The Brilliance of Juan de Mariana – Misconceptions

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Juan de Mariana

Much has been written on the legacy of the medieval School of Salamanca as a center of classical liberal thought and as a precursor to Austrian economics. Two members of this school have been covered in this series thus far: Francisco de Vitoria, the founder of the school, and Diego de Covarrubias, the first to clearly state the (Austrian) subjective theory of value. Attention will now turn to Juan de Mariana (1536-1624), the most libertarian of this school of thought.

Although few today have heard of Mariana, he was once widely read during his time and for quite a bit after. His most popular work, Historiae de rebus Hispaniae (History of Spain) was read by famous liberal thinkers John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, the latter of which sent the book to his friends. Many of Mariana’s ideas (from free speech to limits on power to economics) can be found in the famous novel Don Quixote, whose author, Miguel de Cervantes, was likely an avid reader of Mariana.

Mariana’s radical libertarianism got him into quite a bit of trouble throughout his life. His first work, De rege et regis institutione (On the King and the Royal Institution), though dedicated to Philip III and written at the suggestion of Philip II, was a radical development of the scholastic doctrine of tyranny that included a justification of tyrannicide and a denouncement of ancient rulers like Alexander and Caesar. In a time when monarchs were claiming a greater absolute right to power, Mariana stood firm in opposition, arguing prior to Locke that all power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that the people always had the right to reclaim that power.

Most scholastics believed that a tyrannical ruler could be justly killed, but Mariana expanded the boundaries of justification to include rulers that violated the moral law and imposed taxation without the consent of the people. In other words, Mariana was saying “no taxation without representation” back in the sixteenth century.

De rege was respected in Spain, but burned in France by decree of the Parisian Parliament in 1610 after allegations that the book had influenced the assassinations of Henry III and Henry IV.

Another of Juan de Mariana’s great works is his brief treatise De Monetae Mutatione (On the Alteration of Money) published in 1609. This treatise featured a hard-hitting denouncement of currency debasement by monarchs. He declares it an abuse of power, and those that allow it as “a plague in the republic.” His criticism is both moral and practical, arguing with full knowledge of how debasement affects the value of money, remarking that doing so is essentially a hidden (and therefore nonconsensual) form of taxation.

He heavily criticizes the interventionist view that government is able to simply change the value of things by decree, that government can so easily overrule the natural order of things:

“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 for 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.”

Unlike his previous work, this economic treatise led to his imprisonment and was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

One of Mariana’s works concerning his fellow Jesuits, Discurso de las enfermedades de la Compañia (A Discourse on the Sicknesses of the Jesuit Order) was published posthumously. A section of this work bears resemblance to the Hayekian knowledge problem, concerning the inability of large top-down structures to make informed decisions. The Austrian economist Jesús Huerta de Soto provides the following excerpts:

“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 was a unique voice of his time, drawing on the insight of the Salamancan school of thought and taking it further, in a more radical direction. His ideological writings are consistently hard-hitting and never hold back.

Unfortunately, his name is barely known today, and his influence, though widespread, is largely unknown. Thankfully, there is the Instituto Juan de Mariana carrying on his legacy, as well as the Acton Institute’s English translation of his treatise on money. Every defender of liberty should become familiar with this great historical figure and ensure his legacy is not forgotten.

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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]