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Biography of Juan de Mariana: The Influence of the Spanish Scholastics (1536-1624)

The prehistory the Austrian School of economics can be found in the works of the Spanish scholastics written in what is known as the “Spanish Golden Century,” which ran from the mid- sixteenth century through the seventeenth century.1

Who were these Spanish intellectual forerunners of the Austrian School of economics? Most of them were scholastics teaching morals and theology at the University of Salamanca, in the medieval Spanish city located 150 miles northwest of Madrid, close to the border of Spain with Portugal. These scholastics, mainly Dominicans and Jesuits, articulated the subjectivist, dynamic, and libertarian tradition on which, two-hundred-and-fifty years later, Carl Menger and his followers would place so much importance.2  Perhaps the most libertarian of all the scholastics, particularly in his later works, was the Jesuit Father Juan de Mariana.

Mariana was born in the city of Talavera de la Reina, near Toledo. He appears to have been the illegitimate son of a canon of Talavera, and when he was sixteen, joined the Society of Jesus, which had just been created. At the age of twenty-four, he was summoned to Rome to teach theology, then transferred to the school the Jesuits ran in Sicily, and from there to the University of Paris. In 1574, he returned to Spain, living and studying in Toledo until his death at the age of eighty-seven.

Although Father Mariana wrote many books, the first one with a libertarian content was De rege et regis institutione (On the king and the royal institution), published in 1598, in which he set forth his famous defense of tyrannicide. According to Mariana, any individual citizen can justly assassinate a king who imposes taxes without the consent of the people, seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, or prevents a meeting of a democratic parliament.3  The doctrines contained in this book were apparently used to justify the assassination of the French tyrant kings Henry III and Henry IV, and the book was burned in Paris by the executioner as a result of a decree issued by the Parliament of Paris on July 4, 1610.4

In Spain, although the authorities were not enthusiastic about it, the book was respected. In fact, all Mariana did was to take an idea that natural law is morally superior to the might of the state to its logical conclusion. This idea had previously been developed in detail by the great founder of international law, the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1485 1546), who began the Spanish scholastic tradition of denouncing the conquest and particularly the enslavement of the Indians by the Spaniards in the New World.

But perhaps Mariana’s most important book was the work published in 1605 with the title De monetae mutatione (On the alteration of money).1  In this book, Mariana began to question whether the king was the owner of the private property of his vassals or citizens and reached the clear conclusion that he was not. The author then applied his distinction between a king and a tyrant and concluded that “the tyrant is he who tramples everything underfoot and believes everything to belong to him; the king restricts or limits his covetousness within the terms of reason and justice.”

From this, Mariana deduced that the king cannot demand tax without the consent of the people, since taxes are simply an appropriation of part of the subjects’ wealth. In order for such an appropriation to be legitimate, the subjects must be in agreement. Neither may the king create state monopolies, since they would simply be a disguised means of collecting taxes.

And neither may the king this is the most important part of the book obtain fiscal revenue by lowering the metal content of the coins. Mariana realized that the reduction of the precious metal content in the coins, and the increase in the number of coins in circulation, is simply a form of inflation (although he does not use this word, which was unknown at the time), and that inflation inevitably leads to an increase in prices because “if money falls from the legal value, all goods increase unavoidably, in the same proportion as the money fell, and all the accounts break down.”

Mariana describes the serious economic consequences to which the debasement and government tampering with the market value of money lead as follows: “Only a fool would try to separate these values in such a way that the legal price should differ from the natural. Foolish, nay, wicked the ruler who orders that a thing the common people value, let us say, at five should be sold from ten. Men are guided in this matter by common estimation founded on considerations of the quality of things, and of their abundance or scarcity. It would be vain for a Prince to seek to undermine these principles of commerce. ‘Tis best to leave them intact instead of assailing them by force to the public detriment.”6

