Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Genghis Khan: the first liberal?

Yes, there are other contenders. For example, I think a strong case could be made for Cyrus the Great. Nevertheless, consider this passage from the introduction to Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, at page xix:
As he smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, he built a new and unique system based on individual merit, loyalty, and achievement. He took the disjointed and langourous trading towns along the Silk Route and organized them into history's largest free-trade zone. He lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for doctors, teachers, priests, and educational institutions. He established a regular census and created the first international postal system. His was not an empire that hoarded wealth and treasure; instead, he widely distributed the goods acquired in combat so that they could make their way back into commercial circulation. He created an international law and recognized the ultimate supreme law of the Eternal Blue Sky over all people. At a time when most rulers considered themselves to be above the law, Genghis Khan insisted on laws holding rulers as equally accountable as the lowest herder. He granted religious freedom within his realms, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. He insisted on the rule of law and abolished torture, but he mounted major campaigns to seek out and kill raiding bandits and terrorist assassins. He refused to hold hostages and, instead, instituted the novel practice of granting diplomatic immunity for all ambassadors and envoys, includng those from hostile nations with whom he was at war.
Lowered taxes? Yes, if you define liberalism as "tax and spend", that may not seem an especially liberal move. But consider that the taxes he reduced likely were not entirely devoted to paying for the functions of government, but rather largely consigned to the enrichment of the monarch's coffers. Also note that those for whom he abolished taxes are considered to be the "liberal" professions or institutions. Most of the remainder of his program: advancement by merit not birth, free trade, freedom of religion, the rule of law (including international law), and the abolition of torture, comprise a set of classically liberal principles.

Today we think of Genghis Khan primarily as a bloodthirsty conqueror and despot. Weatherford, at pages 254-260, ascribes this to Eurocentric bias arising in the Enlightenment and later used to justify colonialism as well as vigilance against "yellow peril". But can we say, taking into account all of his accomplishments as described above, that the Khan was truly "liberal"? First, what do we mean by that much-abused term? I've already alluded to the contemporary "tax and spend" usage, implying belief in the desirability of an activist government that seeks to provide services as opposed to merely maintaining internal order and defense against external enemies. From Weatherford's description of the Khan's administration of his empire -- in particular his redistribution of wealth taken in conquest, institution of a system of fiat money, improvement of communications and monitoring of statistics -- we can conclude that he did to some extent believe in government's role in advancing "positive liberty".

I've also referred to actions the Khan took that advanced the classical liberal concept of "negative liberty", that is, non-interference with individual autonomy. In particular, these include the reduction of barriers to trade, religious tolerance, the limitation of the use of coerecive measures in the administration of justice, and the subjection of the monarch himself to the rule of law. Yet it is still fair to ask whether he was himself a "liberal" in the sense of subscribing to what the political philosopher Gerald Gaus calls the "fundamental liberal principle": that the freedom of the individual is "normatively basic, and so the onus of justification is on those who would limit freedom." Here I think we have to conclude that the answer is "no", at least to the extent that the Khan demanded total loyalty, which is certainly antithetical to a primary commitment to freedom, from his subjects. He was perhaps above all a pragmatist, having learned in his rise to power that allies were indispensible. He may have shrewdly anticipated the insights of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith, perceiving that the best way to create and sustain alliances is to rely on appealing to the self-interest of those whose loyalty one seeks.

Although the ascendancy of the Mongol Empire had a profoundly liberatory effect on the Eurasian world, it is ironic to note that it represented the triumph of a "primitive" nomadic society over "civilized" polities characterized by settled agriculture and urban centers. As Weatherford suggests at pages 233-34, this may be explained by the Mongol religion's having lacked a thick doctrinal structure, thereby allowing greater scope for syncretism and for pragmatic approaches to governance, trade and science.

Although Genghis Khan may not have been a "liberal" as we may strictly define that term, he was certainly "progressive". As Weatherford sums it up (at page 267): "He worked to create something new and better for his people."

Postscript: Rundeep sez: Sounds more like a capitalist to me. And I ain't talkin' e.e. cummings!

Well, dear lady, the archetypal Liberal Party (British) was, in its origins, about as pro-capitalist as you can get.

As for cummings, wasn't he an anti-capitalist?


  1. Sounds more like a capitalist to me. And I ain't talkin' e.e. cummings!

  2. Anonymous4:56 PM

    Some basic historical facts about Genghis Khan:

    Genghis Khan ,(Chinggis Khan), is one of history’s greatest leaders.During his lifetime, he conquered more territory than any other conqueror and established the largest contiguous empire in world history.Today his legacy continues in Asia,Mongols today celebrate him as the founding father of Mongolia....read more

  3. Terry Cagle8:12 PM

    Your article suggest that Khan was possible a liberal,but maybe a precurser to a progressive but I see him as a visionary who brought about a new paradyme. All that is described indicates he instituted principle as described in the preamble to US Constitution,especially on individual freedom (sounds libetarian in nature). The only downfall of his system is that power is centralized in his demand for loyalty.Did he control what non-taxed teachers and educational institutions promoted? Basically, he established the precurser to a republic. As history teaches, when power is centralized in 1 man, all is well as long as he lives. but what occurs when he is replaced by a not so benevolent ruler? I believe the framers of our Constitution saw the danger because of King George, the papal theocracy and the monarchies of the "old country".Thus we have a check and balance government in USA. Even Franklin Roosevelt realized the danger of 1 man having so much power too long. Thus, a 2 term president max.