What freedom entails: facing the good and the bad consequences of our decisions

For men and women to be free from paternalistic domination from others and free to make our own choices necessarily means that we are in turn subjected to the vicissitudes and the consequences, for better or for worse, of those decisions. It is a fundamental concept that for us to remain free, we must not in turn be “protected” by government from the downside risk of flawed choices or bad luck. It was in fact this form of “protection” that for centuries kept peasants under the feudal domination of their class superiors – the knights, earls, and dukes under which they served and whom they paid exorbitant rents to. Predictably, famine only ever struck the peasants when harvests failed, while nobles and priests always maintained a relatively bountiful diet. Ostensibly, this was the price to be paid for protection by the lords of the castle and his soldiers and mercenaries. The reality was that for most peasants throughout the ages, the only real danger to their lives was in fact the deprivations of the lords supposedly protecting them.

Alas, for centuries and the better part of human history, this system kept a stable class of hereditary beneficiaries in control of a never growing and largely agrarian-based economic pie. People lived consistently on the modern equivalent of $3 a day and under a Malthusian system in which population growth led to a decrease in individual agrarian and artisanal wages, wages which only rose again the next time a plague wiped out swaths of the population and the supply of labor.  On that note, this never growing economic pie also led to no real advancements in science and medicine, and those frequent plagues (thought for centuries to arise out of miasmas in the sky that needed to be avoided by clustering indoors and blood that needed to be let out of the body – an ignorantly fatal combination) killed noble and peasant alike. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for the vast majority of our ancestors’ histories was lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Shakespeare poetically wrote of death as, “the arbitrator of despairs, just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries…” Let me pause for a moment and express my extreme gratitude to have been born into the relative bounty and ease of modern-day American life. Whatever our problems, they pale in comparison to the way humanity lived for thousands of years; well into the 1800s most people lived in these Hobbesian conditions. Many millions of people on earth still reside in dark removes of similar medieval conditions in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Deirdre McCloskey, in her remarkable book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, makes the above points eloquently and with her unique ability to draw upon an impressive panoply of analogies, anecdotes, and historic intellectual luminaries’ thoughts and writings to buttress her points. I highly recommend the book and credit it with much of my facts (i.e. the $3 a day factoid, Malthus’ theories). In direct contrast to the idea that we as individuals need protection and on the topic of the reality and essential connection between freedom and potential loss, she observes:

“The ideas of equality led to other social and political movements not uniformly adorable. Hannah Arendt remarked in 1951 that ‘equality of condition…is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind.’ Alexis de Tocqueville had said much the same a century earlier. And Scottish equality has a harsh, even tragic side. It entails equal reward for equal merit in a marketplace in which others, by freedom of contract, can also compete. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, ‘Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit – namely, fraud or treachery, or force.’ Yet in the real world, unhappily, if the poor are to be raised up, there is no magic alternative to such competition. An ill-advised and undercapitalized pet store, into which the owner pours his soul, goes under. In the same neighborhood a little independent office for immediate health care opens half a block from a branch of the largest hospital chain in Chicago, and seems doomed to fail the test of voluntary trade. Although the testing of business ideas in voluntary trade is obviously necessary for betterment of the economy (as it is too by non-monetary tests for betterment in art and sport and science and scholarship), such failures are deeply sad if you have the slightest sympathy for human projects, or for humans. But at least the pet store, the clinic, the Edsel, Woolworth’s, Polaroid, and Pan American Airlines face the same democratic test by trade: Do customers keep coming forward voluntarily? Does real income rise?
We could all by state compulsion backed by the monopoly of violence remain in the same jobs as our ancestors, perpetually “protected,” though at $3 a day. Or, with taxes taken by additional state compulsion, we could subsidize new activities without regard to a test by voluntary trade, “creating jobs” as the anti-economic rhetoric has it. Aside even from their immediate effect of making national income lower than it could have been, perpetually, such ever-popular plans – never mind the objectionable character of the violent compulsion they require – seldom work in the long run for the welfare of the poor, or the rest of us. In view of the way a government of imperfect people actually behaves in practice, job “protection” and job “creation” often fail to achieve their gentle, generous purposes. The protections and the creations get diverted to favorites. Laws requiring minority or female businesses to be hired, for example, tend to yield phony businesses run in fact by male whites. In a society run by male whites or inherited lords or clan members or Communist Party officials, or even by voters not restricted by inconvenient voting times and picture IDs, the unequal and involuntary rewards generated by sidestepping the test of trade are seized by the privileged. The privileged are good at that.”

