Myth and Modernity: A Review of Persecution and Toleration

Myth and Modernity: A Review of Persecution and Toleration

One doesn’t need much detailed historical knowledge to be struck by just how recent many of the most deeply held moral and political convictions in the modern West are. Prior to just a few hundred years ago, it would have been considered eccentric (at best) or seditious (at worst) to make a general case against evils such as corruption, slavery, discrimination, or the entanglement of religion and politics. The reaction would be – and not without some justification – that’s just how the world works. Compared not only to the vast sweep of history, but also to much of the non-Western world today, our sensibilities are markedly W.E.I.R.D.

The West’s own mythos deals with this problem by drawing a line from the Reformation through the Enlightenment, where people gradually realized that these evils were not, in fact, how the world works, and sloughing them off, they opened the door for moral and political progress.

Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama’s book, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom, focuses on one particular element in the constellation of liberal virtues – religious toleration – and tells a story very much at odds with our triumphalist mythos. The contrast between our own distinctive convictions on the virtue of religious tolerance and those of our ancestors is due neither to the particular viciousness or ignorance of the premodern West, nor to the particular virtue or insight of the modern West. Instead, they argue, the institutional developments that resulted in modern centralized states, set in motion for mostly quite illiberal reasons, made religious toleration possible in a way that it had not been prior.

If this argument is true of religious toleration, it is probably true of the whole set of distinctively liberal values and freedoms. And if so, the triumphalist mythos may render us complacent in the face of threats to the viability of liberal values. Understanding just what made liberal values viable starting in the late 1700s, and why they were not before, will be crucial to their survival into the future. This is precisely what Persecution and Toleration sets out to do.

The book is largely successful in doing so. Its sixteen chapters do not, however, form a linear argument. Instead, they branch off in various directions, bringing the authors’ previous work to bear, and circle around the theme of the emergence of religious toleration as an aspect of the development of liberal states. I will comment on three related, but separate, threads:

  1. What the first chapter identifies as the main argument: that strong, stable, and centralized states are a prerequisite for (religious) freedom, quite irrespective of the ideological environment,
  2. The importance of legitimacy in social order, and how exactly its sources have changed in the modern era, and
  3. The Jewish experience as an exemplar of the political economy of market-dominant minorities.

State capacity and liberal values

The main takeaway of the book, established in the first several chapters and revisited in the last several, is that it’s a mistake to think of the state as the enemy of liberty, particularly of religious liberty. Indeed, to elevate liberty as a political goal at all – whether you suppose that achieving it requires the state to step in or step back – is to presuppose an environment with a state strong enough to enforce general rules. Absent that, when political authority is weak or fragmented, the question of liberty – in the sense of abstract rights as opposed to specific privileges – never even arises. Contrary to popular imagination, the age of absolutism in Europe was characterized by comparatively weak (though strengthening) political authority. The pretensions of monarchs to absolute power were, in most respects, just that.

In this argument, Johnson and Koyama situate themselves within the State Capacity literature, whose goal is to account for the counterintuitively strong historical correlation between individual liberty and the size of government. The first chapter defines state capacity as a combination of fiscal capacity, “the state’s ability to raise tax revenue” in a regular, predictable, and non-distortive way, and administrative capacity, “the state’s ability to enforce rules in a consistent way.”

The most obvious interpretation of state capacity, a prerequisite for both fiscal and administrative capacity, would be power. However, for a variety of reasons, power is far from sufficient. As North and Weingast famously argued, the ability to make commitments and bind one’s future self is an important part of both fiscal and administrative capacity. They show that in important respects, the ability to be bound is quite opposed to what we usually understand as power. State capacity, therefore, is not synonymous with “size of government” or “power of government”, though it can entail these things on certain margins.

The book, unfortunately, does little to explicitly dispel this misconception, though it is hardly alone in the state capacity literature in this respect. What is necessary is disentangling the margins on which state power supports liberal values, and those in which it is inimical to it, in a way that does not rely on a one-dimensional Goldilocks story where the problem is to grant the state just enough power.

