep policy local.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The ABC’s of really bad news
  2. Most ideologies have no use for distinguishing between prophet and politician
  3. The conservative split over Donald Trump
  4. Will we proceed with campaign slogans, or with reflection and hard work? A must read
  5. Healing through decentralization

O que é capitalismo?

O Brasil é capitalista? O capitalismo é culpado por vários problemas que observamos no Brasil? E outros países? A China é hoje um país de economia capitalista, ainda que com política socialista (ou comunista)? O capitalismo prejudica os mais pobres enquanto beneficia os mais ricos? Estas são algumas questões com as quais me esbarro regularmente. Algumas pessoas mais sofisticadas observam que não há apenas um capitalismo, mas vários: o capitalismo brasileiro é diferente do sueco, que é diferente do japonês, que é diferente do norte-americano, e assim por diante. Vejo alguma pertinência nesta observação, mas penso que ela ainda deixa de lado a questão mais básica e fundamental: o que é capitalismo?

Suponho que sem recorrer a qualquer fonte podemos concluir que capitalismo é algo relacionado a capital. Segundo o Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, de Roger Scruton, “o capitalismo é um arranjo econômico, definido pela existência predominante de capital e trabalho assalariado”. De acordo com esta definição, no capitalismo alguns ganham salários e outros ganham lucros. Capital por sua vez é definido como “os meios de produção produzidos, ou seja, commodities que foram produzidas e que por sua vez podem ser empregadas na produção de outras commodities”. Em outras palavras: capital são recursos que são empregados na produção de mais recursos. Capitalismo é um sistema econômico (e não predominantemente político ou social ou cultural) que gira em torna da alocação destes recursos.

Partindo de uma forma de pensar semelhante, Milton Friedman observou que todos os países são capitalistas. Os EUA são capitalistas. A China é capitalista. A URSS é capitalista (Friedman estava fazendo esta observação ainda no período da Guerra Fria). Não há país (ou sociedade) onde não haja capital e onde não ocorram decisões sobre como alocar o capital. Há bastante tempo Max Weber fez uma observação semelhante, afirmando que alguma forma de capitalismo esteve presente em todas as civilizações, com a diferença que mais recentemente o Ocidente produziu um capitalismo moderno, com características peculiares. Mas voltando para Friedman: todos os países são capitalistas. A questão é: quem controla o capital?

A pergunta de Friedman lembra uma observação de Friedrich Hayek: durante o período da Guerra Fria era comum afirmar que a economia da URSS era planejada, enquanto que a economia dos EUA não era. Mas esta afirmação está errada: ambas economias eram planejadas. A da URSS por um pequeno grupo de pessoas em Moscou; a dos EUA por milhões de indivíduos espalhados pelo país. O ponto de Hayek é que uma economia necessariamente envolverá decisões sobre como alocar capital (ou recursos). A questão é: quem tomará estas decisões? Um grupo de governantes num comitê centralizado, em nome de toda a população? Ou a própria população, numa esfera mais modesta, dentro de suas próprias vidas?

Adam Smith é popularmente considerado o pai do capitalismo (e também da Economia como disciplina acadêmica, além do liberalismo econômico. Adam Smith teve muitos filhos). Curiosamente, Smith não usou o nome capitalismo em seus escritos (este nome seria cunhado mais tarde por marxistas – o próprio Marx também não usou este nome, ao menos não regularmente), mas falava sobre sociedade de mercado. A observação de Smith era que em tempos recentes mais pessoas estavam se tornando mercadores. Em tempos antigos (sobretudo na Antiguidade Clássica de Grécia e Roma) as relações econômicas eram dominadas por donos de terras e escravos. Havia mercadores (ou comerciantes), mas estes ocupavam um espaço menor na sociedade (e também eram vistos com desconfiança por não produzirem nada – apenas trocarem o que outros produziram). Na Inglaterra do final do século 18 mais pessoas eram comerciantes, isto é, trocavam alguma coisa, ainda que “alguma coisa” fosse sua força de trabalho em troca de salários. Neste sentido, Smith não inventou o capitalismo moderno: apenas observou e descreveu seu nascimento – além de suas vantagens diante de outros arranjos econômicos.