 The implicit conclusion is that while there are unfortunate consequences of freedom and a free market, the alternative is worse. The plea, as McCloskey states in her book’s foreword, is this:  “Perhaps you yourself still believe in nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation. And perhaps you are in the grip of pessimism about growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality. Please, for the good of the wretched of the earth, reconsider.”


In defense of liberty and deliberative self-government


A Republic madam, if you can keep it

– Benjamin Franklin

Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his infallible criterion for the fallible criterion of his more conceited neighbor?

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed… [A] common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper Number 6

The defining ideals of the American Republic, as expressed in the Federalist Papers through the pseudonym Publius, which was comprised of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, was fundamentally an unprecedented quest to demonstrate the power and durability of a self-governing Republic built on a Constitution that above all valued deliberative process and based upon a moral foundation and virtuous society. These ideals were in marked contrast to other contemporary democratic philosophies then taking shape, notably in France, which favored the immediate supremacy and wisdom of the collective man through elections and plebiscite-based majority rule. In contrast, the American experiment was intimately crafted to be by design incrementalist and deliberative through the separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, as well as the diffusion of various powers across federal and state governments. This uniquely designed separation and diffusion is why Benjamin Franklin, during the closing days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, gave the response in the first quote above to the question asked by a woman out in the street, “Doctor, what will it be, a monarchy or a republic?”

This methodical and deliberative process was above all meant to protect the rights of the governed and uphold individual liberties. If anything unified the Founding Fathers as a guiding principle, it was a fear and skepticism of immediate majority rule and mob mentality, a risk of democracy that French philosopher and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville would later coin as “the tyranny of the majority.” This ideology is markedly different that the origins of progressive ideology based on humanist rationalism and an idealistic belief that majority rule and decisions should reign supreme and democracy in action should be rapid and responsive, all in the efficient pursuit of achieving egalitarian equality.  It is this vain quest for individual equality in outcomes, this naive notion of human Utopia, and the endless government usurpation of individual rights that stem from it, that the Founding Fathers were greatly fearful of and undergird both the Hamilton and Franklin quotes above. Greater elaboration on these political and philosophical points are wonderfully discussed in a recent Imaginative Conservative article from which I was inspired to lift the Hamilton quote. One quick point to make is that the Founding Fathers preferred deliberation over even elections themselves. The author of the article contends that incessant focus on elections and score settling between sides leads to a breakdown in unity and social cohesion in ways that discussion and deliberation do not. I believe we have completely lost sight of the art of deliberation and consensus in American politics of today. We are constantly myopically focused on what election cycle we happen to be in and the scores that we are trying to settle and tearing down those who stand in our way. Meantime, government power and tramping of rights of the individual continue to grow apace.

My own personal observation and grievance is that the one deliberative and long-term focused institution that we had at the outset of the American Republic, the U.S. Senate, which was originally populated by individuals appointed by state legislatures, became much more captive to short-term whims of the majority when the 17th Amendment created direct election to the Senate. In other words, the indirect election method to the Senate enumerated in Constitution by the great sagacity of our Founding Fathers was replaced with direct election by the population. This in essence made the Senate really nothing more than a smaller extension of the House of Representatives. I believe the model in which there was both a relatively insulated deliberative body coupled with a directly elected body more responsive to the population served America quite well. Unfortunately, I don’t think repealing the 17th Amendment is going to become a rallying cry anytime soon.