To answer this question, I find Michael Mann’s distinction between a state’s despotic power and its infrastructural power useful. The despotic power of the state is the ability of state actors within their ambit to have their wishes obeyed. This is not exactly power simpliciter, as that ambit may be quite small for premodern states. But it does suggest that the popular image of premodern absolutists is not quite unwarranted. Mann argues,

The despotic powers of many historical states have been virtually unlimited. The Chinese Emperor, as the Son of Heaven, ‘owned’ the whole of China and could do as he wished with any individual or group within his domain. The Roman Emperor, only a minor god, acquired powers which were also in principle unlimited outside of a restricted area of affairs nominally controlled by the Senate. Some monarchs of early modern Europe also claimed divinely-derived, absolute powers (though they were not themselves divine). The contemporary Soviet state/party elite, as ‘trustees’ of the interests of the masses, also possess considerable despotic (though sometimes strictly unconstitutional) power. Great despotic power can be ‘measured’ most vividly in the ability of all these Red Queens to shout ‘off with his head’ and have their whim gratified without further ado – provided the person is at hand.

The modern debate about state power and liberty refers mainly to despotic power. The infrastructural power of the state, on the other hand, is

the capacity of the state to actually penetrate civil society, and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm. This was comparatively weak in the historical societies just mentioned—once you were out of sight of the Red Queen, she had difficulty in getting at you. But it is powerfully developed in all industrial societies.

Compared to premodern states, modern liberal states have traded away a great deal of despotic power to achieve extensive infrastructural power. “State capacity” refers primarily to the latter, though confusingly, it seems to cover low despotic power at times as well. Nevertheless, though Persecution and Toleration lays out state capacity as a one-dimensional spectrum between “strong” and “weak” states (fiscal and administrative capacity are assumed to go together), something like Mann’s two-dimensional model is clearly in the background of the argument. This helps to make sense of several otherwise puzzling statements about states where investment in infrastructural power was not accompanied by a reduction in despotic power, for example in the discussion of Counterreformation Spain and Nazi Germany.

The state capacity argument, then, might be rephrased in Mann’s terminology: (1) the state’s infrastructural power is indispensable for the viability of liberal values, including religious liberty, and (2) infrastructural power does not entail despotic power; in fact, the two may even be negatively related, though not invariably so.

The importance of legitimacy

So much for stating the argument. In making the argument, religious liberty turns out to be particularly apt among the set of liberal values as an illustration of why state capacity is so critical for the establishment and maintenance of liberal values, most importantly because religious legitimation and state capacity are substitutes. They serve the same function, namely, to suppress defection and organize large-scale collective action. To put it more concretely, they enable people to live together peaceably on a scale where it’s no longer possible for everyone to personally know everyone else.

A few more words deserve to be said on this point, as it contradicts the triumphalist mythos at an important juncture. Any social body, by definition, faces situations where the interests of the individual conflict with those of the social group. Where this tension cannot be resolved by the application of personal pressure, for example when there are too many people in a community to know them all personally, there arises the twin need for coercion, to suppress antisocial proclivities, and legitimation, to minimize the costly use of coercion. Contrary to the idea that progressive enlightenment leads straightforwardly to social progress, the accumulation of knowledge, especially to the extent that that knowledge is disillusioning, may in fact lead to the breakdown of legitimation and, therefore, of social order.

In Chapter 2, Johnson and Koyama leverage this argument to make a number of preliminary points about the relationship between religion and social order:

  1. The divergence between individual and social interests increases with the size of the social body. Especially at larger scales then, it is infeasible to overcome that divergence by the application of raw despotic power.
  2. The use of coercion can be substantially reduced by the creation of common knowledge that resisting the coercive authority is not in the interests of its subjects. The basis of this common knowledge may be factually true or false, but once established it tends to be self-fulfilling. This is legitimation.
  3. Religion is a powerful source of legitimation. If the state itself is not strong enough to carry out threats sufficient to curtail resistance, it can rely on God(s) to do the same. The book draws on a rich vein of recent research showing that the rise of organized religion is intimately linked in the archaeological record with the rise of large-scale societies, research which strongly suggests that large-scale societies could not have arisen or survived without institutionalized religion to legitimize them.

