The row between the government of Sweden and that of Turkey over the burning of a Koran by demonstrators in Stockholm brings us back to fundamental problems of politics, on which the economic method of analysis has thrown much light. The Financial Times reports (“Sweden’s Nato Application Imperilled After Koran Burnt Outside Turkish Embassy,” January 22, 2022):

Sweden, which has some of the strongest protections of free speech in Europe, granted permission for the Koran-burning protest, as it has done several times previously—even after it sparked riots in April.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act. I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm,” Ulf Kristersson, Sweden’s prime minister, wrote on Twitter.

Turkish president and dictator-to-be Recep Tayyip Erdogan invoked the incident as a reason to block the Swedish government’s application to join NATO (“Turkey’s Erdogan Threatens to Block Sweden’s NATO Entrance Over Quran Burning,” Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2022):

“If you speak about freedoms and rights, then first things first, you should show respect to the religious belief of Muslims and Turkish people,” Mr. Erdogan said in televised remarks after a cabinet meeting. “If you do not show such respect, then you cannot see any kind of support from us on NATO.”

If the Swedish government did not have to “grant permission” (even just as a mere administrative matter, as is apparently the case), it would be logically more difficult to blame “Sweden”; but logic is not the strong point of autocrats. Let’s focus more generally on the basic social problem, which is how individuals with different preferences and values can live in peaceful and prosperous social interaction. A major contribution of economics has been to show how private property rights, by creating a private domain around each individual, minimizes clashes. You burn you own copy of the Koran, the Bible, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover as you want, or you consider them sacred for you if you wish. You may also buy and keep it, or just be indifferent. As often noted, individual liberty is coextensive with private property rights and voluntary cooperation and trade.

This way, “respect” is not unilateral. Everybody has to respect what other individuals do in, and with, their private domain—and on the public square, equally accessible for everybody to express his opinions. Respect is due not only to individuals who consider the Koran sacred; it is also due to those who want to burn their own copies.

Consider the table below, which shows the four possible combinations of the freedom of individuals to consider the Koran sacred for them and their freedom to burn their copies of that book (or any other such book). Quadrant II and Quadrants III represent the tyranny of the majority or of some other ruling group, whether they stand for a sort of “civic religion” against religious freedom (Quadrant II), or for a partial theocracy where some aspects of religion are forced onto non-believers (Quadrant III). Quadrant IV represents full-fledged theocracy.

Turkey—that is, what the government of Turkey imposes to Turkish residents—exemplifies Quadrant III. Let’s note in passing that this country has never been known as a paradigm of individual liberty. In the incipit of his 1903 book Le Libéralisme (Liberalism), Émile Faguet suggests that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s sort of civic religion (religion civile) portends a society where “man would be more oppressed than in Turkey” (organiser une société où il serait plus opprimé qu’en Turquie). An article in the current issue of the Economist is titled “Turkey Could Be on the Brink of Dictatorship.”

Only Quadrant I represents individual liberty, which is the only known way to avoid either the domination of some rulers or some kind of civil war.

Both James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek, two Nobel economists, suggest that the jury is still out on whether Quadrant I is an achievable ideal, whether individuals can live as equals in a free and prosperous society; or whether mankind will go back to its millennial condition of poverty and servitude for most individuals. (On Buchanan’s perspective, see “An Enlightenment Thinker”; on Hayek’s, “Against Tribal Instincts.”)