Modern Day Towers of Babel – Lessons from the Soviet Union Man-made Famines

Tower of babel

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, mankind busied themselves with building a giant tower stretching up to heaven, united in a common goal of reaching high enough in the firmament to achieve the status of God. In order to prevent this prideful use of mankind’s time and talents, people are thrown into confusion through divine intervention forcing  people to grapple with different language barriers. This ended the quest to build the tower, which presumably required a great degree of communication and collaboration as well as coercion of others to lend their time and energy to the project. It is the latter point on coercion to achieve Utopia that I use as an analogy for something I have been reading a lot about as of late, which is the tragedy that is Russian history; in particular, the part of Russian history that was the quest to build a humanist utopia on earth in the guise of a workers’ paradise ideology of Marxist Communism.

Robert Conquest’s seminal work, The Harvest of Sorrow, provides a chilling narrative of Stalin’s mad and macabre drive to implement his five-year plan to force all peasants into state-owned collective farms. Having recently won a string of political and ideological battles in the wake of Lenin’s death, including the completion of transforming urban areas into economies based largely on state-owned factories, state ownership of the press, orienting the essential arms of the Communist Party under Stalinist control through the appointment of his own self-selected protégés into essential roles in the Party, achieving Stalinist dominance of the essential arms of the Government (Commissariat and Politburo), internal police (OGPU), and military, and with a dictatorship based upon a cult of personality largely established, Stalin opened the next front in the Communist revolution – consolidation of the farms along Communist ideological lines. It is remarkable that up into this point in the late 1920s, a full decade after the initial Bolshevik revolution, that the great mass of Soviet land, population, and largest sector of the Soviet economy, agriculture, was relatively untouched by the maiming and malignant arm of the Soviet state. Indeed, market forces were tolerated in agriculture for a relatively long duration of time under Lenin and subsequently Stalin under something deemed the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, which was for a season a tactical retreat from an aborted attempt at crash collectivization launched in the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately for the peasants, this lifestyle under market forces was ultimately doomed to be short-lived as it was anathema to Marxist Communist ideology. Stalin is known as many things and has accumulated a wide degree of historical scorn and unflattering sobriquets that are warranted, but less discussed and known is the actual degree to which he truly was a fully committed Marxist more so than he was a practical tactician, which is the typical reputation historians grant to him. The degree to which peasants and farms continued undisturbed and living under market forces was irreconcilable with his dream of a unified and fully communist Soviet Union, and their destruction was always inevitable so long as Stalin had power.

There were largely two high level essential elements of the plan, if the crash and chaotic collectivization that ultimately ensued can be considered planned. The first critical element was fomenting class warfare and eliminating a class of so-called rich peasants. In Communist Party parlance, this class of peasants was pejoratively labeled “kulaks.” While there were numerous official central party attempts to define what a kulak was (tragically comic attempts to define them include the number of cows they owned, acreage tilled and owned, other peasants employed, etc.), in the chaos and opportunism of other peasants seeking to gain kulak assets, opportunism of career ladder seeking party members, internal police officers (OGPU, also know throughout the years as Cheka, NKVD, and KGB), party activists, and sycophants eager to prove their mettle and communist dutifulness, the reach and definition of who would be a kulak was ever-expanding and completely arbitrary and ultimately boiled down to who might be a leader that had the potential to cause trouble for the regime. Thus, “wealthy” peasants, middle class peasants, clergy, and village leaders all got caught into the snare of what occurs when humanity devolves into its most beastly and evil forms. The great irony is that many of the oppressors were far more handsomely paid from their official perches than were the wealthy peasants they were murdering, deporting, and sending off to the gulags of Siberia. The second critical element in the “plan” was to force the remaining peasants into collective farms. The ostensible utopian goal behind the collective farm was the theoretical notion that large industrial farms would produce much more efficiently than small landowners could and the centralized planning would align the needs of the country at large. More malevolently and cynically, the Soviet leaders knew that state collective farms would give them control of the all-important grain that they required to feed their core political base, the urban populations, and to export grain to obtain the needed cash for the state.