We should note how Mariana refers to the fact that the “common estimation” of men is the origin of the value of things, thus following the traditional subjectivist doctrine of the scholastics, which was initially proposed by Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva. Covarrubias (1512 1577), the son of a famous architect, became bishop of the city of Segovia and a minister to King Philip II. In 1554, he set forth better than anyone before the subjectivist theory of value, stating that “the value of an article does not depend on its essential nature but on the subjective estimation of men, even if that estimation is foolish,” illustrating his thesis with the example that “in the Indies wheat is dearer than in Spain because men esteem it more highly, though the nature of the wheat is the same in both places.”7

Covarrubias’s subjectivist conception was completed by another of his scholastic contemporaries, Luis Saravia de la Calle, who was the first to demonstrate that prices determine costs, not vice versa. Saravia de la Calle also had the special distinction of writing in Spanish, not in Latin. Its title was Instruccion de mercaderes (Instruction to merchants), and there we can read that “those who measure the just price by the labor, costs and risk incurred by the person who deals in the merchandise are greatly in error. The just price is found not by counting the cost but by common estimation.”8

The subjectivist conception initiated by Covarrubias also allowed other Spanish scholastics to get a clear insight of the true nature of market prices, and of the impossibility of attaining an economic equilibrium. Thus, the Jesuit Cardinal Juan de Lugo, wondering what the price of equilibrium was, as early as 1643 reached the conclusion that the equilibrium depended on such a large number of specific circumstances that only God was able to know it (”Pretium iustum mathematicum licet soli Deo notum”).9  Another Jesuit, Juan de Salas, referring to the possibilities of knowing specific market information, reached the very Hayekian conclusion that it was so complex that “quas exacte comprehendere et ponderare Dei est non hominum” (only God, not men, can understand it exactly).10

Furthermore, the Spanish scholastics were the first ones to introduce the dynamic concept of competition (in Latin concurrentium), which is best understood as a process of rivalry among entrepreneurs. For instance, Jeronimo Castillo de Bovadilla (1547 ?) wrote that “prices will go down as a result of the abundance, rivalry (emulacion), and competition (concurrencia) among the sellers.”11

This same idea is closely followed by Luis de Molina.12  Covarrubias also anticipated many of the conclusions of Father Mariana in his empirical study on the history of the devaluation of the main coin of that time, the Castilian Maravedi. This study contained a compilation of a large number of statistics on the evolution of prices in the previous century and was published in Latin in his book Veterum collatio numismatum (Compilation on old moneys).13  This book was highly praised in Italy by Davanzaty and Galiani and was also quoted by Carl Menger in his Principles of Economics.14

We should also note how Father Mariana, when explaining the effects of inflation, listed the basic elements of the quantity theory of money, which had previously been explained in full detail by another notable scholastic, Martin Azpilcueta Navarro (also known as Dr. Navarro), who was born in Navarra (northeast Spain, near France) in 1493. Azpilcueta lived ninety-four years and is famous especially for explaining, in 1556, the quantity theory of money in his book Resolutory Commentary on Exchanges. Observing the effects on Spanish prices of the massive inflow of precious metals coming from America, Azpilcueta declared that “as can be seen from experience, in France, where there is less money than in Spain, bread, wine, clothing, labor, and work cost much less; and even in Spain, at the time when there was less money, the things which could be sold and the labor and work of men were given for much less than after the Indies were discovered and covered her with gold and silver. The cause of which is that money is worth more where and when it is lacking than where and when it is in abundance.”15

Returning to Father Mariana, it is clear that his most important contribution was to see that inflation was a tax that “taxes those who had money before and, as a consequence thereof, are forced to buy things more dearly.” Furthermore, Mariana argues that the effects of inflation cannot be solved by fixing maximum rates or prices, since experience shows that these have always been ineffective. In addition, given that inflation is a tax, according to his theory of tyranny, the people’s consent would, in any event, be required but, even if such consent existed, it would always be a very damaging tax that disorganized economic life: “this new levy or tax of the alloyed metal, which is illicit and bad if it is done without the agreement of the kingdom, and if it is done therewith, I take it as erroneous and harmful in many ways.”

