Historians have a standard story about the partition of Poland in the 18th century: Poland was unable to defend itself effectively because it had a crazy unanimity rule that gave every nobleman a veto over everything. Seems plausible.

But yesterday I read a second opinion from an unexpected source: John Calhoun‘s Disquisition on Government. (It’s required reading for a Liberty Fund conference on supermajority rules that I’m attending). It’s thought-provoking:

It is, then, a great error to suppose that the government of the concurrent majority is impracticable—or that it rests on a feeble foundation. History furnishes many examples of such governments—and among them, one, in which the principle was carried to an extreme that would be thought impracticable, had it never existed. I refer to that of Poland. In this it was carried to such an extreme that, in the election of her kings, the concurrence or acquiescence of every individual of the nobles and gentry present, in an assembly numbering usually from one hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand, was required to make a choice; thus giving to each individual a veto on his election. So, likewise, every member of her Diet… possessed a veto on all its proceedings… And, as if to carry the principle to the utmost extent, the veto of a single member not only defeated the particular bill or measure in question, but prevented all others, passed during the session, from taking effect…

Doomed to failure, right? Well, it lasted about as long as the U.S. has so far:

And yet this government lasted, in this form, more than two centuries; embracing the period of Poland’s greatest power and renown.

And then I suddenly remembered the scores of neat maps I’ve seen with super-sized Polands, like this 1648 beauty.

So what went wrong? Here’s Calhoun’s verdict:

It is true her government was finally subverted, and the people subjugated, in consequence of the extreme to which the principle was carried; not, however, because of its tendency to dissolution from weakness, but from the facility it afforded to powerful and unscrupulous neighbors to control, by their intrigues, the election of her kings. But the fact, that a government, in which the principle was carried to the utmost extreme, not only existed, but existed for so long a period, in great power and splendor, is proof conclusive both of its practicability and its compatibility with the power and permanency of government.

This reminds me of David Friedman’s verdict on medieval Iceland’s approximation of anarcho-capitalism:

[M]edieval Icelandic institutions… might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions. Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a “parliament,” seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary, output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens. (emphasis added; footnotes omitted)