Salem with and without witches, and also Geneva and Berlin

  • Peter NannestadEmail author


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.


Supreme values Authoritarianism Totalitarianism Terror Rent extraction 

JEL Classification

D02 D72 D74 



I thank the participants in the 28th Silvaplana Workshop on Political Economy 2019, and especially the discussion openers, Arye L. Hillman and Roger D. Congleton, for comments on an earlier and different version of this paper. Special thanks are owed to Roger D. Congleton for inspiring conversations about supreme values and the good society. The usual disclaimer applies in all cases.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

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