How could resorting to the comfortable expedient of inflation be avoided? By balancing the budget, for which purpose Mariana basically proposed spending less on the royal family because “a moderate amount, spent with order, glitters more and represents greater majesty than a superfluous amount without order.”

Second, Mariana proposed that “the king should reduce his favors,” in other words, he should not reward the real or supposed services of his vassals so generously: “there is no kingdom in the world with so many prizes, commissions, pensions, benefits, and posts; if they were well distributed in an orderly fashion, less would need to be taken from the public treasury or from other taxes from which money contributions can be got.”

As we can see, the lack of control over public spending and the purchase of political support with subsidies dates from a very long time ago. Mariana also proposed that “the king should avoid and excuse unnecessary undertakings and wars, cut off the cancerous limbs that cannot be healed.” In short, he set forth a whole program for a reduction in public spending and keeping the budget balanced which would, even today, serve as a model.

It is obvious that if Father Mariana had known the economic mechanisms that lead to the credit expansion process generated by banks and the effects of this process, he would have condemned these as robbery. He would have condemned not only the government debasement of coins but also the even more disturbing credit inflation created by banks. However, other Spanish scholastics were able to analyze the credit expansion of banks. Thus, de la Calle was very critical of fractional-reserve banking. He maintained that receiving interest was incompatible with the nature of a demand deposit, and that, in any case, a fee should be paid to the banker for keeping the money under his custody. A similar conclusion is reached by the more famous Navarro.16

Molina was sympathetic to fractional-reserve banking and confused the nature of two different contracts, loans and deposits, which Azpilcueta and Saravia de la Calle had clearly differentiated from each other previously. A more relevant aspect is that Molina was the first theorist to discover, in 1597 (therefore much earlier than Pennington in 1826), that bank deposits are part of the monetary supply. He even proposed the name “chirographis pecuniarium” (written money) to refer to the written documents that were accepted in trade as bank money.17  Our scholastics included, therefore, two incipient schools. The first is a kind of “Currency School,” formed by Saravia de la Calle, Azpilcueta Navarro, and Tomas de Mercado, who were very distrustful of banking activities, for which they implicitly demanded a one-hundred-percent reserve should be held. The second was a kind of “Banking School,” headed by the Jesuits Luis de Molina and Juan de Lugo, who were much more tolerant toward fractional-reserve banking.18  Both groups were to a certain extent the forerunners of the theoretical developments which were to arise three centuries later in England as a result of the debate between the Currency School and the Banking School.

Murray Rothbard stresses how another important contribution of the Spanish scholastics, especially of Azpilcueta, was to revive the vital concept of time preference, originally developed by one of the most brilliant pupils of Thomas Aquinas, Giles Lessines, who, as early as 1285, wrote “that future goods are not valued so highly as the same goods available at an immediate moment of time, nor do they allow their owners to achieve the same utility. For this reason, it must be considered that they have a more reduced value in accordance with justice.”19

Father Mariana also wrote another important book, Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compania (A discourse on the sicknesses of the Jesuit order), which was published posthumously. In that book, Mariana criticized the military hierarchy established in the Jesuit order, but also developed the pure Austrian insight that it is impossible to endow state commands with a coordinating content due to lack of information. In Mariana’s words: “power and command is mad. . . . Rome is far away, the general does not know the people or the facts, at least, with all the circumstances that surround them, on which success depends. . . . It is unavoidable that many serious errors will be committed and the people are displeased thereby and despise such a blind government. . . . It is a great mistake for the blind to wish to guide the sighted.”

