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Classical Liberalism in Romania: The Case of Emanuel Neuman

Classical Liberalism in Romania: The Case of Emanuel Neuman

The Missing Tradition

One of the things which can probably be safely – and sadly, in our opinion – said about the history of modern Romania is that it experienced neither a coherent and consistent body of classical liberal ideas, nor a genuinely classical liberal political and economic program. That liberalism acquired, in the Romanian context (and more generally in the Eastern European and Russian context), the distorted meaning of “progressivism” by the top-down hand of the state if necessary is often acknowledged (a necessity espoused by nearly everyone and at nearly all times).

In what follows, we will argue that there is at least one instance of unambiguous classical Romanian liberalism, which sadly remained virtually unknown. And that is the case of Emanuel Neuman – “Manole” – the true friend and mentor of Nicolae Steinhardt. He wrote a PhD thesis in constitutional law which he defended in 1937, entitled The Limits of State Power.

The Life and Times of Emanuel Neuman

The life of Emanuel Neuman was lived – due in part to character and, in part, to external circumstances – under the sign of discreetness. Not only was he a young Jew reaching maturity in the fateful decade of the thirties in Romania, marked by consolidated antisemitism in a general context of increase in state power, or a more or less obscure emigre in Belgium after 1960, but he was also a classical liberal at a time when any other possible doctrine might have seemed more respectable. No wonder, then, that Neuman is not among the prominent personalities of Romanian culture and would have remained unknown but for the anecdotal fame that Steinhardt’s Journal of Happiness managed to secure for him as “Manole”.

Born on the 25th of July 1911 in Oltenița, Romania, Emanuel – Emanoil in the official papers and documents – Neuman died in Brussels in June 28, 1995 as a Belgian citizen (more or less completely assimilated). He was the elder son of Joseph Neuman (1881-1923, salesman) and Sofia Moscovici (1887-1970, housewife). Among the few elements of information left concerning his Romanian period we can find the following: his family moved to Bucharest in 1916, where they lived in the Ion Maiorescu Street; he studied political economy (B.A. level) at the Academy of High Commercial Studies (the so-called “Consular Section”, forerunner of the present Faculty of International Business and Economics) and law at the University of Bucharest (PhD level); he completed military service in 1933; in February 1941 he married Gertrude Steinhardt (1916-2001), B.A. in letters and philosophy at the University of Bucharest, cousin of Nicolae Steinhardt, (Neuman’s residence has changed in this context to Calea Moșilor, 313, for the period 1940-1960); he worked as a lawyer for the Bucharest Court of Appeal (approx. 1933-1948), and later – and probably having to do with the entrenchment of the Communist regime on the Romanian soil and a degradation of Neuman’s personal and professional situation – as an economist at an enterprise (approx. 1948-1960).

The files available in the Belgian archives suggest that the Neumans had attempted for quite a while – around nine years; roughly all the decade of the 1950s – to leave Romania. Thinking that they have a good chance in 1958, they initiated the process of “traveling to Belgium” (and, therefore, of obtaining the necessary permits) through Aristide Steinhardt (1920-?), brother of Gertrude, who had already successfully immigrated to Brussels and received UN refugee status.

By the time they got to Brussels, Emanuel Neuman was 49 years of age and his wife Gertrude 44. Even though at the beginning the idea was to leave further for the United States of America, it seems that gradually (but swiftly enough) the Neumans decided to stay in Belgium for what must have been basically a restart of their life.

Thus, as soon as the idea that Belgium and Brussels might become the new home seeped in, Neuman applied (late 1960) for UN refugee status which he obtained (early 1961).

Most important was his encounter with the International Institute for Administrative Sciences (IIAS) which seems to have occurred sometimes in 1963 or 1964. Neuman worked there for the remainder of his active life and even after retirement. He joined as a librarian (or an even lower position, it seems, for the first couple of years) and was promoted as researcher (“maître de recherche”) in 1972. In 1976 the moment of retirement comes, at 65, but the archives of the institute retain a sequence of (accepted/approved) requests by Neuman (from 1976 until 1980) to continue his activity on a yearly basis. After 1980 traces of him are found sporadically in connection with various events organized by the (somewhat reformed) institute. His main activity as an employee of IIAS was to acquire books for the institute library, but much more than that to review books – quite a lot of them – in very short reviews which constituted an important section (Bibliography) of the main publication, namely the Revue Internationale des Sciences Administrative (International Review of Administrative Studies).

Neuman died in 1995. He and Gertrude had no children, but they seem to have had a very close relationship with the son of Maur-Mihail Neuman, Victor Neuman (n. 1948) who is most probably the only relative still alive (again, most probably in Paris, France). His wife outlived him. She died in 2001.

