Saturday, February 28, 2015

Makers and Takers in 350 BC

Aristotle observes that various kinds of inequalities can lead to factions. Both rich and poor exploit these kinds of inequalities for their own benefit.

“For those who are bent on equality resort to faction if they believe that though having less, they are the equals of those who have more. And too do those who aim at inequality and excess if they think that though unequal, they do not have more, but equal or less.”

When factions grow strong enough to dominate the government, they shape the constitution in their class interests. Aristotle studies dozens of constitutions of the Greek city-states of his era. He notes how some are dominated by the many—the poor, and others are dominated by the few—the rich.

“Democracy arose from the ideal that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are absolutely alike free, therefore they claim that they are equal absolutely. Oligarchy arose from the assumption that those who are unequal in one respect are completely unequal. Being unequal in wealth they assume themselves to be unequal absolutely.”

Both conclusions are wrong, according to Aristotle. This does not stop the emergence of factions and even civil war and revolution.

Aristotle observes that in democracies, the government attempts to harass the wealthy and take their money. Leaders in a democracy stir up popular passions against the wealthy. This in turn moved the wealthy to unite against the multitude.
In order to win favor of the multitude, they treat the notables unjustly and cause them to unite. Sometimes they make them split up their possessions or income in order to finance their public duties. Sometimes they bring slanderous accusations against the rich with a view to confiscating their money.”

This is the origins of the demagogue.

Sometimes in democratic Greek city-states, the demagogues would go beyond slander of the property owning classes. They attempted to persuade the citizens to prosecute the wealthy in order to seize their money. This in turn moves the wealthy to unite and conspire against the democracy.

Sometimes the democracies resort to trumped up charges against wealthy individuals to seize their money.

“In democracies the most potent cause of revolution is the unprincipled character of popular leaders. Sometimes they bring malicious prosecution against he owners of possessions one by one and so cause them to join forces."

 Again, this forces the wealthy to unite against the democracy, overthrow it, and establish an oligarchy—a constitution devote to the class interests of the rich.

Aristotle suggests the path to civil peace:

“In democracies, the rich ought to be treated with restraint, there should be no redistribution of property nor of income, such as goes unnoticed in some constitutions.”


CW said...

>>" democracies, the government attempts to harass the wealthy and take their money."

Some things just never change. It always comes down to coveting and theft, ultimately. I guess our Founders thought they could disrupt this dynamic by putting in place a system the enables equal opportunity, so people could provide for themselves and wouldn't feel the need to steal; but alas, thieves are an enduring lot.

vlewell said...

Hey Cw

Another thing they put in place was representative rather than direct democracy and a large republic instead of a small one. In Federalist 10, James Madison wrote the following:

"The influence of factious leaders may kindle aflame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy, but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire fact of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union . . ."

He made this observation before any national political parties existed. So parties are able to some degree to accomplish what the founders hoped nobly would.