Mariana concludes that, when there are many laws, “as not all of them may be kept or known, respect for all of them is lost.”20

In summary, Father Mariana and the Spanish scholastics were capable of developing the essential elements of what would later be the theoretical basis of the Austrian School of economics, specifically the following: first, the subjective theory of value (Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva); second, the proper relationship between prices and costs (Luis Saravia de la Calle); third, the dynamic nature of the market and the impossibility of the model of equilibrium (Juan de Lugo and Juan de Salas); fourth, the dynamic concept of competition understood as a process of rivalry among sellers (Castillo de Bovadilla and Luis de Molina); fifth, the rediscovery of the time-preference principle (Martin Azpilcueta Navarro); sixth, the distorting influence of the inflationary growth of money on prices (Juan de Mariana, Diego de Covarrubias, and Martin Azpilcueta Navarro); seventh, the negative economic effects of fractional-reserve banking (Luis Saravia de la Calle and Martin Azpilcueta Navarro); eighth, that bank deposits form part of the monetary supply (Luis de Molina and Juan de Lugo); ninth, the impossibility of organizing society by coercive commands, due to lack of information (Juan de Mariana); and tenth, the libertarian tradition that any unjustified intervention on the market by the state violates natural law (Juan de Mariana).

In order to understand the influence of the Spanish scholastics on the later development of the Austrian School of economics we should remember that in the sixteenth century Emperor Charles V, who was the King of Spain, sent his brother Ferdinand I to be King of Austria. “Austria” means, etymologically, “eastern part of the Empire,” and the Empire in those days comprised almost all of continental Europe, with the sole exception of France, which remained an isolated island surrounded by Spanish forces. So it is easy to understand the origin of the intellectual influence of the Spanish scholastics on the Austrian School, which was not purely coincidental or a mere whim of history, but originated from the intimate historical, political, and cultural relations which existed between Spain and Austria from the sixteenth century onwards. In addition, Italy also played an important role in these relations, acting as an authentic cultural, economic, and financial bridge over which the relations between the two farthest points of the Empire in Europe (Spain and Vienna) flowed. So there are very important arguments to defend the thesis that, at least at its roots, the Austrian School is truly a Spanish School.

Indeed, we could say that the greatest merit of Carl Menger was to rediscover and take up this continental Catholic tradition of Spanish scholastic thought that was almost forgotten and cut short as a consequence of the black legend against Spain and the very negative influence on the history of economic thought of Adam Smith and his followers of the British Classical School.21

Fortunately, and despite the overwhelming intellectual imperialism of the British Classical School, the continental tradition was never totally forgotten. Economists like Cantillon, Turgot, and Say kept the torch of subjectivism burning. Even in Spain, in the years of decadence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the old scholastic tradition survived in spite of the inferiority complex toward the British intellectual world that was so typical of those years.

Proof of this is how another Spanish Catholic writer solved the “paradox of value” and clearly set forth the theory of marginal utility twenty-seven years earlier than Carl Menger. This was the Catalonian Jaime Balmes (1810 1848). During his short life, he became the most important Spanish Thomistic philosopher of his time. In 1844, he published an article entitled “True idea of value or thoughts on the origin, nature, and variety of prices,” in which he solved the paradox of value and clearly sets forth the idea of marginal utility. Balmes wondered, “Why is a precious stone worth more than a piece of bread?” And he answered, “It is not difficult to explain. Being the value of a thing its utility . . . if the number of units of this means increases, the need of any one of them in particular decreases; because being possible to choose among many units, none of them is indispensable. For this reason there is a necessary relation between the increase or decrease in value, and the shortage or abundance of a thing.”22

In this way Balmes was able to close the circle of the continental tradition, which was ready to be taken up, completed, and enhanced a few years later by Carl Menger and his followers from the Austrian School of economics.