Partindo de Adam Smith e chegando a Friedman e Hayek, podemos observar quatro elementos fundamentais do capitalismo moderno (ou do liberalismo econômico, ou as sociedade de mercado, ou do livre mercado): escolha pessoal; trocas voluntárias; liberdade para competir em mercados; direito de propriedade privada. A escolha pessoal se refere às decisões individuais que se toma a respeito dos recursos individuais (devo sair para trabalhar hoje? Ou devo ficar em casa?). Trocas voluntárias se refere ao fato de que posso livremente trocar meus recursos com outra pessoa que queira fazer o mesmo (havendo uma coincidência de vontades). Liberdade para competir significa que posso oferecer meus serviços (ou produtos, ou talentos) e aguardar que haja interessados. Propriedade privada se opõe a propriedade coletiva ou comunal, geralmente sob controle do estado.

Uma forma mais direta de sistematizar a teoria de Smith (e neste ponto de Friedman e Hayek) é dizer que no livre mercado a propriedade é privada (e não coletiva ou comunal) e o trabalho e assalariado (e não escravo). Mais simples ainda, o livre mercado opera pela máxima de “não faça aos outros o que você não gostaria que fizessem com você”, ou “não mexa com quem está quieto”. No livre mercado os indivíduos são livres para fazer trocas voluntariamente com outros indivíduos – que queiram voluntariamente fazer estas trocas, havendo coincidência de vontades.

Há muitos economistas que consideram que a sociedade de mercado é mais um tipo ideal do que uma realidade. Alguns países estão mais próximos desta ideal do que outros, e neste sentido é válida a observação de que há variedades de capitalismo. O capitalismo praticado no Brasil (ou na China) não é (nunca foi e nunca chegou perto de ser) o capitalismo liberal descrito ou almejado por Smith, Friedman e Hayek. O capitalismo praticado nos EUA está mais próximo disso, embora esteja num franco afastamento deste ideal há várias décadas.

Saber o que é capitalismo é um primeiro passo para sabermos se este é um modelo que desejamos ou não. Pretendo nos próximos posts continuar este assunto. Por ora, digo apenas que quando falo a respeito de capitalismo estou pensando na sociedade de mercado descrita ou almejada pela tradição liberal. Caso o que temos no Brasil seja capitalismo, certamente não é este capitalismo que defendo.

Invitation to Steemit – a blockchain based social media platform

As some might already suspect from some of my previous posts, I am a cryptocurrency enthusiast. As of now, there is another crypto-project founded by two libertarian anarchists that I find extremely interesting and that I would like to share with you.

In this post, I’d like to introduce this project called Steemit, a new social media platform where content creators (bloggers) can earn money with every ‘upvote’ (comparable to ‘likes’ on Facebook) they receive from the community. I am not encouraging my fellow note writers to quit posting articles on Notes on Liberty, but I would recommend them to share their articles both here and on the Steemit platform.

So what is Steemit?

“Collectively, user-generated content has created billions of dollars worth of value for the shareholders of social media companies, such as Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. Steem supports social media and online communities by returning much of its value to the people who provide contributions by rewarding them with virtual currency.”

Steemit is most similar to Reddit, but with the important difference that you can monetize your blog. You can take a look at my first two ‘hits’ on Steemit for proof that you can monetize your blogging skills:

Steemit was founded half a year ago by entrepreneurs Ned Scott and Daniel Larimer. Daniel Larimer has been a familiar face in the cryptocurrency scene as the founder of Bitshares, which currently ranks as the 19th largest cryptocurrency in market cap on Steem itself, the currency that drives steemit, has risen in prominence among other cryptocurrencies. According to, Steem is now the 4th largest behind Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple.

The concept behind Steemit is very simple, and you don’t need in-depth knowledge of the workings of cryptocurrencies to start writing (and curating posts) and earning some money. If you have a facebook account or a reddit account, you can sign up at At first sign up, you will receive $10 worth of Steem Power – I will later get to Steem Power to explain what it is. Once you sign up you can immediately start submitting posts or comments on other people’s submissions. You can earn money through both ways.

The website is still in beta, and you may argue that it is not as user friendly as Reddit or other social media networks, but the pace in which applications have been rolled out on the platform in the one month that I have been using it is impressive!

A chat functionality with private messaging, a functionality to follow other writers, and weekly insights in your earnings have for example all been added in the past four weeks.

Steemit roadmap

This, however, is just the beginning. The founders of Steemit have far larger plans than just creating a blockchain based social network. The social network is the means to attract enough users of its currency (Steem and Steem Dollars) that a full-fledged market place based on these currencies can emerge. The first step is to increase the user base, but next steps are to create a market place in which people can trade goods with Steem and Steem Dollars and where Steem will grow in such prominence that it will compete with already existing fiat currencies like the USD, Euro, GBP, Yen, and RMB. We are still far off from this actually happening, but it’s great to see these kinds of experiments with the free market.

