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.