The predictable outcome of all of this state-induced crash collectivization was a massive decrease in agricultural production due to the massive deportation, imprisonment, and murder of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers and ranchers who were mostly located in the Ukraine and the Central Asian steppes, respectively. The disruption that the oppression caused and the lack of incentives the new system created to produce anything more than what your family required were also significant contributing factors. What relatively little products did get extracted out of the peasants was more prone to rot on trains and in warehouses due to Soviet government incompetence than it was to get put into the mouths of Soviet citizens, further exacerbating the problems in a tragically ironic way. Needless to say, the offshoot was to further scapegoat ever-growing numbers of kulak saboteurs and calls from the central planners to extract more in the form of expropriated grain requisitions from the peasants, which often had the effect of not leaving families with enough grain to even feed themselves. At one point in this terror, the Soviet government relied upon newly deputized Communist activists that were largely city dwellers to descend upon the farms to discover grain wherever they could and forcibly take it from the peasants with the aid of OGPU officers.  These 25-thousanders, as they were called after the approximate number of them that were commissioned for the task, had little knowledge of agriculture, but what they possessed in abject ignorance they made up for in their fervent desire to do their part to build the workers’ utopia. They were easily whipped into a mob mentality frenzy based upon a notion that anyone that opposed them was an enemy of the state and inimical to the necessary changes that the revolution needed in order to complete its idealistic aims. One of their members, who would defect decades later, recounts a speech chronicled in Conquest’s book that was given to the 25-thousanders by a Party member who addressed them in order to provide direction on the terror that they were to unleash on the countryside.

The local village authorities need an injection of Bolshevik iron. That’s why we are sending you. You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or it’s us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

Secondly, comrades, it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s plan for grain delivery. The kulaks and even some middle and poor peasants are not giving up their grain. They are sabotaging Party policy. And the local authorities sometimes waver and show weakness. Your job is to get the grain at any price. Pump it out of them, wherever it is hidden, in ovens, under beds, in cellars or buried away in back yards.

Through you, the Party brigades, the villages must learn the meaning of Bolshevik firmness. You must find the grain and you will find it. It’s a challenge to the last shred of your initiative and to your Chekist spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking extreme measures. The Party stands four-square behind you. Comrade Stalin expects it of you. It’s a life and death struggle; better to do too much and not enough.

Your third important task is to complete the threshing of the grain, to repair the tools, ploughs, tractors, reapers, and other equipment.

The class struggle in the village has taken the sharpest forms. This is no time for squeamishness or rotten sentimentality. Kulak agents are masking themselves and getting into the collective farms where they sabotage the work and kill the livestock. What’s required from you is Bolshevik alertness, intransigence, and courage. I am sure you will carry out the instructions of the Party and the directives of our beloved Leader.

Carry out the instructions of the dear leader is indeed what was done. According to Conquest’s research and analysis at the time, close to 5 million so-called kulaks and their family members were killed or sent to the Gulags where many, including wives and children, would go on to perish. As a result of the predictable subsequent man-made famine, another estimated 10 million would go on to die in the following years. What is striking is that at the time of Conquest’s forecasts and estimates (made in the 50s), Western media outlets lampooned the account as overly sensationalized and hyper-critical of Stalin and the Soviet system. As it turned out, once the Soviet archives were opened in their entirety decades later, Conquest’s estimates proved to be remarkably prescient.

My own interest in these accounts is that I am often fascinated, humbled, and terrified by the conditions that led to such a human created humanitarian crisis. The ultimate human paradox is the great good that we are capable of, but also the tremendous evil that we are equally capable of. I don’t get the sense that any culture, society, or ethnicity is immune to such deprivations.  While I don’t think the conditions are ripe for such a disaster in many Western nations and feel compelled to ward off charges of being an alarmist, it is still a valuable lesson of the arrogance of building utopias on the backs of oppressed and coerced individuals. Individual liberties and freedoms are essential elements that we should cherish dearly, even if it means we pass up some immediate expedient aim and benefit that would force us to give them up.  Conquest chronicles another party member and activist who participated in the actions against the peasants and who would go on to later write that,

We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in communism that we were prepared to accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least bit of communist phraseology…confronted by something unpleasant, we compelled ourselves to believe that it was an isolated phenomenon and that on the whole the country’s state of affairs was just as the party described it…in other words, just as it was supposed to be according to communist theory.

