Premodern Poland does not often spring to mind when people think about the history of liberty and limited constitutional government. Although Poland is now a member of the European Union and a relatively wealthy country by world standards, it is still recovering from the severe injuries of its Communist-ruled past. External observers have tended to look at Poland--and at central and eastern Europe in general--with condescension, as if it were an inherently backward place that before the Communist era had been burdened by feudal despotism. Such a view, however, is wildly inaccurate. Not only does the region's twentieth-century history offer vivid counterexamples, but its more remote past also presents important grounds for including it in the Occident's philosophical and cultural space. If Western civilization--and civilization in general--rests on the recognition of individual fights that are inalienable and stem from human nature, if it requires a government that is subject to control and accountability, and if it necessitates tolerance of people of different races and religions, then the Polish-Lithuanian Republic (1573-1795) offers a fascinating example of Western civilization at its best. (1)
In this article, I give an account of political institutions and political thought in the region during an era one would not readily associate with libertarian ideals. After all, the era of the republic was also the era of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years War, and the rise of absolutist regimes. To be sure, the republic was not insulated from these cataclysmic events. Even in these circumstances, however, it remained for a long time a place where various religions were tolerated, where the king could not form a standing army to pursue his international ambitions, and where taxation was impossible without the unanimous consent of those who were going to be taxed. For these reasons alone, the Polish-Lithuanian Republic's history and institutions should be of utmost interest to today's classical-liberal thinkers, yet the latter are surprisingly silent with regard to Polish history. No serious effort has been made to understand and evaluate Polish political institutions from the perspective of classical liberalism or libertarianism even though the Polish-Lithuanian Republic appears to be well known informally in the economics profession and among classical liberals. Thus, a vast unexploited profit opportunity exists for classical-liberal scholars, and my main motivation here is to fill this gap in historical research and to show some promising avenues for future research.
I argue that the relative prosperity, the high degree of religious tolerance, and the freedom that prevailed in the Polish-Lithuanian Republic resulted from the particular institutions adopted by local nobles, the szlachta. (2) These nobles were represented in a parliament in which decision making rested on a unanimity rule known as the liberum veto. Furthermore, they had the right to resist and legally to form coalitions to oppose a specific policy the king had adopted or to deal with a grievance or injustice. The elected kings were bound by the Henrician Articles and the Pacta Conventa--precise lists of constitutional requirements whose breach justified civil disobedience.
Notwithstanding these institutions, the Polish-Lithuanian Republic was no libertarian paradise. It was, above all, a manorial society in which political rights were restricted to a small fraction of the total population. The local nobility often behaved despotically, and ordinary people's lives, by today's standards, were "nasty, brutish, and short." Such was the reality in most regions of the world before the Industrial Revolution. I have no desire to deny this part of European history. I seek only to call attention to some of the peculiar Polish institutions that enabled the republic to secure an important degree of political, religious, and economic freedom for all its inhabitants. Given the existing institutional constraints of the manorial system, the republic succeeded in securing a relatively free environment and in resisting tendencies toward political centralization and empowerment of the monarch.
The Republic of the Two Nations
The Republic of the Two Nations, Polish and Lithuanian, was established in December 1568, completing the personal union of Krewo of 1386. (3) In its original form, the republic lasted until the Constitution of May 3, 1791, and the subsequent partitions of Poland that removed Poland from the map of Europe. It lived through agitated times. It survived the Thirty Years War, the Great Northern War, and the Seven Years War without significantly altering its institutions and without abrogating the szlachta's liberties and freedom. However, these recurrent conflicts contributed to Poland's progressive weakening, which resulted in direct Russian influence over Polish and Lithuanian affairs and ultimately in the three partitions that took place in 1772, 1793, and 1795.
The republic was designed as an elective monarchy with a bicameral parliament composed of the appointive Senate, in which castellans, palatines, and bishops were represented, and the elective Sejm (the Diet), which consisted of the szlachta's envoys. These two chambers initially deliberated in common; it was only during the sixteenth century that the Sejm became a separate chamber. Decision making in the Sejm was based on the unanimity rule. In particular, every member was entitled to use the liberum veto to stop any legislation proposed or even to nullify a whole session of the Sejm.
During the first interregnum following the death of Zygmunt August in 1572, the Sejm formulated the Henrician Articles, a list of nonnegotiable rules that bound every monarch. Elected kings accordingly had no rights to levy new taxes or to declare war. The king had a duty to convene the Sejm for six weeks every two years and was obliged, upon his election, to sign and adhere to the Pacta Conventa, a political program prepared by the Sejm. During the first election in 1573, Henri de Valois, brother of the king of France, was chosen as the new king. Upon his coronation, he refused to sign the Henrician Articles and eventually fled from Poland back to France. As a result, another three-year interregnum followed, ending with Stefan Batory's election as the new king.
During Batory's reign, relations between the Sejm and the monarch were tense. Batory desired to wage war on Russia, but most of the szlachta did not. After Batory's death in 1586, the Sejm made a decision that would eventually plunge the republic into a long and unproductive quarrel with Sweden: Zygmunt III Vasa, heir to the Swedish throne, was elected king of Poland. Then in 1594 he was crowned king of Sweden. Yet because he spent most of his time in Poland, ignoring Swedish affairs, the Swedish Parliament dethroned him in 1600. He and his heirs had always coveted the Swedish throne, and this ambition dragged Poland into a series of conflicts that ended only in 1660 with the Treaty of Oliva. At the same time, the republic was beginning to be threatened from the east by Russia. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Russian forces were weak enough to allow Polish colonization of the Ukraine. In the eighteenth century, the situation changed radically, however, and Russia's influence in the region grew to the point that Catherine the Great was able to meddle directly in Polish affairs.
In any case, for a significant period the republic was an extraordinary place, respectful of individual rights and tolerant of difference. Indeed, Polish insistence on freedom and individual rights goes back at least to 1374, when Louis of Anjou issued the Privilege of Kosice, according to which the monarchs could not levy any new taxes without the consent of those who were going to pay them. In 1422, King Jagiello decreed that no confiscation of the szlachta's property could take place without a court order. Eleven years later the Privilege of Jedlna affirmed the principle "Neminem captivabinus nisi iure victum": "We will not imprison anyone except if convicted by law." We may note that this decision took place two and a half centuries before England enacted its first Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 (Cole 1999). Even though the law formally protected only the szlachta, even townspeople, Jews, and free peasants benefited greatly from the prevailing freedom and tolerance. The relationship between Polish Catholics and the Jewish population was obviously a difficult one. It would be incorrect to deny the existence of Judeophobia in the Catholic Church and among the nobility. Nevertheless, institutions securing religious freedom and interdenominational peace prevented this prejudice from having major repercussions. Moreover, the anti-Semitic sentiments were moderated by a strong tradition of anticlericalism that existed even among the Catholic szlachta and by the ubiquity of economic interaction with Jews. As a result, Poland during this era was home to one of Europe's most vibrant Jewish populations. (4)
After 1652, when the liberum veto was first used to dismiss a whole session of the Sejm, the quality of governance of the rzeczpospolyta and the country's economic performance declined (Davies 1984). Direct Russian influence increased...