Quote of the Day: November 28, 2011
Twitterstorm delong: November 28, 2011

Wisdom and Liberty; or The Freedom of the Greeks

Matthew Yglesias:

Read my colleague Ian Milhiser for a rebuttal of Paul’s constitutional arguments. For my part, when I hear this stuff I think of my former professor, the late great libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick who developed the notion (“demoktesis”) that democratic governance is a form of slavery. Nozick is a very smart guy and the position is rigorously argued. That said, regulated welfare state capitalism is clearly not actually the same as slavery. The fact that one can reach the conclusion that it is shows that there’s something deeply unsound with the Nozick-style view of property rights and highlights the extent to which libertarian ideology represents a departure from the values of classical liberals in whose work one finds no support for such a conclusion.

I do realize that philosophers gain street cred by erasing distinctions that exist and creating distinctions that don't, but it has never seemed to me that Nozick's game is one that wise people play.

We get our concepts of "freedom" and "slavery" from--surprise, surprise--the Classical Greeks. They saw full citizenship in a city-state--what we see as the powers, rights, and obligations of democratic governance--as the essence of freedom. It was the elimination of all of those pieces of citizenship that defined the state of slavery.

You can see this pretty much everywhere in the sources--my favorite place is in Herodotus's Histories, where Demaratus tells Xerxes that Persia will have a difficult time conquering Greece. Why? Because the Greeks are not slaves but free men, and will not easily submit and will fight hard. Why will they fight hard? Because they value being free and not being slaves very much. How will they be able to fight hard and so keep their freedom? Because free men are slaves to a particular master: the laws that the boulos and demos prescribe. Indeed, men who do not willingly become slaves to the law don't stay free men for long.

Instead, they become slaves to masters like Xerxes.

Men who are not slaves to the law prescribed by the processes of democratic governance as their master don't stay free men for very long. That is a paradoxical fact that is nevertheless woven into the original definition of "freedom"--and if you don't grasp that, you don't understand.

In the Histories, Xerxes does not understand what Demaratus is trying to tell him. That's one of Herodotus's big and ironic points.

Ironically, Nozick did not understand what Herodotus had to teach him either.