  • 1a1bMurray N. Rothbard first developed this thesis in 1974, in the paper entitled “New Light on the Prehistory of the Austrian School,” which he presented at the conference held in South Royalton, Vermont, and which marked the beginning of the notable re- emergence of the Austrian School. That paper was published two years later in The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics, Edwin Dolan, ed. (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1976), pp. 52 74. He then developed it more fully in his monumental Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, vol. 1, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1995), chap. 4, “The Late Spanish Scholastics,” pp. 97 133.
    Rothbard was not the only Austrian economist to show the Spanish origins of the Austrian School. F.A. Hayek held the same view, especially after meeting Bruno Leoni, the great Italian scholar, and author of Freedom and the Law (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1991). Leoni met Hayek in the 1950s, and convinced him that the intellectual roots of classical economic liberalism were continental and Catholic, and should be sought in Mediterranean Europe, not in Scotland. One of Hayek’s best pupils, Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, specialized in Spanish literature and translated the main texts of the Spanish scholastics into English in what is now considered a short classic, The School of Salamanca: Readings in Spanish Monetary Theory, 1544 1605 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952). In addition, an excellent resource is Economic Thought in Spain: Selected Essays of Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, Laurence Moss and Christopher Ryan, eds. (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1993). I even have a letter from Hayek, dated January 7, 1979, in which he asked me to read Murray Rothbard’s article on “The Prehistory of the Austrian School” because he and Grice-Hutchinson “demonstrate that the basic principles of the theory of the competitive market were worked out by the Spanish Scholastics of the sixteenth century and that economic liberalism was not designed by the Calvinists but by the Spanish Jesuits.” Hayek concludes his letter saying that “I can assure you from my personal knowledge of the sources that Rothbard’s case is extremely strong.”
  • 2The most up-to-date work on the Spanish scholastics is the book by Alejandro Chafuen, Christians for Freedom: Late Scholastic Economics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).
  • 3Mariana describes the tyrant as follows:
    “He seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, impelled as he is by the unkingly vices of lust, avarice, cruelty, and fraud. . . . Tyrants, indeed, try to injure and ruin everybody, but they direct their attack especially against rich and upright men throughout the realm. They consider the good more suspect than the evil; and the virtue which they themselves lack is most formidable to them. . . .They expel the better men from the commonwealth on the principle that whatever is exalted in the kingdom should be laid low. . . . They exhaust all the rest so that they cannot unite by demanding new tributes from them daily, by stirring up quarrels among the citizens, and by joining war to war. They build huge works at the expense and the suffering of the citizens. Whence the pyramids of Egypt were born. . . . The tyrant necessarily fears that those whom he terrorizes and holds as slaves will attempt to overthrow him. . . . Thus he forbids the citizens to congregate together, to meet in assemblies, and to discuss the commonwealth altogether, taking from them by secret-police methods the opportunity of free speaking and freely listening so that they are not even allowed to complain freely.”
    Cited in Rothbard, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, pp. 118 19.
  • 4See Juan de Mariana, Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compañía​ (Madrid: Don Gabriel Ramirez, 1768), p. 53, “Dissertation on the author, and the legitimacy of this discourse.”
  • 6Quoted in Rothbard, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, p. 120.
  • 7Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva, Omnia Opera (Venice, 1604), vol. 2, chap. 4, p. 131.
  • 8Luis Saravia de la Calle, Instruccion de mercaderes (1544); republished in Coleccion de Joyas Bibliograficas (Madrid, 1949), p. 53. Saravia’s book addresses the business entrepreneur (in Spanish mercaderes) following a continental Catholic tradition that can be traced back to San Bernardino de Siena (1380 1444). See Rothbard, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, pp. 81 85.
