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The comparative endurance and efficiency of religion: a public choice perspective

Abstract

All of the major religious confessions existing today have outlasted every single secular ruling regime known in human history. That observation poses an interesting puzzle for social scientists interested in institutional durability. If religions can be seen as governance institutions that organize and coordinate people’s lives, why have they outlasted secular states? Despite claims regarding the inevitability of secularization, religious institutions refuse to fade from the social landscape and in many places are thriving and expanding. I argue that the durability of religious institutions relative to secular governing regimes is related to the unique ability of religions to avoid the public choice “paradox of government” as laid out by James Buchanan. More precisely, religious institutions are more resilient because they effectively provide vital public goods, involve “citizens” in the process of governance at the local level, and provide a credible neutral arbitrator for violations of the governing covenant. A further argument is made for the efficiency of religious institutions relative to states based on the smaller deadweight losses associated with participatory governance. Finally, state-sponsored confessions expose themselves to the paradox of government and become less effective in pursuing their missions.

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Notes

  1. One could date the Catholic Church at 2000 years if one considers Peter to be the first pontiff of Christianity. However, the hierarchical Church did not crystalize until after the First Council of Nicaea (325 CE).

  2. I avoid the theological debate of who holds the true leadership within Christianity, but rather simply note the presence of enduring institutions. Protestantism represents a significant institutional break within the Christian heritage and yet Roman Catholicism survived Luther’s schismatic challenge, another indicator of its durability.

  3. The Roman Empire technically had two distinct institutional structures, namely the Republic (c. 509–27 BC) and the autocratic period (lasting until 476 AD).

  4. “Governance is a broader concept than government, referring only to the existence of some mechanism or institutions that provide and enforce social rules and therefore create social order. Government is one kind of institution that provides governance, the kind based upon a monopoly coercive power” (Leeson 2009, p. 48). See also Leeson (2014b).

  5. The Catholic governing concept of “subsidiarity” is, in essence, a form of federalism wherein social problems are to be solved at the level closest to where the problem exists, be it family, parish, or diocese. Thus, even though the Roman Catholic Church appears highly centralized theologically, the emphasis on parishes and dioceses to organize communities gives it a very federalist flavor.

  6. The argument advanced here does not depend on the actual existence of a transcendental being, only that everyone agrees to believe it so.

  7. The “naturalization” process for immigrants to a nation can serve as agreement to abide by a prior social contract. Naturalized citizens thus may be deemed parties to a country’s social contract more so than the natives.

  8. Many religious institutions have failed historically, some only recorded vaguely in the annals of history and others lost without a trace. Understanding the differences between successful and failed religious institutions within the just-stated framework is a worthy endeavor, but will be touched on only briefly in the present paper. My primary purpose is to compare the enduring religions with this historical records of failed states.

  9. Shared culture has the characteristics of a classic public good: non-excludable (others can easily adopt certain cultural traits), non-rival (my use of cultural norms, values, rituals does not diminish your use of them), and team production (the more people subscribing to the same norms, values, and so on the more effective it is in reducing uncertainty). Denzau and North (1994) provide a similar analysis of culture in the form of “mental models,” which has recently received renewed attention in a special issue of Kyklos. See Shughart et al. (2020).

  10. An individual certainly can lie about one’s belief in the divine. However, within a culture in which belief in God appears common, a person desiring interactions with others in that community has an incentive to “go along” publicly with the general social belief even if they don’t hold it privately. See Kuran (1995) on preference falsification. If preference falsification is holding the great religions together, it would supply one of the most resilient and widespread examples of Kuran’s “private truths, public lies”.

  11. Taylor (1982, p. 69) observes that offering food to newcomers is one of the most universal human norms. We all share the need to eat. What can be more reassuring than providing nutrition to visitors?

  12. That feature also is true of the mega-churches that seat several thousand people. Such institutions leverage “small groups” to federate and meet the personal interests of members (Thumma and Travis 2007, pp. 44–54).