The PhD Thesis: The Limits of State Power

Neuman’s thesis has not been properly published as a book. Only a handful of copies are in existence, in the Central University Library and Law Faculty Library in Bucharest – probably the ones he had to prepare for the defense. It can be included in a group of PhD theses, along with Steinhardt’s Classical Principles and the New Tendencies of Constitutional Law. A Critique of the Works of Leon Duguit (defended 1936) and at least one other (F. Dârlea, The Evolution of Individualism, 1939). Together they might form a small Romanian classical liberal circle or even school under the auspices of Prof. Mircea Djuvara who himself, in works such as Rational Law, Sources and Positive Law (1934) presents ideas with a classical liberal flavor.

Hypertrophy of the state

The theme with which Neuman opens is the hypertrophy of the state in his times: “With regard to the hypertrophy of the state, everybody admits it, only some baptize it with the fancy name of social progress, while others, looking less at labels and intentions and more at results, see in it a new absolutism. The state has an enormous amount of functions/tasks and it attributes their less and less adequate fulfilment neither to the impossibility of undertaking so many things at once, nor to its fundamental incapacity in some areas where it improperly and unpreparedly intervened without any calling, but to any number of other causes: daily events, the economic crisis, the malevolence of citizens, bad weather, insufficient budget, insufficient laws, too many or too few schools, too thick school syllabuses that exhaust the mind of future public officials (or, on the contrary, to the insufficient instruction of new generations)” (Neuman, 1937, p. 12).

The solution to this hypertrophy is, unsurprisingly, the reversal of the trend. Much as in the traditional morals advocated by the Church Fathers where a certain passion or vice can be cured by the cultivation of the opposite virtue: “[t]he state finding himself in trouble for taking upon himself to do things which are none of its business, the mess will be remedied by the retreat of the state from those things, which should be left to free social cooperation/action” (p. 20).

Natural rights

Another topic is natural rights. More specifically natural rights seen as a fundamental limitation of the (legitimate) powers of the state: “The main limitation of state power is constituted by the existence of individual natural rights. This notion has its origins in the natural rights theory, in speculations on the social contract and, finally, in deep insights into, and knowledge of, the human person. …Indeed, the source of law is in the human person, and the latter owes its contour to individual rights, which are thus natural to it as without them the human person disappears. Political societies have no independent existence of their own and thus no rights; the individual, free and real being, is the source of rights and to look for the notion of law and rights outside the human person or to try to picture it as existing without rights, is at least an irreparable mistake.” (p.45)

Although natural rights might seem as a more or less scholastic topic inherited from intellectually more primitive times, the idea of law as a nondiscretionary and non-arbitrary field of study and of law based social and political action cannot be dispensed with. The very possibility of systematic rational pursuit of the idea of ordered, civilized (conflict free) society implies the possibility of discerning among competing views on inter-human relations and, therefore, on laws and legislation (even if not only laws, but much more). This discernment must operate with the idea of criticizing existing legislation (positive legislation), which in turn implies the possibility of discriminating between good and bad laws. Thus, the idea of a standard, above positive legislation, based on which to judge it, opens up the discussion on natural law. The latter becomes such a standard to which positive legislation must conform.

Negative versus positive rights

Neuman also tackles the negative versus positive rights issue: (approvingly commenting on an idea of Esmein) “It is Esmein again who classifies individual rights into civil equality and individual liberty and finds a common feature for all: they limit the rights of the state but impose no positive obligations. That is why the so-called rights to existence, to education, to work, do not have the character of rights and if they are nevertheless called so, it is a simple demagogical expedient” (p. 46). Of interest is also his view on equality (named here “civil”) which is seen as having the sole role to limit the state in the arbitrary splintering of the citizenry in classes or castes (e.g. freemen and slaves).

The essence of this discussion is the idea that a body of rights must be coherent in itself and concord must exist between the several rights considered together. Thus, the combination of negative and positive rights do not form such a coherent whole, since the enforcement of the so-called positive rights (to a minimum guaranteed income, for instance) necessarily implies the denial of other rights (from the “negative” bundle, such as the right to the inviolability of one’s private property).

The minimal state

One of the most important features of this work which sets Neuman apart in Romanian culture is the exposition of the classical liberal doctrine of the minimal state (or the “night watchman” state). This he does through two avenues: first, he mentions the specific (limited) role of the state; and then insists on the perversion of the state institution when it exceeds its proper role.

Pertaining to the specific role of the state, he wrote that “it is only the state which can be a keeper of order, a provider of justice and a defender of external independence which is collective and internal liberty which can only be individual” (p. 117). Or, commenting approvingly on Leroy-Beaulieu: “By origin, nature and object/function, the state is but a military, diplomatic and judicial apparatus. By getting involved in tasks for which it was not made, it loses its cohesion and authority, falling swiftly in the power of adventurers and fanatics” (pp. 122-123).

