Rent Seeking versus Profit Seeking

Our theory predicts that, other things equal, rent-seeking societies would reject Protestantism, whereas profit-seeking societies would embrace it. How well does this theory hold up to the historical record? Did Catholicism eventually price its product so as to drive away large numbers of customers seeking redemption at a lower cost? Incomplete or unreliable data from an era so far removed in time make these questions difficult to resolve in any conclusive sense, but we have devised a two-stage test in an attempt to find evidential support of our theory. The first test treats the institutional practice of primogeniture as a proxy for income distribution. The second test correlates changes in city size (i.e., urban growth) to the practice of primogeniture in those countries where such laws existed.

It is clear that larger historical forces were at work than those that can be captured and made operational in a stylized theory such as ours. For example, economists Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny demonstrated that pre-industrial absolutist governments are associated with low economic growth.29 We hypothesize that in a low-growth environ ment such as occurred in the Middle Ages, one means the Church could use to maintain its market hegemony was restrictive property laws. Feudal forms of property differ from capitalist forms of property. Some countries practiced primogeniture and some did not. Primogeniture was confined mostly to Europe and was practiced mainly among the upper classes, which were entrenched within a centralized power system. The intent of the law was ostensibly to concentrate wealth in the hands of few dynastic families, but by disinheriting younger children, it could also cause untold bitterness within the family. For these reasons, practice often diverged from the letter of the law.

In those societies that resisted an emergent market order, children were key to dynastic survival. Too many children, particularly adult males, strained and sometimes destroyed the resources of houses practicing partible inheritance. But too few children created even worse problems. Somewhere in the minds of medieval kings and princes always lurked the fear that they would not have a legitimate male heir. No one knew how many sons were needed for a line to survive. Statistical norms, if they existed, were not reliable. Child mortality rates were high. Royal inbreeding exacerbated the problem. The mortality of adult firstborns was always in doubt. Yet, primogeniture could induce landless sons to remain bachelors, thereby reducing the pool of eligible heirs. Dynastic families not only considered it a duty to have children but also to care for them, which meant not only providing nurture and basic education, but also launching them into the adult world with some measure of economic security, namely, mate and property.

Important to understanding rival entry into the religious market in the sixteenth century is the question of how primogeniture laws may have influenced individual decisions to embrace Protestantism and reject Catholicism. Cultural anthropologist Jack Goody maintained that the medieval church, as early as the sixth but definitively in the eleventh century, manipulated the marriage market and inheritance prospects in its own favor by limiting kinship claims to land and property.30 The Church may have supported primogeniture for similar reasons. But we regard the following hypothesis as more persuasive.

Given its institutional milieu, the medieval church served as a kind of insurer, or employer of last resort, to the landed aristocracy. Younger sons could become retainers through ecclesiastical sinecure, a station that could be relinquished if the eldest son died. Moreover, female children could also find ready employment in the Church. As Historian P. Sutter Fichtner observed, "Catholics had a better way to enjoy the advantages of primogeniture, yet live with their consciences over the treatment of younger sons. They could still arrange appropriate livings for their offspring in the church.''31 Prince-bishops, which is what many of the nobility became, were assured that as high church officials they could maintain a lifestyle befitting their dynastic station. Ecclesiastical careers did not bar anyone from secular dynastic affairs, and even if they had, ecclesiastic nobles had little trouble returning to secular life. The medieval church, in other words, approved of primogeniture precisely because it promoted the kind of stability of wealth distribution that enabled it to successfully price-discriminate among certain members, and because it extended the Church's control over kinship, which was an ongoing concern in its constant battle with dynastic families for political and economic control. Simultaneously, the practice of primogeniture provided an incentive to the heads of dynastic families to remain within the system of established religious practice.

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