For the most part, the flourishing of self-governing cities of the kind Prof. Donald W. Livingston describes in “Aristotelian Worms in the Leviathan” (Views, January) took place in northern Italy, central and western Germany, and the Netherlands, where the absence of a strong central authority was decisive, but the rights of the cities in Germany and Holland received confirmation and protection only through the adjudication of a superior authority in the Imperial Diet.  That would suggest that, for free cities or free associations of the kind Professor Livingston envisions to come about, there would need to be an authoritative—which is to say, legitimate—but fairly weak government confirming the rights of these associations in law.  For his idea to work, there would need to be a federal government akin to the Holy Roman Empire to guarantee the independence of the associations or “private governments” in their own internal affairs.

        —Daniel Larison
Chicago, IL

Dr. Livingston Replies:

Mr. Larison’s point is well taken, but the question is whether “a federal government akin to the Holy Roman Empire” is necessary to maintain the independence of small human-scale polities.

First, although the Holy Roman Empire was at times a background of legal authority for free cities, it was not always, and was not the only one.  The Church, at times, also performed this function.

Second, the cities themselves, through economic competition, established their own courts of adjudication, and competing jurisdictions generated laws that were widely recognized across Europe by other cities.

Third, the Greek city polities maintained themselves for centuries without anything like a federal government.

Fourth, through feudal law, property holders could enforce their rights by their own strong hand when other authorities would not act.  And these enforcements were recognized as lawful.  See Otto Brunner’s Land and Lordship.

Finally, Mr. Larison imagines a federal government “akin” to that of the Holy Roman Empire.  The problem is that federal governments today are not even remotely akin to the Holy Roman Empire.  The latter was an order of landed proprietors acting under divine law and acknowledged custom; the former is an artificial corporation with a monopoly on coercion over individuals, which makes law.  My point about the rise of private government associations is that, if cultivated and developed into genuine and flourishing polities within existing property law, they could become centers of moral resistance  to further expropriations by the state.  And moral resistance is not to be despised, for, as Hume taught, political authority rests not on mere force but on opinion.