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Salem with and without witches, and also Geneva and Berlin

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Peter Bernholz’s cases of supreme values exhibit authoritarianism, totalitarianism and terror. Supreme values are, however, a necessary, but not sufficient condition for authoritarian or totalitarian rule. That observation raises the question of the conditions under which supreme value systems result or do not result in authoritarianism and totalitarianism (or terrorism). I address the question using a case study based on Article 1.1 of the German constitution (Grundgesetz; GG), which fulfils the twin criteria for being a supreme value (being at the top of a lexicographical ordering of values and not being substitutable with others), but is not associated with authoritarianism, totalitarianism and terror. The contrary is the case. I compare the supreme value institutionalized in Article 1.1 GG to two supreme value systems that historically have been associated with Bernholz’s cases, namely Calvinism in 16th century Geneva and German Nazism (1933–1945). I consider three explanations for the association of supreme values with authoritarianism, totalitarianism and terror: when the content of the supreme value is malevolent to some groups; when the supreme value has been imposed on a society; and when supreme values facilitate rent extraction. In the cases that I consider, rent extraction seems to be a compelling explanation.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPublic Choice
Pages (from-to)229-239
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

    Research areas

  • Supreme values; authoritarianism; totalitarianism; terror; rent extraction

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