This quote is classic and could be applied to any urge to participate in mob mentality and populist urges, either from the political far right or left. Oppression and catastrophe really take nothing more than a passionate minority that believes that all that stands in the way between them and a paradise on the other side is a smaller minority that deserves to be trampled, coupled with a largely complicit mass majority that stands silent while atrocities are committed in the vain hope that they won’t be touched. Evil can be whitewashed and rationalized by us all if it is deemed a necessary act to bring about a hoped for greater good or paradise.

The modern-day Tower of Babel is not a tower reaching up to the heaven, it is a belief that an institution of the state can create better conditions for all, even if it means destroying rights of the few. There are much less malevolent forms of this urge in the Western world today, but the same desire to build paternalistic utopian societies that aim hopelessly to improve the lot of the majority, even if it means expropriating the property and wealth of the minority, is still something that we should be extremely careful with and which we see as prevailing themes in much of the drive for proposed “free” goods in higher education and healthcare, to name just a couple of issues. To borrow from Milton Friedman, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

What made America great in the first place?


As I have mentioned in other posts, I am making my way through Mary Beard’s remarkably readable account of Roman history, SPQRBeard has the unique talent of bringing ancient history forward and modernizing it and making it tremendously relatable to modern times while maintaining the integrity of the critical historical elements. One of the remarkable anecdotes that Beard draws upon is the assassination of the Emperor Gaius, also commonly known as Caligula (which loosely translates into “Bootikins” on account of the footies he has as a child, making it a nickname that Gaius actually rather disliked). In the aftermath of this event, Beard chronicles how the Roman Senate took to the Temple of Jupiter, a highly revered and symbolic place for Romans of the time, and, as Beard states, “exchanged fine words about the end of political slavery and the return of liberty.” Calculating that it had been about 100 years since the end of freedom, one of them delivered a stirring speech on the need to return to Republican ideals. While admitting that he was too young to see the true Republic in its old form, he claimed to see with his own eyes ‘the evils with which tyrannies fill the state. No despot is set over you now who can get away with ruining the city…what recently nurtured the tyranny was nothing other than our inaction…Weakened by the pleasure of peace we learned to live like slaves….Our first duty now is to give the highest possible honors to those who killed the tyrant.”

Unfortunately for the speaker, one observer in the crowd noticed that he was wearing the signet ring that featured the face of Gaius on it, a symbol of sycophantic loyalty to the Emperor, and proceeded to rip the ring from his finger. The entire spectacle completely undermined the eloquent speech he had just delivered.  As Beard indicates, the Jewish historian Josephus hinted in his writings at the time that, “anyone who could loudly advocate a return to Republican rule while sporting the emperor’s portrait on his ring did not understand what Republican rule was about.”

I use this as a parallel for the current state of the American polity and our lost sense of what actually makes America great. As the author of a blog post The Jacobins of the Right states, “There is something almost Jacobin – and thus deeply unconservative – about the idea that a virtuous, plain-speaking, authentic outsider can just step into politics and fix everything, and that when all is done, the nation as a whole will be regenerated. Or great again. Or something quite like it. There is something equally Jacobin, and unconservative, about the idea that our country or any other needs to be radically remade.” This is not just about the current presidential election, although it is certainly a symptom of the disease, in my mind, modern Americans have forgotten, or were never really taught, what made America great in the first place. The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence embodies the greatness of what the American Republic aspired to be:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..

What was unique about this incredible endeavor was a paradigm shift from paternalistic aristocratic government structures that predominated the globe at that time and indeed throughout the vast majority of history to one where individuals had unassailable rights and that government existed by the sole consent of the governed. While the United States founding fathers could look to examples of the Athenian democracy, Roman Republican era, and writings from classical liberal (mostly) English philosophers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume, for the most part they were building and executing on something entirely new. It would not have escaped their (or the rest of the world’s) notice that those previous rare examples from Rome and Greece were ultimately flawed and doomed to failure.

