The Brilliance of Francisco de Vitoria – Misconceptions

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If Adam Smith can be called the “father of economics,” then Francisco de Vitoria (c 1483-1546) can be called the “grandfather of economics.” Sadly, Vitoria’s contribution to economic thought is barely known. Instead, he is largely known only among jurists and lawyers as he is described on his statue in the United Nations garden: “Fundador del derecho de gentes” (Founder of the law of nations).

This is not to downplay his contributions in the legal sphere, of course. Throughout his lectures, especially the famous De Indis (“On The American Indians”), he mounts a defense of property rights and its universal application, applying these ideas to the newly discovered American Indians.

Contrary to simplistic belief, the European exploration and expansion into the Americas was not simply brutish conquest. Much of that certainly existed, but this was not universally celebrated back in Europe. There was much debate concerning just action with the Americans.

Vitoria, along with several of his students and many others, argued in defense of the rights of Native Americans (and all peoples in general). He argued that although they were not Christian, God’s natural law (and natural rights) applied to all of humanity, including them. He defended the national sovereignty of the American nations, arguing they each had a right to self-determination.

As mentioned earlier, these ideas of the law of nations, though Vitoria’s best known contribution, are by no means his only one. His contribution to the liberal tradition of economic thought is much forgotten, but nonetheless invaluable. Vitoria’s contribution to economics is not the development of new ideas, but the furthering and flourishing of Thomist economic thought, as the founder of the School of Salamanca. This school of thought competed with Paris as the center of European learning.

Vitoria spawned a school of thought that continued the tradition of the Just Price as the market price, defended the reality of market forces against central planning, and influenced later thinkers from Adam Smith to Carl Menger. This school could be fairly defined as a “proto-Austrian” precursor to the Austrian school. Alejandro Chafuen, in his book Faith and Liberty, charts the influence of thought from Vitoria’s school to Grotius and Pufendorf, and then to Adam Smith. One member of this school, the brilliant Diego de Covarrubias y Leyva (arguably the first to clearly state a subjective theory of value), is cited by Menger, founder of the Austrian school, at the end of his Principles of Economics.

Other members of Vitoria’s school of thought include Doctor Navarrus and Juan de Mariana. The latter published a hard-hitting (and banned) treatise condemning the intentional debasement of currency. Mariana’s writings have been positively referenced by John Locke as well as the American founding fathers John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

One can find far more praise for and recognition of the School of Salamanca than Vitoria himself. Many of his students and students’ students are better known for their ideas than Vitoria. But it must not be forgotten that Vitoria was the one to start it all. Though his writings are mostly lost (all that remain are the lecture notes of his students), his influence in Western political thought is indescribable. Many of the more well-known Western political thinkers can be connected to Vitoria’s school in some way.

Although he did not invent his tradition of thought, he transformed it from a dying trend to a flourishing new school. It is one thing to be the “father of economics.” It is another to be the father of a popular school of economic thought two centuries before the father of economics was even born.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]