All this suggests that the common wisdom of premodern Europe had more truth to it than we care to admit today. In a situation where the only large-scale social orders the world had ever seen were invariably legitimated by religion, of course religious liberty would be an absurd prospect. Of course atheists would be untrustworthy. Religion – and not just religion in general, but a particular religion with specific content – was doing the work of holding together the social body, a point quite well grasped by the people in such a regime. Even if any particular individual would prefer not to believe, all else equal, he would also be well aware that a society where everyone (including himself) believed is preferable to a society where no one did.

This situation is what the book refers to as the conditional toleration equilibrium that characterized nearly the entire world prior to the late 17th century (or perhaps even later, by broader definitions), and still characterizes much of the developing world today. When social order relies on religious legitimation, any tolerance that might exist can only ever be conditional and pragmatic. A general principle of religious toleration is simply inconceivable.

A similar story could be told for nearly all of the peculiar liberal values and freedoms we hold sacred today. The freedom to choose a religion, an occupation, a spouse, a place to live – to a greater or lesser extent, all of these things were doing the work of signaling commitment to a larger or smaller social group, and therefore trustworthiness within that group. Knowing who can be trusted and in what contexts is of paramount importance in maintaining social order. Thus the entire community had an existential interest in making sure that individuals made particular choices in these arenas. Freedom would be fatal under such circumstances.

So what changed to make freedom in these areas possible? State capacity, on a historically unprecedented scale. As states built up their infrastructural power, they became less reliant on religious legitimation, and were (incidentally) forced for pragmatic reasons to abandon the attempt to structure the legal system along identity lines. Quite simply, the work that had been done by religious identity in the premodern period was now being done by an autonomous state bureaucracy on the one hand, and by the civic identity it cultivated on the other hand. This development “freed” religion to become the independent and apolitical domain that we (sometimes aspirationally) conceive it to be today, in a way that would have been unthinkable so long as it was doing the work of social cohesion.

In this respect, the book’s story is very similar to the argument of Georg Simmel – someone not generally associated with the notion of state capacity – who argued that the rise of the money economy similarly “freed” outward conformity in a variety of domains (religious, ethnic, sartorial, etc) from its function of signaling cooperativeness and coordinating economic activity, and thus allowed for the possibility of such modern phenomena as fashion and the free choice of subcultures. In religion, as in the variety of smaller domains where we enjoy freedom of choice today, the important thing is that something – whether the state or the money economy – has stepped in to do the work of supporting trust among strangers, work that had previously been done by identity markers that were not subject to individual choice.

In fact, if we take the point seriously that infrastructural power consists largely in the power to make binding commitments, it is notable that infrastructural power increased for all economic actors during the early modern period, and not only (or even primarily) for the state. Commodity markets became better integrated, financial markets became more liquid, and new organizational forms like the joint-stock corporation flourished. In this sense, “state capacity” may simply be a prominent manifestation of what we might call organizational capacity, the ability of people to overcome collective action problems, trust each other, and organize into large groups, whether political, religious, or corporate. Whether the money economy and state capacity are sources or consequences of increased organizational capacity – and strong arguments could be made either way – the two are both closely linked to this broader phenomenon. The state capacity story on the origin of liberal values, therefore, bears more than just a formal similarity to the Simmel story.