Is Steemit a scam?
I have read about people who have called it a scam, but the funny thing is that you don’t need to put any monetary investments in the platform to submit an article and earn some money. Normally in scams, you are encouraged to give away your money for little or nothing in return. With Steemit, all you need is to create content that the community values and in return you will receive some money.

Steem, Steem Power and Steem Dollars
Lastly, I’d like to say some words about the three tokens you can hold when using Steemit: liquid Steem, Steem Power and Steem Dollars (SBD).

Liquid Steem, or simply Steem by name, is immediately convertible to bitcoin and fiat currencies as USD. People who would like to speculate on the price of Steem can hold it to sell at a higher price.

You can also convert your Steem into Steem Power. Steem Power gives you, if I am not mistaken, interest of approximately 0.7% in Steem Power per day. Holding Steem Power is like holding a stake in the long-term development of Steemit as you can only convert 1% per week of your Steem Power in Steem and exchange it for bitcoins and fiat currencies.

Steem Dollars are tokens pegged to the USD at an exchange rate of around 1 : 1. People who don’t like the volatility of cryptocurrencies can hold Steem Dollars.

For more information about Steemit, you can read the Steem White Paper or watch this excellent interview of its founders:

I hope that I have triggered your curiosity about Steemit, and I hope that you will take this invitation to post your content not only on Notes on Liberty, but also on Please don’t forget to follow me once you are on Steemit. You can find me at

Reply to ‘Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism’

I write in reply to Edwin van de Haar’s post ‘Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism’, which contains some generous remarks about my social media posts while putting forward a view different from my own about the role of the nation state. Edwin argues that the nation state is foundational to classical liberalism in that post. I have previously argued for the benefits of the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, just before the referendum which has put the UK on the path to leaving.

I will start with the doctrinal issues of how far classical liberalism might be considered as something that is embedded in the emergence of the nation state as we know it. It is true that classical liberalism arose as the nation state emerged and consolidated and it did not occur to classical liberals, on the whole, to question the state system as they knew it. That is a system defined in early modern natural law and contractual theory about law and state as one of a very unified system of sovereignty in a world of ‘a state of nature’, anarchy, or lawlessness between states.

We have to note at least one major deviation in the familiar list of classical liberal authors, which is Immanuel Kant, thinking of his essays ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ (1784) and ‘Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch’ (1795), which do not question the internal  sovereignty of states, but does argue for a law governed set of relations between states with a global institution of some sort to prevent republics going to war with each other.

We should consider John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on federal states in Considerations on Representative Government (1861), particularly chapter XVII, ‘Or Federal Representative Governments’ which looks at the possibility of a state with decentralised decision making functions. A nation state can be federalised, at least in principle, but what are the components of the federation other then sub-nations, where the population may even regard them as nations within the state. Mill was building on the experience of the United States since the constitution of 1787, and Switzerland, particularly since the federal constitution of 1848.

The United States and Switzerland did not come out of nowhere. The US consolidated the links between thirteen colonies of Great Britain while federal Switzerland built on the Swiss Confederation and its links with places like Geneva which were associated with the confederation, but were not part of it until the restructuring of European states in the Napoleonic period. The point here is that modern states may be federal as well as unitary states and that includes continuity with pre-modern links between at last partly self-governing regions-nations. We could even say that kind of state of associated states was the Medieval norm.

The example, and even idealisation, of this Medieval structure enters classical liberalism via Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748), along with the work of Swiss jurists of the time, particularly in Berne. Montesquieu was building on the experience of the kind of medieval and early modern monarchy where he thought there was liberty, moderation in government, distinguishing it from tyranny. In such situations different laws and assemblies for towns and for historic regions was quite normal under the monarchy. In so far as such states, like France, were tending to evolve in states based on the absolute sovereignty of the centre, in the formation of what we call a nation state, Montesquieu saw the danger of despotism.

The historical experience that Montesquieu was drawing on was the way that Medieval monarchies were constructed through assembling  patch work of  the monarch’s personal domains, regions with their own lords and institutions, and church domains, along with increasingly self-governing towns. He also looked at the antique experiences of allying republics in a federation, which he thought was preserved in the Netherlands and Switzerland of his time. Germany, which at that time was a kind of federal/confederal empire of very varied forms of sub-imperial sovereign units including princes with lands outside the Empire, was also a form of federation for Montesquieu.

If we go back to the German history of the century before Montesquieu, the idea of the modern nation state is strongly associated with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years war, focused on Germany, but drawing in most of Europe. ‘Westphalian state system’ has become a label for an internal system of states which are completely sovereign internally and face each other as equal legal personalities with no higher instance of sovereignty or collective instrument for enforcing the laws of nations, which do have some basis in the natural law doctrines of the time, and earlier.

