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Tolerance: Two Kinds

Mises Daily: Monday, June 25, 2001 by


The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2001)

Ludwig von Mises wrote eloquently in Liberalism (1929) of the victory of tolerance that accompanied the development of capitalism. Making an argument in the tradition of John Locke, Mises held that churches had, rightly, come to renounce the use of brute force in settling disputes. He thought that the rightness of this outcome should be apparent to everyone, including adherents of the various religions (Liberalism, pp. 55-57). It might seem odd, therefore, that I should review in this space a book that appears to make an argument against toleration.

A.J. Conyers, author of The Long Truce, is a Baptist theologian who teaches at Baylor University. He writes that this book grew out of an "intuition" that toleration, as we now conceive it, sprang up "along with the rise of the modern nation-states" (p. xi).  Toleration involved an appeal to higher authorities against local ones and thus ran in tandem with secularization and centralization (p. xii). It is Conyers’s intuition that perhaps we have paid too a high price for toleration.  

A long period of European wars intertwined with the struggles between Catholics and Protestants (1559-1689) seemed to make the case for strong national monarchies capable of imposing either religious uniformity through national churches, or later, toleration within their sovereign territories. Both solutions conceded far too much power to the national state.

Conyers argues that the practice of toleration actually antedated the early modern theory, although the practice differed by time and place.  Modern toleration, as an instrument of state power, enabled kings, soldiers, and bureaucrats to level out intermediate social institutions which once stood between individuals and the state. The result was not freedom, properly understood, but "Napoleon, War, Empire" (p. 10). 

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s terms, it was the triumph of "organized" authority over "natural" authority.  Given the crisis in which Christian European civilization found itself, the strong state imposing tolerance (once imposing uniformity had proved too costly) seemed a reasonable solution. But toleration literally means to "bear with," to put up with error; this implies a standard of judgment. Late modern tolerance claims there are no certain standards.

With centralized sovereign states stepping in to save the day, Thomas Hobbes could not be far behind. Conyers treats Hobbes as the man who consistently theorized the abstract state and tolerance. Influenced by both Puritanism and nominalism, Hobbes threw out formal and final causes and worked only with efficient and material causes. There were only bodies in motion. The world was now an object to manipulate. The moral order itself was entirely artificial or conventional, leaving only will and power on center stage. 

This might have been bad enough, but later thinkers, beginning with Pierre Bayle, further departed from the medieval Christian-realist synthesis. John Locke’s writings on toleration stressed the inevitable failure of attempts to coerce conscience. As a matter of practical policy, English magistrates should tolerate competing brands of Protestantism.  Locke’s views resemble those of Madison and Jefferson, although the latter two were more open to tolerating Catholics, and possibly, atheists. So far, so good, and I am not entirely sure what it is about Locke’s particular argument that Conyers finds troubling.

With each successive thinker, we come closer to our twenty-first-century plight. The thought of John Stuart Mill constitutes a sort of turning point. Mill reduced tolerance to a means to another end: the quest for an ever-unfolding body of truth. John Dewey struck the final blow. Since for him there are no formal and final causes—these are mere superstitions—tolerance functions as a pragmatic strategy in sorting out our rather forlorn course through an inherently meaningless world of process, becoming, or "progressive being." Conyers writes: "Only at this stage do we see that development as the basis of toleration invites, not toleration at all, but persecution" (pp. 166-167, my italics).

Dewey and his fellows claimed they were merely giving general advice on how to get where we are going, pursuing middle-run "ends-in-view" (there being no formal and final causes). In practice, someone had to decide such matters, and of course it was the omnicompetent state that appeared to fill the bill. This brings us back to will and power. Moderns have typically found this quite acceptable; post-moderns only object that the wrong people have had the power. 

What good, then, is a sterile doctrine of tolerance enforceable by states, when the states embody will and power and take up choosing our short- or middle-run ends-in-view for us? And what do we get for abdicating natural, local, social authority to states?  We get colossal slaughters like World Wars I and II. World War II was possible, at bottom, because each state involved commanded society’s resources to a degree impossible a few centuries earlier. Conyer’s discussion of such issues is remarkably similar to that of military historian Martin Van Creveld.

States advance by bringing into doubt all nonpolitical social ends. Tolerance—wrongly understood—was just another weapon in the state’s arsenal.  Another problem was the long-standing habit of reasoning by loose analogies between theological propositions and political ones.  Thus, monotheists have often justified monarchy (or centralized power): "One God, One Empire, One Emperor," as Constantine the Great said; or "No Bishop, No King," as the unfortunate Charles I said. 

Conyers suggests that if analogies were to be used, it would have been better to reason from the Trinity to society and politics. Such analogies might have taken into account the plurality of natural authorities.  Earlier in the book, he has discussed the decentralist and federalist views of Althusius as a passed-over alternative to the political theory of Hobbes and Locke.  He also nods in the direction of the Catholic social-theory concept of subsidiarity, the idea that responsibility is best lodged in the smallest social unit able to handle it. This notion, by the way, gets much lip service from the literally irresponsible bureaucrats of the European Union (more will and power), and nothing else. (Note to our European cousins: Get your right to secede from the EU in writing. It can’t hurt.)

This book is a bit like a foreign film. It builds slowly but steadily, so that the author can pull his thesis together in the last couple of chapters. It seems to me an argument well worth waiting for. Conyers is in the tradition of Althusius, Tocqueville, and Nisbet—three scholars from three different centuries, each of whom stressed the importance of real, local social groupings and institutions for free and decent human societies. Lest readers conclude that Conyers has spent all this time only to call for a return to intolerance, I am happy to report that he actually favors "recovery of [the] practice of toleration" (p. 245, his italics), that is, of tolerance rightly understood. 

I have only one complaint. In one or two places, Conyers writes as if the development of wider markets and intensified processes of production were part of a unified trajectory which included larger states, bigger wars, and misconceived tolerance.  In this I think he is simply mistaken.  If anything, greater material well-being could only help the smaller natural communities to which he is committed. 

I should add that, as a Christian, Conyers believes that there are formal and final causes. Knowledge of these gives meaning and direction to our lives. Armed with that knowledge, we can practice tolerance for the right reasons and in the right fashion. The alternative is what we have seen looming up for the last twenty or thirty years: states which propose to rule entirely on the basis of will and power, now that tolerance no longer serves any overriding state purpose. That is the whole point of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism—the intolerant gospel which demands the right to impose artificial "diversity" and speech controls according to some theorem about whose turn it is to be oppressed—works chiefly through public education. So does an aggressive official nationalism in an existing multiethnic state.

Here we can link up Conyers’s perspective with that of Mises. In both Liberalism and Omnipotent Government, Mises argued that radical administrative decentralization, self-determination of the smallest possible ethnic enclaves, and abolition of state-controlled schooling held out the only real hope for defusing the numerous ethnopolitical and religious conflicts found in central and southern Europe: "a policy of compulsory education is utterly incompatible with efforts to establish lasting peace" (Liberalism, p. 114).

This radical tack, by removing whole realms of social life from the hands of states which have colonized them, could only work toward restoring the healthy intermediate institutions about which Conyers writes. Here would be found the practice of tolerance, in place of the theory.


Joseph Stromberg (stromberg@mises.org) is historian-in-residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. See his Mises.org Archive.  You can  also purchase from Amazon.com.