But what accounts for the unprecedented increase in organizational capacity in the first place? Both Simmel as well as Johnson and Koyama take this fact mostly as given for the aspect they are concerned with. The latter do so as a deliberate methodological choice: starting from a conditional toleration equilibrium, two shocks – the Military Revolution that induced the initial investment in state capacity by intensifying interstate competition, and the Reformation that reduced the availability of religious legitimation by fragmenting the religious landscape – reinforced one another and set states on the path toward  what they call the religious liberty equilibrium. Even so, they are not quite so bold as to turn this into a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for breaking out of the conditional toleration equilibrium. Would we have liberal states today if the Reformation had happened without the military revolution? Or if the military revolution had happened without the Reformation? Would the decrease in the availability of religious legitimation have led states toward increased capacity if they had not already made the initial investments prior? And on the other hand, would states have continued to invest in capacity without the sudden decrease in the availability of religious legitimation? The argument suggests “no”, but never quite explicitly. Without this, it becomes harder to generalize, or to imagine the sorts of shocks or interventions that might break current societies in the developing world out of the conditional toleration equilibrium.

These questions aside, the book does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of legitimacy at precisely those points where the West’s triumphalist mythos obscures it, and in doing so reveals our anti-mythological self-conception as a legitimizing myth in its own right – though, significantly, one that leverages civic and ideological identity rather than religious identity (this distinction is discussed in the penultimate chapter). In the final pages of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, Krag asks the protagonist: “You think you are thoroughly disillusioned, don’t you? Well, that may prove to be the last and strongest illusion of all.” Johnson and Koyama pose the same question to the modern Westerner possessed of Enlightenment triumphalism. The truly disillusioned position, it turns out, is not the rejection of myth, but a healthy respect for its indispensable role in maintaining social order.

The political economy of market-dominant minorities

If religious toleration is the flipside of religious liberty, the book addresses both in depth, but emphasizes different aspects of each: religious liberty, but religious toleration – hence the impression of a separate thread. What is striking about the latter, weaving through the Jewish experience in Europe, is how little it has to do with religion. Indeed, much of the book’s arguments on the political economy of toleration applies just as well to ethnic as to religious minorities.

But not simply to minorities qua minorities. Little of chapters 4-6 would be useful for understanding the history of Gypsies in Eastern Europe, for example, or of blacks in the U.S. They do suggest its applicability, however, to the Hugenots in France, the Quakers in England, both Jews and Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and the Copts in Egypt. One might also suggest the Han in Malaysia or whites in Zimbabwe to indicate that the issue is not simply one of religious versus ethnic minorities.

The key to the political economy story they tell is that market dominant (and also, importantly, politically dominated) minorities, whether ethnic or religious, give rise to specific political-economic dynamics, especially where the axis of that minority status (religious, ethnic, or otherwise) is an important component of the state’s political legitimacy. Thus, many of the claims in the book about the long-run economic benefits of Jewish settlement imply less about the benefits of religious diversity per se (as Chapter 12 claims) than about the drawbacks of making life inhospitable to those segments of the population with the highest human capital – and why states might be driven to do so anyway.

Understanding these political-economic dynamics takes on particular importance in light of the recent resurgence of online antisemitism. One of the more persistent arguments even bears a superficial similarity to the argument of the previous section: what could explain the consistency with which Jews have faced hatred, expulsion, and pogroms nearly everywhere they have settled for millennia, if not a legitimate factual basis for antisemitism? What if our ancestors were right after all?

One great virtue of Persecution and Toleration is that it tackles this question head on. The answer, they argue, is that in an environment where religion is doing the heavy lifting in legitimizing the state, religious minorities will only be tolerated if either (1) the state is too weak to enforce homogeneity, or (2) that minority provides some important service that the majority cannot provide for itself.

Under these circumstances Jewish communities found moneylending to be a particularly rewarding occupation, due to both the general prohibition on lending money at interest to coreligionists (preventing Christians from competing with them) and to their exclusion from much other employment (preventing them from competing with Christians). The monopoly profits that this generated then induced monarchs to integrate Jewish finance into the state’s fiscal apparatus and appropriate much of those profits for royal purposes. As Chapter 4 points out, “Jews provided an indirect way of taxing the growing commercial economy”. Indeed, the fate of Jews and of kings were intimately related, and when peasant or noble opinion turned against the monarch, Jews frequently bore the brunt of the rage.