  13. Leeson (2009, pp. 58–70) provides a similar example of how iterated reinforcement of a covenant (or constitution) occurred on pirate ships and amongst different pirate vessels, indicating how communal forms of governance can be quite effective among small communities. Pirates and Presbyterians do, it seems, share something in common.

  14. Alienation may still arise in small communities because some community members appear to benefit disproportionately from enforcement actions, but dissenting voices are more likely to be heard than in a larger, quasi-anonymous society.

  15. Chwe (2001) emphasizes the ritualistic nature of face-to-face contact in establishing common knowledge.

  16. See Buchanan and Goetz (1972) for a critique of the Tiebout model.

  17. Buchanan ([1975] 2000) never said explicitly that alienation would result in the decline of secular governments in The Limits of Liberty, but it isn’t an analytical stretch to think that such alienation would contribute to regime instability, particularly for those that cannot deliver basic public goods to the population. Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations (1984) can be read as a nice complementary work to Buchanan’s Limits of Liberty.

  18. Extremist cults that make exit costly (e.g., Heaven’s Gate, Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple) do not last very long, not surprisingly.

  19. Within protestantism, some denominations (e.g., Episcopalians, Presbyterians) retain more hierarchical structures than others (e.g., Pentecostals). One might consider Christianity, writ large, to be polycentric, especially in places that are religiously diverse and that build ecumenical relations and organizations across denominational boundaries. An interesting study of religious denominational structure as seen from the perspective of polycentrism is waiting to be conducted.

  20. Remember that “unanimous” consent need only be “as if” for Buchanan. A member of an Amish community may not believe all of the theological tenants underlying Ordnung, but if they agree to abide by them, the social contract holds.

  21. Religious leaders invest heavily to ensure that a population believes in an all-knowing and just God. Authenticating miracles is important, as is supernatural iconography (e.g., statues, stained-glass art) signaling that “God is watching”. Leeson (2012, 2013) provides further “odd” examples of public ordeals and vermin trials led by priests used to emphasize the efficacy of the supernatural.

  22. It is not only mere investment in policing that imposes a deadweight social-welfare loss. Maintaining coercive power discourages economic growth. Cox et al. (2019) argue that rules based on top-down coercion create a “violence trap” that incentivizes economic stagnation. As no state can monopolize violence fully, the dominant rulers distribute rents to rivals in proportion to their capacities for violence. Technological innovations and greater efficiencies in some sectors of society can upset the rent-distribution balance; hence, ruling elites have weak incentives to promote economic innovation and efficiency.

  23. Interestingly, while Buchanan (2001) calls attention to the importance of “preachers”, a term ripe with religious significance, not once in that work are religion or religious intuitions mentioned.

  24. McBride’s (2007) analysis of the Latter Day Saints draws some interesting parallels with the Catholic Church. Both religious traditions are hierarchically organized, yet parishes (or wards) involve lay participation. The Mormons are exemplars in small community organization in that leadership is rotated among lay members and active participation is strongly incentived with various attendance and tithing requirements. As such, the Latter Day Saints excel at providing club goods to their members.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks Kenya Amano, Bree Bang-Jensen, Angela Dills, Emil Dunhea, Lenore Ealy, James Hanley, Rachel Heath, Larry Iannaccone, Clara Jace, Peter Leeson, Beatrice Magistro, Victor Menaldo, Nela Mrchkovska, Kristopher Overbo, Lucas Owen, Christianna Parr, Steven Pfaff, William Shughart II, Leon Tan, Morgan Wack, Richard Wagner, Nicolas Wittstock and the anonymous reviewers for valuable input. Angela Dills also provided superb editorial commentary. Any errors contained herein are mine and will be judged in finality by the great neutral arbitrator.

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Gill, A. The comparative endurance and efficiency of religion: a public choice perspective. Public Choice 189, 313–334 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-020-00842-1

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Keywords

  • Religion
  • Paradox of government
  • Governance
  • Buchanan

JEL Classification

  • Z10
  • Z12
  • P16
  • D71