As a bulwark against those flaws and with additional wisdom provided by the troubles of the Articles of Confederation period, the U.S. Constitution weaved together a tapestry of government checks and balances across not only the legislative, executive, and judicial branches but also across the central federal government and state governments. While I could make much of this artfully wise construct of checks and balances across government institutions, suffice it to say that by its very inherent design the U.S. Constitution was purposefully constructed to make rapid and dramatic change very difficult and yield to the less efficient incremental and slow changes that are reached by overwhelming support and consensus. For anyone that doubts this, make the Federalist Papers authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay your next reading project. A less talked about but equally important nature of the American construct was combining the government checks and balances with elements of an indirect democracy as a form of population oversight of the government; or, in other words – the consent of the governed was never intended to be ‘the majority votes, the majority rules, the majority rides roughshod over the losing minority’. It is critical to note that this was not direct democracy, as the founding fathers were afraid of mob mentality, or what the French aristocrat and prescient writer Alexis de Tocqueville would coin as “the tyranny of the majority” in his observations of America in Democracy in America.

There seem to be two competing populist strains in American politics these days –  one is of a reliance on a single man to somehow ‘make us great again’ by, as the author of the Jacobin blog puts it, “cranky protectionist math that just doesn’t add up.” The other is a naive belief that we can somehow stop a “rigged” system (one of Bernie Sanders favorite terms) by consolidating much more power into the hands of government and create a “fair” society by ironically confiscating wealth from the minority and redistributing it to the minority. These political forces of authoritarian machismo and tyranny of the majority to trample on the rights of an outvoted minority would not have been a surprise to the founding fathers, who did everything they could to try to prevent this type of descent in their founding government charters. For the American people who mistakenly believe that their support of a would-be despot who can get things done by the sheer dint of force due to his leadership and personality and that this is somehow consistent with American greatness, the echoes of the Roman senator droning on about Republican greatness while wearing the Emperor’s portrait begin to ring a loud clarion call.

In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville prophetically states that,  “Governments usually perish from impotence or from tyranny. In the former case, their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their grasp in the latter. Many observers who have witnessed the anarchy of democratic states, have imagined that the government of those states was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that, when war is once begun between parties, the government loses control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or resources; say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force, and the misemployment of its resources, that it becomes a failure. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by want of its strength.’

Those bidding for stronger and more effective and decisive government are missing the point of America and are drawing the wrong conclusions. Our government is not without power and it certainly isn’t weak and in need of a saviour. We don’t need more government or more tyranny that I believe both a Trump or Sanders presidency would bring about in different forms. We need greater individual freedoms, less government, less laws so that the rule of law can be adhered to and respected, and a much greater veneration and knowledge of our founding charters and how government is supposed to function and the people’s role within it. Without these forces, the de Tocqueville prophecy of descent into anarchy is ever closer at hand.






What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom


The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”


Quote of the Week – Suicide Note of a Soviet Citizen

Show trial

“I know that if there’s a desire, one can accuse the innocent, such are the times. I do not want defamation, I do not want to suffer while innocent and have to justify myself, I prefer death to defamation and suffering.”

– Russian coal worker suicide note, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power – Stephen Kotkin

The context of the suicide note is one that showcases the tyranny that can befall man once a government exists for its own sake and the rule of law becomes what that government arbitrarily decides the law is in order to increase and keep power. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was a typical cycle of increasing power grabs and more movements to a totalitarian and collectivist society that went something along these lines: Stalin, who was a true Communist ideologue and not simply a pragmatic totalitarian that he is often portrayed by historians to be, would have a grand design of moving the Soviet Union closer to the utopian dream of a collectivist “worker’s paradise.” In order to get the political capital required to move millions of people into this utopia, he would need to foment a pretext of class war in order to generate support of the “have nots” against the increasingly vanishing “haves.” Stalin had a firm grip on the secret police through his own self-appointments of men who depended on his patronage. During these times the secret police carried the name of OGPU, and Stalin could count on the complicity of the OGPU henchmen to drum up confessions whenever he needed them to. Then what would follow would be a show trial against class enemies that had the benefits of creating terror amongst and outside of the Communist Party, providing the cover Stalin needed to enact sweeping social and political change.