This dynamic accounts for the major antisemitic tropes without any reference to the characteristics of Jews themselves aside from high human capital: the association with commerce and moneylending, with the levers of power despite being formally excluded from politics, and disproportionate success even in the face of discrimination. Similar libels and stereotypes characterize public opinion of market-dominant minorities around the world and throughout history, for similar reasons. And if high-human-capital minorities are as indispensable for economic growth in the developing world today as the evidence in Chapter 12 shows they were in Europe, identifying and dispelling these stereotypes will be a critically important task in countless modern contexts. As Koyama has argued elsewhere on the basis of this book, antisemitism in particular – along with analogous prejudices against other high-human-capital minorities – is closely “linked with anti-market sentiments,” sentiments that hold back growth, development, and human flourishing across the world.

I was, however, left with some questions about the dynamic, most significantly, the way that variation in the toleration of Jewish communities was accounted for. At times the argument seems to rely on the fact that people dislike moneylenders as such to explain outbursts of persecution: a number of riots instigated by heavily indebted nobles specifically targeted Jews and destroyed their ledgers in order to escape debt. At other times, the book highlights complementarities: Section 6.2 notes “a lower probability of persecution in cities where Jews were offering moneylending services or services to the trading sector.” I can, of course, imagine plausible differences in these situations (for example, lending to feudal versus commercial sector, or the extent to which the fiscal burden of expropriative taxes was passed onto borrowers). But without a sense of when people appreciated the availability of credit more than they felt the burden of debt, or vice versa, it’s hard to say that variation in the frequency or intensity of persecution has been explained.

Nevertheless, Persecution and Toleration’s discussion of the Jewish experience in Europe shines on the whole not only as a work of social science and history, but also for directly addressing antisemitic points whose appeal in the era of Twitter and YouTube lies largely in the impression that no one will answer them honestly. Because it is an academic book, however, its reach is necessarily limited. The authors may, therefore, be in a good position to pitch a more mass-market companion book on the dynamics of low-capacity states that lead to antisemitism and analogous prejudices against other market-dominant minorities. A world with Johnson and Koyama on airport bookshelves would certainly be a more hopeful one.


The argument in Persecution and Toleration has many more aspects and a great deal more nuance than I have been able to do justice to here, and other readers may pick out different threads than I have done. In particular I have said little about the book’s key argument on the timing of persecutions, which shows how the legitimation argument explains why – again contrary to popular imagination – persecution was in fact most intense during the early modern period, and not during the medieval or dark age periods.

The book also has a great deal of relevance to the modern world which, if anything, it undersells, no doubt for reasons of academic humility. Chapter 15, for example, draws on the work of Jared Rubin and Timur Kuran to show that the Islamic world never escaped the conditional toleration equilibrium, and that its political institutions for that reason bear a strong resemblance to premodern Europe in their reliance on religious legitimation and identity rules. Beyond that, however, as I have tried to show, the story of the emergence of religious liberty is illustrative of the conditions under which the whole panoply of liberal freedoms emerged. In addition, the story of the rise and decline of religious persecution in Europe, primarily of Jews but also to dissident Christian sects, illustrates the plight of minorities of all types under low-capacity states, especially when they are market-dominant.

Much of this relevance is hinted at, even if it is not explicitly drawn out. But perhaps the concluding chapter’s digression on esoteric writing, and the necessity of doing so when addressing a society’s legitimizing myths as such, is an invitation to the reader to supply these connections himself.

 Persecution and Toleration draws on a rich variety of historical sources and economic theory to tell a series of interlocking stories about the fall of identity rules in organizing Western society, and the unlikely rise of liberal values – or more precisely, a particular liberal value – out of their ashes. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the origin and preservation of those values.

Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom is available in hardback, paperback, and ebook from Cambridge University Press.

Featured image is Quakers making merry