Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Uprighting Solon

Solon was (compared to his contemporaries) a statesman after our euvoluntary hearts. I challenge you to read Plutarch and gainsay this claim. He wrote affectionately enough of wealth gained through honest exchange, though: "Wealth I would have, but wealth by wrong procure I would not; justice, e'en if slow, is sure." But it's his jurisprudence rather than his economics that I find compelling. Here's a hint of how he presaged Public Choice: "[Solon] laughed at [Anacharsis] for imagining the dishonesty and covetousness of his countrymen could be restrained by written laws, which were like spiders' webs, and would catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but easily be broken by the mighty and rich." Gordon Tullock could have easily written that.

Well, even though I've posted this very passage recently, it's worth reconsidering.

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
Consider the possibility that Solon was THE philosopher king that Plato and Aristotle (inter alia) lionized. Solon repealed every single statute laid down by Draco (of 'draconian' fame, probably also the inspiration for the Harry Potter antagonist). More interestingly, he was beloved by rich and poor alike: the rich because they thought him trustworthy, and the poor because they believed he had an eye for equality (redistribution). Sounds familiar.

Back to that divine maxim of Plato though: "never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents." This is a remarkable bit of jurisprudence. Contrast it with modern (hard or soft, take your pick) paternalism. Plato's maxim says, in effect that the citizen is the sovereign of his own affairs, that the archon is well and truly the servant of the constituent. The paternalist reverses this relationship, placing the political elite in a head-of-household position. A libertarian Mungerfesto in five parts is the extensible version of Plato's maxim, of Solon's jurisprudence. The state is a watchdog, the citizens are the masters of their homes. The dog does not own the home. Note that this need not conform to NAP-only libertarian principles, nor to any special flavor of anarchism. Plato just says that if you ain't willing to put a gun to your parents' head over some activity, you shouldn't be willing to put a gun to anyone's head over that same activity. It's a heuristic of governance aimed at untelescoping legislative morality.

It's a heuristic that enables euvoluntary exchange. Maybe it's time we thought about standing Solon back on his feet. Else your head'll collapse, cause there's nothing in it... and you'll ask yourself...

#phronesis #eudamonia

Postscriptum, it appears that Solon mastered political kayfabe thousands of years before our own silver-tongued wretches.
The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation, calling harlots, for example, mistresses, tributes customs, a garrison a guard, and the jail the chamber, seem originally to have been Solon's contrivance, who called cancelling debts Seisacthea, a relief, or disencumbrance.
Government is the name for the things we do together, indeed.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?