  • 9Juan de Lugo (1583 1660), Disputationes de iustitia et iure (Lyon, 1642), vol. 2, d. 26, s. 4, n. 40, p. 312.
  • 10Juan de Salas, Commentarii in secundam secundae D. Thomae de contractibus (Lyon, 1617), vol. 4, no. 6, p. 9.
  • 11Jeronimo Castillo de Bovadilla, Practica para corregidores (Salamanca, 1585), vol. 2, chap.4, no. 49. See also the important comments on the scholastics and their dynamic concept of competition written by Oreste Popescu, Estudios en la historia del pensamiento economico latinoamericano (Buenos Aires: Plaza and Jan,s, 1987), pp. 141 59.
  • 12Luis de Molina, De iustitia et iure (Cuenca, 1597), vol. 2, disp. 348, no. 4, and La teoria del justo precio, Francisco Gomez Camacho, ed. (Madrid: Editora Nacional, 1981), p. 169. Raymond de Roover, ignoring the work of Castillo de Bovadilla, acknowledges how “Molina even introduces the concept of competition by stating that concurrence or rivalry among buyers will enhance prices.” See his article “Scholastic Economics: Survival and Lasting Influence from the Sixteenth Century to Adam Smith,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 69, no. 2 (May 1955): 169.
  • 13Included in Covarrubias, Omnia Opera, vol. 1, pp. 669 710.
  • 14Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (New York: New York University Press, 1981), p. 317.
  • 15Martin Azpilcueta Navarro, Comentario resolutorio de cambios (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cient¡ficas, 1965), pp. 74 75.
  • 16See Jesus Huerta de Soto, “New Light on the Prehistory of the Theory of Banking and the School of Salamanca,” Review of Austrian Economics 9, no. 2 (1996): 59 81.
  • 17Luis de Molina, Tratado sobre los cambios, Introduction by Francisco Gomez Camacho (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Fiscales, 1990), p. 146. Also James Pennington’s memo dated February 13, 1826, “On the Private Banking Establishments of the Metropolis,” included as an Appendix in Thomas Tooke, A Letter to Lord Grenville; On the Effects Ascribed to the Resumption of Cash Payments on the Value of the Currency (London: John Murray, 1826).
  • 18However, according to Father Bernard W. Dempsey, if the members of this second group of the School of Salamanca had had a detailed theoretical knowledge of the functioning and implications of the economic process to which fractional-reserve banking gives rise, it would have been described as a perverse, vast and illegitimate process of institutional usury, even by Molina, Lessius, and Lugo themselves. See Father Bernard W. Dempsey, Interest and Usury (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Public Affairs, 1943), p. 210.
  • 19Quoted in ibid., p. 214, n. 31.
  • 20Mariana, Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compania, pp. 151 55, 216.
  • 21See Leland B. Yeager, “Book Review,” Review of Austrian Economics 9, no. 1 (1996): 183, where he says:
    “Adam Smith dropped earlier contributions about subjective value, entrepreneurship and emphasis on real-world markets and pricing and replaced it all with a labor theory of value and a dominant focus on the long run “natural price” equilibrium, a world where entrepreneurship was assumed out of existence. He mixed up Calvinism with economics, as in supporting usury prohibition and distinguishing between productive and unproductive occupations. He lapsed from the laissez-faire of several eighteenth-century French and Italian economists, introducing many waffles and qualifications. His work was unsystematic and plagued by contradictions.”
  • 22Jaime Balmes, “Verdadera idea del valor o reflexiones sobre el origen, naturaleza y variedad de los precios,” en Obras Completas (Madrid: B.A.C., 1949), vol. 5, pp. 615 24. Balmes also described the personality of Juan de Mariana with the following graphic words:
    “The overall impression that Mariana offers is unique: an accomplished theologist, a perfect Latin scholar, a deep knowledge of Greek and the eastern languages, a brilliant man of letters, an estimable economist, a politician with great foresight; that is his head; add an irreproachable life, strict morality, a heart which does not know untruth, incapable of flattery, which beats strongly at the mere name of freedom, like that of the fierce republicans of Greece and Rome; a firm, intrepid voice, that is raised against all types of abuse, with no consideration for the great, without trembling when it addressed kings, and consider that all this has come together in a man who lives in a small cell of the Jesuits of Toledo, and you will certainly find a set of virtues and circumstances that seldom coincide in a single person.”
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