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Medieval Judaism and Libertarianism

Two great tastes that taste great together?

Zack Beauchamp
June 26, 2012
The Old Synagogue in Sopron, Hungary.(By Emmanuel Dyan/Flickr.)
The Old Synagogue in Sopron, Hungary.(By Emmanuel Dyan/Flickr.)

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there’s been a fascinating symposium on a new book, John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness. The book argues (I am simplifying greatly) that libertarians should be more like left-liberals (focus more on helping the poor) and left-liberals should be more like libertarians (focus on protecting “economic liberties” from government interference). The book is mostly a work of political philosophy (and, full disclosure, I helped conduct research for it), but one of his arguments looks very interesting in light of … medieval Jewish history. Let’s take a look!

One of John’s arguments, which he calls “linkage,” is that economic freedom helps buttress the social and political rights that we all agree are super important. Once people have property rights, for example, it’s harder for the government to take away their freedom of speech because they it can’t take away privately owned computers or printing presses. There’s an interesting twist on this in the early medieval Jewish experience, wherein Jews denied the liberty to participate in other sectors of the economy built up a comparative advantage in banking (as Christians were religiously prohibited from charging interest). Check out the consequences:

Very wealth Jews became central to their co-religionists. They were Jews with access to the halls of power; they were the economic supports of their fellow Jews; they were the mainstays of the Jewish community, bearing the heaviest burden of financing the necessary institutions of communal life and culture. The advantages of Jewish moneylending resided in the wealth and political leverage it conferred.

In essence, the liberty to succeed in the marketplace empowered an otherwise trod-upon minority to gain a degree of social power that it wouldn’t have otherwise had. In this case, then, capitalist freedoms appeared to challenge entrenched social discrimination by allowing a minority to carve out a space for itself. Indeed, Enlightenment Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn partly based his case for Jewish emancipation on the critical role Jews had come to play in the economy. Yay for economic freedom then, yes?

Not quite so fast. All the financial clout Jews had accrued in Britain (about which, along with France, the above excerpt was focusing on) didn’t stop the York massacre in 1190 or the expulsion of all Jews from Britain in 1290. Further, as we all know, Jewish success in commercial life ended up producing a vast array of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the consequences of which proved to be deadly in both private and public life. In those cases, the active exercise of state power (in forms ranging from anti-discrimination laws to military force) was often needed to protect the Jewish community from those who wished to do it harm.

The point, then, is that the potential for capitalist freedoms to allow disadvantaged minorities to develop social power cannot be discounted. At the same time, we cannot be blind to the way that other forms of discrimination and power imbalances can undermine those freedoms. Sometimes, dealing with these problems requires the active exercise of state power to protect minority rights, possibly by restricting on the freedom of private actors (including economic actors) to discriminate. It’s a tricky balance, and one that we need to think hard about in advanced capitalist societies. And while John’s book is a welcome step forward, I’m not sure more doctrinaire libertarian accounts than his are well-suited to thinking this sort of problem through.

On that note, that’s it for my guest blogging stint, folks. I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did. If you’re interested in staying in touch or just yelling at me, you can find me on Twitter as @zackbeauchamp. Take care!

Zack Beauchamp contributes to Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. His Twitter feed is @zackbeauchamp.