The trouble with this understanding of Westphalia is that though it has some truth for Europe outside the German Empire (officially known as the Holy Roman Empire), it is very misleading for the Empire, and therefore for those European powers, including Sweden and Denmark, which had land within the Empire. The princes, cities and other territorial units within the Empire were under the legal authority of the Emperor, who largely served as a judge of interstate disputes though with far greater powers in the lands of the Habsburg family (consolidated as the Austrian Empire in the Napoleonic era) which always had the Emperor, though the Emperor was legally an elective office. The Habsburgs land extended outside the Empire into central Europe so the Westphalian system of Imperial authority brought in other European nations and extended outside the Empire strictly speaking.

Westphalia modified a system rooted in the Middle Ages of Germany as a middle European federation or confederation, drawing in other parts of Europe and therefore anchoring a European system of some kind. Periods of dominance by France or Spain complicate this story, but French claims always overlapped with Imperial claims and the peak of Spanish power was when the Spanish monarchy was from the same family as the German Emperors.

The Napoleonic era disrupted these arrangements severely, but we can see Napoleon as trying to revive the original Empire of the Romans under Charlemagne in the ninth century, which united France, Germany and neighbouring territories under a Frankish over-king. Charlemagne was know as ‘father of Europe’ in his time, perhaps more in connection with Europe as Christendom and his wars against Muslims in Spain, then with Europe as we might think of it now, but this is part of the story of what it is for there to be a Europe and a European system. Coronation by the Pope and recognition of the Frankish kingdom as heir to ancient Rome connects the medieval German Empire with the first great European political system, the Roman Empire.

The aftermath of the Napoleonic period in Germany was a confederation, which again included those European powers (the United Kingdom was one) which had lands in Germany. This evolved into the German Empire founded in 1871, which was itself an extraordinary mixture of Greater Prussia, federation, democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, and so on. It was more of a nation state than German predecessor systems in that it was a sovereign unified part of the international state system. The size and growing economic power of the Kaiserreich, incorporating Polish, French and Danish speaking areas, made it a destabilising force in Europe. Too big for the security of other European states, too small to anchor a European system.

The First World War and the Second World War were both consequences of this unstable system. The European Union is in large part an attempt to solve the problem by creating a European system which Germany anchors, though since unification the dominance of Germany has become an issue again. Whatever the problems, the EU provides a better framework for structuring a European system in which Germany is both contained and can exert influence in a consensual manner.

Returning to the issue of the nation state, Germany was never a nation state in the strictest sense of a very unitary state with a single language and ethnicity. France has usually been taken as the model of the nation state ‘strictly speaking’, but even so it has only been a country of speakers of standard French since the late nineteenth century. As it is now, it includes speakers of Breton, Basque, Occitan and Alsace German. Corsica has special status and Alsace-Lorraine also has some special arrangements in recognition of its specificities.

The European world before the First World War was more of a Europe of multi-national Empires than nations, with four Empires (German Hohenzollern, Austrian Habsburg, Turkish Ottoman, Russian Romanov) dominating the centre and east. Spain in practice has always been an extended Castille in which other regions-nations have played variable distinct roles. The United Kingdom never completely integrated as a nation state; even at the peak of integration in the nineteenth century, Scotland kept its own legal, state church and educational system and since then in a rather complicated way the UK has become more loosely integrated and may lose Scotland in a few years.

Even with the imminent departure of the UK from the EU, Europe continues to be a political system, not just an aggregate of nation states. The larger European states are not nation states in the strictest sense. Even without the EU, European states accept various kinds of obligation with regard to north Atlantic security and global trade which limit sovereignty. The UK will negotiate some kind of membership of the internal market of the EU and its passport union aspect, as well as participation in various EU schemes. It will therefore continue to be part of a European system anchored by Germany.

Ever since the Romans, Europe has needed a European system of some kind, and the German anchor schemes going back to 800 have recognised the Roman precedent. In reality there has never been a Europe of nation states and the periods closest to that model ended in catastrophic wars. Disaggregation of the European system as it is now may not result in war, but it has the potential to unleash trade wars, protectionism, competitive currency devaluation, erosion of chances to live, work, and study abroad, associated labour market sclerosis, destabilising struggles for political-diplomatic dominance, and an incapacity to ally in order to deal with global and strategic issues affecting Europe, including migration flows, Russian expansionism, and Middle Eastern conflict and terror.

(more on the consequences of the UK leave referendum soon)