The liberium veto is attracting some more attention.  Yglesias disputes Krugman’s contention that the liberium veto and the resulting government nightmare led to the disappearance of Poland as an independent nation.  See link; Also see previous blog articles here and here.  I disagree.  While the decline of Poland-Lithuania had commenced before its invention, the liberium veto made it impossible to reform Poland while its neighbors on east and west were awakening from their slumber.  It is true that the great plains of Eastern Europe do not provide Poland with many barriers from invasion.  However, unlike some other countries Poland had sufficient manpower and geographic depth to overcome this defect.

An example to the contrary would be the coastal strip of Israel-Palestine-Lebanon.  In recent years some opponents of a Palestinan state have used the absence of any Muslim state since the Arab conquest of the region to argue that the Palestinans were not a national entity.  That ignores the unfortunate reality that Christians and Jews have struggled to establish viable independent states in the same region.  Sandwiched between Egypt and Syria (and occassional erruptions from Babylon-Mesepotamia), each with significantly greater resources of manpower and wealth, independent states in the region have historically had to rely on weakness of its neighbors or significant assistance from abroad.  A survey of the four independent states to rule the region shows why.

The biblical kingdom of David and Solomon flourished at a time when Pharaonic  Egypt was in deep decline and the Hittite Empire on the other flank had long since dissolved.  The weakness became evident shortly after Solomon’s death when a revived Egypt under Sheshonk I would humble Solomon’s successors.  The twin Kingdoms of Judea and Israel would survive, but would have to pay tribute to the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians until their destruction.

The second independent Jewish state of the Hasmoneans emerged as the Hellenistic successor states of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria were in decline.  Even then, the Hasmoneans would not obtain independence until the Seleucid state dissolved into civil war after the death of Antiochus VII.  Independence would be extinguished by the Romans a century later.

The third independent states in the region were the Crusader states of Outremer formed after the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem.  The First Crusade was aided my the tumult in Islamic Syria following the Seljuk invasion and the weakened state of Fatimid Egypt.  Outremer was extremely reliant on continued immigration from Western Europe, particularly landless younger sons of the nobility to provide a manpower for its army.  Once Syria started to consolidate under Zengi and Egypt and Syria were united under Saladin, Outremer was doomed.  Understanding this inherent defect, many of the crusades following the Third Crusade were targeted at Egypt (which had a large native Christian population).

Which brings up the current states of Israel and Lebanon.  Israel has benefited from superior organization in its early years, heavy immigration of European Jewry and immense amounts of American military aid.  This has helped it overcome its exposed strategic situation.  In contrast Lebanon has been for most of its history a Syrian satellite.

Poland never faced similar issues of viability.  Its wounds were self inflicted.  For example Poland disappeared as a single entity for about 200 years when Boleslaw III Wrymouth chose to divide the country among his four sons after his death in 1138 (a succession policy similar to the one that contributed to the fragmentation of the German principalities next door).  Yet the concept of a Polish nation and the title “Duke/King of Poland” would survive until the reconstitution of the Polish state 200 years later.  After its union with Lithuania, during the reign of Casimir IV Poland-Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  Hardly the mark of an inherently doomed state.

If Poland had an exposed geographical frontier, so did every other European state except England. The example of Prussia next door shows why geographic location need not define the destiny of a state.  The rise of Brandenburg-Prussia was far from a sure thing.  While Poland was aggressively intervening in Russian affairs in the early 17th century, the Electors of Brandenburg were cutting a sorry figure on the European stage.  Under the hapless George William (1619-1640) Brandenburg was a battleground for the combatants of the Thirty Years War and lacking an army was subject to repeated extortion.  This changed under his son and successor Frederick William I, also known as the Great Elector.  Frederick William created a standing army, the foundation of the future Prussian military machine.  He and his successors opportunistically used the army to expand Prussian territory so that by the early 18th Century Prussia was a legitimate player in European affairs.  And even then under Frederick the Great, Prussia overreached.  It took a death in St. Petersburg for Prussia to survive.  See previous blog article.  As a new player on the international power scene, Prussia drew the hostility of France, Austria, Russia, Sweden and Poland and yet survived.  It can hardly be argued that Prussia had a particularly favorable geographic location.  Good leadership, good timing and a generous dose of good luck did the trick.

Poland lacked all three.  Central control in Poland started to decline, just as its neighbors were reorganizing.  The symptoms of broken government were evident during the years of The Deluge (1656-1660) when tiny Sweden with its extremely efficient army briefly occupied Poland.  However, the rot in Polish government responded with the liberium veto.   The culture that gave rise to the liberium veto prevented any meaningful national army just as Russia and Prussia were building theirs.  While Prussia, Russia and Austria (under Maria Theresa) received competent and sometimes enlightened leadership, the Polish crown became the subject of international haggling at each election and the Sejm with the liberium veto was unworkable.  The liberium veto was the symptom of a broken government that failed to adapt to emerging challenges from abroad and was caught up in its parochial interests.

America is still far from the constitutional anarchy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  However, far too many intelligent people in this country extol the virtues of gridlock in Washington.  This country has too many serious problems and needs to adapt to many emerging challenges.  The path of the ostrich is a recipe for disaster.

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