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Economic Freedom for Medieval Jews

Economic Freedom for Medieval Jews

June 27, 2012 12:57 pmComments are Disabled

I just read an interesting perspective from Zack Beauchamp about the interplay between economic freedom and discrimination.  He was responding to this piece by John Tomasi, which in turn is based on a book that Tomasi wrote, so I’m about four degrees removed from the source already, but I wanted to respond specifically to Beauchamp’s point.

Beauchamp observes that Jews enjoyed a greater degree of social freedom when they acquired economic empowerment in the middle ages, and clearly any amount of freedom for any people would be preferable to none.  But given the rise of Jewish freedom in the middle ages due to newfound economic liberty, Beauchamp then goes on to say that “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.”

I think this is an unfounded leap to make, especially in light of the evidence he presents.  Certainly, the pogroms and expulsions of Jews throughout the middle ages were a result of “the active exercise of state power,” not in spite of it, were they not?  In fact, in the history of antisemitism, perhaps no force has been more destructive than state power, whether it be at the hands of Edward I, Ferdinand and Isabella, Stalin, or–forgive me Godwin–Hitler.  In fact, even Beauchamp makes the point that the growth of Jewish economic freedom provided the pretext that “private and public” antisemitism needed.  So although Jews were able to acquire greater freedom in spite of discrimination, the freedom led to more discrimination, thus less freedom is needed to stop it?  It doesn’t make sense.

Jews have not achieved their freedom because of laws forbidding discrimination.  In most cases, especially in the Europe, those laws have only come about after Jews have achieved a sufficient degree of freedom to lobby for and pass those laws.  Throughout history, the trend has been the exact opposite: it is a history of antisemites using their clout and influence to undermine the freedoms of Jews (not to mention others who don’t agree) to disastrous results.

The solution for the plight of the Jews in Europe was not protectionism by a benevolent paternalist, it was freedom from it.  The formation of the State of Israel, for example, gave Jews a country where their economic and political freedoms were not constrained, resulting in great prosperity for that nation.  (Sadly enough, the ethnonationalism of Israel has contributed greatly to restricting the freedom of another people…once again, at the hands of state power.)

The fact is that freedom is not provided for by power.  In those cases where freedom is greatest–free speech and free religion in the United States comes to mind–the government is constitutionally restricted from infringing on those freedoms.  These freedoms are presented in our constitution as negative rights, not a positive ones: we don’t have a right to free speech, Congress specifically has no power to infringe on our free speech.  It is for this reason we say are a nation of enumerated powers, for the purpose that our government only has those powers specifically provided for by the people, and no more.

Beauchamp concludes by saying that he’s “not sure more doctrinaire libertarian accounts than his are well-suited to thinking this sort of problem.”  The doctrine of libertarianism specifically provides for a historical account of freedom as an increased reduction of the role of the state in economic and social affairs.  The largest violation of freedom in the United States–institutionalized slavery–only could exist with the endorsement of state power, not in spite of it.  The segregation of the Jim Crow era was a state institution, whose compliant private enterprises operated in a state of recurring fear of police power and intimidation.  But suffice it to say that libertarianism has an extremely long discourse on the topic of discrimination and freedom.  As it turns out, freedom is better for minorities than government policies.  So called anti-discrimination laws cause more harm than good.

The idea that more power will lead to more freedom is almost oxymoronic, and it goes especially so for the Jews, whose very existence is testament to the ability to resist power that has sought so often in history to destroy them.

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