Such is the macabre script that induced the suicide note that serves as the quote of the week. Kotkin chronicles one such case in which Stalin’s overarching goal was to enact his biggest gamble yet as ruler – the mass removal of peasants from individual farms and communes into state-owned large scale collectivist farms. In the events leading up to the forced confiscation of farms, mass repression of so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants), and forced movement of peasants onto these large scale farms, Stalin needed a pretext of class warfare. He received such a pretext in gift from his North Caucasus OGPU leader, Yefim Yevdokimov, who presented fabricated evidence to Stalin of foreign agents and Soviet citizen collusion to sabotage production amongst industrial facilities and mines in Shakhty. What ensued was ever more repression and forced confessions through torture that culminated in a globally publicized show trial. The show trial set in motion a series of dual events that further entrenched Stalin’s power and provided the means necessary to reshape Soviet society. Firstly, Stalin was able to maneuver around his internal rivals and initiate the Great Purge. It is clear from Kotkin’s account that Stalin could tolerate no dissent and was a particularly vindictive person. Secondly, Staling was able to launch a broader Class War, in which anyone that stood in the way of forced collectivization of farms and industrial settings would be labeled various forms of epithets such as bourgeois, petit bourgeois, kulak, enemy of the state, or foreign agent. Stalin’s ultimate goal was collectivization of the farms, and the Shakhty trial gave him the pretext to neutralize, repress, and outflank members of the Politburo who were opposed to the forced collectivization of the farms as well as liquidate kulaks and force the migration of peasants to collective farms. The outcome was a tremendous famine in which millions perished due to predictable ensuing drastic decrease in agricultural production. That is a topic for which Kotkin indicates he will turn to once he publishes Volume II, which is currently in draft form.

The horrific stories one reads out of books, like Kotkins, that chronicle life in the Soviet Union (others that I have appreciated reading in the past include Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago  and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands) always give me a sense of great gratitude for having a tremendously comfortable life in the United States. More unnerving, I always question myself on how I would act in the face of interrogation and a show trial, in which I am being asked upon pain of torture and death to denounce and turn on family and friends. It is a sobering thought experiment.


Quote of the Week


There is no need to suppose that human beings differ very much from one another: but it is true that the ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school.

                                                             -Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides is quoting from a speech attributed to Spartan King Archidamus II during deliberations amongst Sparta and her allies on whether to break a treaty and go to war against their rival Athens. Archidamus was a lone voice presenting the case for not immediately going to war and rather dedicate efforts to repair the relationship and amend Athenian behavior through diplomatic efforts. The first part of his statement meant that the Athenians were not all that different than Spartans and that he could understand their motivations and that Sparta should endeavor to make peace with them on common understandings of both of their growing power, interests, and needs of their allies. The second part of his statement is critical for understanding his nuanced balance between peace and war, namely that amongst nations the prospect of the latter prosecuted with vigor assures the former. His statesmanlike balance to diplomatic overtures was that he understood quite well that diplomacy does not always resolve issues amicably and that a polity must always prepare diligently for war in order to effectively safeguard peace. Archidamus would go on to argue that war preparedness is its own form of ensuring that diplomacy can function and that adversaries can be dragged to the negotiation table. I think of this as the ancient predecessor of Teddy Roosevelt’s, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” version of foreign policy.

This quote also serves as an example of how much we can learn from ancient history as well as an example of the remarkable feat achieved by Thucydides in creating a historical narrative that lasted the test of time. The reader of Thucydides comes away fascinated with the similarities in human nature between then and now, a space covered by the passage of almost 3,000 years of time. The technology and fashions may change, but oh how mankind remains ever the same in our passions and lusts for power and notions of security and our penchant for “us versus them” tribalism. Thucydides supplements historical narrative with a fair amount of speeches given by political and military leaders on both sides of the war. Within these speeches are some of the finest forms of philosophy on offer from ancient times, that once again seem remarkable in their modern applicability. Thucydides’ ancient account has lasted the test of time due to his genius in weaving a tapestry of historical military facts about set-piece events and battles together with political science and speeches replete with powerful philosophy. If the reader of this blog post still has little desire to read hundreds of pages of history related to an internecine war that happened thousands of years ago in Greece, I would submit to you to at least read the funeral oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles. It is a fine example of the types of dialogue that occurs throughout the account.