To make the matters more complicated, there is no explicit statement throughout the work that its author is a supporter of the doctrine of the minimal state. Nevertheless, adding to the two elements mentioned above, Neuman repeatedly comments approvingly on views which consider the apparatus of the modern state as first and foremost an instrument for justice. For instance: “[b]ut the answer of constitutional law and constitutional history, the disciplines which encompass the technical aspects of state problems, is that, as a technical instrument, the State has a limited capacity. For example, one of his missions is to provide justice. By his nature it is called to do this. Moreover, it has the very possibility to accomplish such a thing. A well-organized justice is something to which any state can aspire” (p. 20). Or in another section: “What the individual cannot but exceptionally accomplish, is a matter of course for the state. What the individual is able to accomplish in other directions, the State is not. And when contrary to its nature, it undertakes such activities, either by depriving the individual of his rights, or by not respecting its own positive obligations, such as the one to administer justice under all its forms, in all its stages and against anyone, itself included, the state stumbles and the mismatch shatters it to its foundations” (p.133; emphasis ours). He rarely mentions other functions as pertaining to the proper sphere of state action.

At the same time, when one counts the number of implicit or explicit exclusions from the proper sphere of state action and judges what remains inside, again a picture of the minimal state seems to be the only one to qualify. Thus, one after another, most of the domains of social life are considered to be outside of state competence: the economy and economic activity in general (p. 20; p. 123; p. 138; p. 139; p. 143); family (p. 127, p. 166); education (p. 112; p. 173); culture (pp. 172); religion (p. 127; pp. 158-163); charity, welfare (p. 127; pp. 147-148). Any of these are sufficient to grant Neuman a role among the harbingers of classical liberalism on Romanian soil (even today).

Religion and state

One of the most interesting topics discussed in Neuman’s thesis is the relation between religion and the state. In synthesis, his take on this issue is that the separation of Church and State (while necessary and proper) does not mean that the religious sphere is unimportant or irrelevant (or that it must remain a petty private affair much as stamp collection). On the contrary, the way he puts it, religion and church as human and social phenomena and institutions are among non-state prerequisites of successful state action. Moreover, they contribute a great deal to keeping the State in its proper limits (the other side of the coin being that if they are weakened, the state invades their sphere creating the dangerous pseudo-religion of “statolatry” or state worship or, at the very least, for want of serious and traditional religions, various surrogates flourish, such as pantheism or fetishism).

Thus, he says: “[t]he most powerful limits imposed on the State are the religious ones. And on the modern State more than any other, as it was born from the separation of religion and politics and because with its democratic structure, the democratic religion par excellence, pantheism, swiftly/quickly degenerates into fetishism. The religious evolution of the modern State is very curious. A quite old heresy, Statolatry/Stateworship, has gotten hold of it. Leroy Beaulieu reckoned in 1889 that the State has remained the only god of the modern world” (pp. 158-159).

An interesting observation that he makes, in connection with the superiority of religion (especially of the traditional, revelation based types) to various modern surrogates is the comparison between prayer book reading and newspaper reading. While prayers had a more or less fixed structure, permeated by ideals that would constantly work on man’s soul in the direction of uplifting him morally, the newspaper – at the beginning an instrument of cultural and human uplifting – let itself be corrupted by its readers’ base impulses, perverting itself and then contributing to the further perversion of the public.

Concerning fiscal fraud, Neuman expresses both a classically liberal and – at least by present day standards – politically incorrect view. He says: “Fiscal need is not sufficient as a motive for trespassing the boundaries of justice. The tax is immoral when it is excessive or when it is collected by wrong means and in these cases it promotes fraud. The size of the tax is in itself immoral and has bad consequences. It is a long observed fact/thing. The excess of taxation has as consequences the denial of justice, the loss of liberty, the weakening of morals…The State is outside its own purpose if it uses taxes as a means to modify existent inequalities… [Fiscal] fraud is not so much due to taxpayer immorality as to governmental immorality.” (pp. 145-146).

In the area of education, the opinions of Neuman are no less challenging and interesting than in the many others, previously discussed (or as many others undiscussed here). Thus he says, while discussing what he calls the cultural limits of the state, the following: “[t]he main problem of the State as limited by civilization is that of education. There are here grounds for hesitation with respect to direction, quantity or opportunity. The State does not practice largesse, even in this sphere, without hidden purposes. It seeks to control not only the use of its own money, but also the use of other people’s money. And it does not stop its controlling instinct at the level of policing material order and decent behavior. Even though only a temporal instrument meant to protect the freedom of conscience and learning, it tends many times to acquire church like character and to impose some sort of spiritual orthodoxy. If, after all, it could maintain a wise neutrality, the monopolization of education by the state would lose half of its disadvantages. There is also the question of moderation. As in many other respects, the public services exaggerate here too. Obsessed with quantity, they neglect the essence and err in proportions that could not happen under a private regime. Public education tends to become an arrogant state religion: <> [quoting Paul Leroy-Beaulieu]” (pp.173-174). He then draws attention to the fact that intellectuals such as Nicolae Iorga or G. Dissescu have argued (in Romania) against the organization of education under a state monopoly.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank the New Europe College and its staff for the great opportunity provided to do this research and to be part of a great project in terms of research, culture and education. In this context, he would also like to thank all the fellows who throughout the 2014-2015 academic year have been a source of inspiration and much more. This project would have also been much poorer without the help of the staff of the International Institute for Administrative Sciences in Brussels.



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