Politics II.VII

I only want to read one section today, because it touches on our current situation so nicely. I'm going to excerpt what I take to be key points for us, in the hope of encouraging discussion.
In the opinion of some, the regulation of property is the chief point of all, that being the question upon which all revolutions turn. This danger was recognized by Phaleas of Chalcedon, who was the first to affirm that the citizens of a state ought to have equal possessions. He thought that in a new colony the equalization might be accomplished without difficulty, not so easily when a state was already established; and that then the shortest way of compassing the desired end would be for the rich to give and not to receive marriage portions, and for the poor not to give but to receive them.

...[I]t is a bad thing that many from being rich should become poor; for men of ruined fortunes are sure to stir up revolutions.

...Again, where there is equality of property, the amount may be either too large or too small, and the possessor may be living either in luxury or penury. Clearly, then, the legislator ought not only to aim at the equalization of properties, but at moderation in their amount. Further, if he prescribe this moderate amount equally to all, he will be no nearer the mark; for it is not the possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized, and this is impossible, unless a sufficient education is provided by the laws. But Phaleas will probably reply that this is precisely what he means; and that, in his opinion, there ought to be in states, not only equal property, but equal education.

Still he should tell precisely what he means; and that, in his opinion, there ought to be in be in having one and the same for all, if it is of a sort that predisposes men to avarice, or ambition, or both. Moreover, civil troubles arise, not only out of the inequality of property, but out of the inequality of honor...

There are crimes of which the motive is want; and for these Phaleas expects to find a cure in the equalization of property, which will take away from a man the temptation to be a highwayman, because he is hungry or cold. But want is not the sole incentive to crime; men also wish to enjoy themselves and not to be in a state of desire- they wish to cure some desire, going beyond the necessities of life, which preys upon them; nay, this is not the only reason- they may desire superfluities in order to enjoy pleasures unaccompanied with pain, and therefore they commit crimes....

The fact is that the greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity. Men do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold; and hence great is the honor bestowed, not on him who kills a thief, but on him who kills a tyrant. Thus we see that the institutions of Phaleas avail only against petty crimes.

There is another objection to them. They are chiefly designed to promote the internal welfare of the state. But the legislator should consider also its relation to neighboring nations, and to all who are outside of it. The government must be organized with a view to military strength; and of this he has said not a word.
I am leaving out a lot of great value in this excerpt, of which you may wish to partake.


Joseph W. said...

I don't really have a quarrel with this section on its own terms - but I don't think it has anything to teach us today.

When I first tried reading Utopia as a teenager, my views were colored by the schoolbook accounts - this was some kind of weird pie-in-the-sky precursor to modern socialism, but with a perfect system populated by perfect people. Only much later, when I came back to it after having read much more European history, could I see what it was about.

To More, "private property" did not mean a commercial republic like ours - he could scarce imagine it existed. It meant feudalism. The wealth of the magnates controlled the size of their private armies, which were the only armies there were; and it really was the business of the state. A magnate switches sides and a civil war results or the result changes - an awful business.

I don't know the Greek examples Aristotle is thinking of, but many passages in this Part VII fit feudal history pefectly. "In the opinion of some, the regulation of property is the chief point of all, that being the question upon which all revolutions turn." With feudal "revolutions" I can't really dispute it - it was all about who owned which tracts of land; and decastellation. "Men of ruined fortunes are sure to stir up revolutions" - yep, Henry Bolingbroke for sure, Henry VI's son as well, and plenty of others. I'd certainly rather live in a country defended by a citizen militia than by feudal magnates with private armies any day --

But I don't think these pre-economic writers could begin to foresee the kind of wealth that private ownership can generate, the kind of innovation and prosperity that I see all around me, and that the human race is going to need to survive in the long run. How to articulate this -

I once read a book on Egypt before Akhenaten, an economy that went nowhere. They accumulated food surpluses, and every now and again the king would provide a great feast out of the surplus, and they'd go to piling them up again...move a thousand years forward or back and you wouldn't see much progress in anything. Controlling everyone's property, and the population and all, to prevent revolution...might make sense in a world that looked like that economically.

But ours doesn't. The tragic thing is that ideas developed for a static world (or at least a world that looked static) are still kicking around - to try to slow our own down.

Joseph W. said...

In a world like that, I suppose it's not so surprising that Aristotle and Phaleas take private possessions as so obviously the business of the state -- and the French revolutionary authors who were the sources for modern socialism, copied their ideas from the ancients.

But in the world we have, there's no reason to give the state any such power, nor to trust that the state in any of its manifestations will make good judgments about who should have what, for any ends whatsoever. And it may be that Phaleas and Aristotle, not seeing our world, couldn't comprehend that.

For the points you highlight - I should like to think the "root causes" theory of crime control is discredited by now; welfare-statism and public education didn't cut crime, not even theft, and the Great Society came right along with a twenty-year surge in crime. "The institutions of Phaleas" do not prevail even against petty crimes. But I give Aristotle credit for the section right before --

What is the cure of the three disorders? Of the first, moderate possessions and occupation; of the second, habits of temperance; as to the third....nowhere but in philosophy.

I might not buy every word of this, but he can at least see that some crime comes out of the inborn nature of humans and the cultures they create, and not simply as responses to actions of the state. He's already admitted book I that there are humans who can't handle philosophy or other higher ideas; so he seems to be admitting here what I also think, that crime itself can't be completely eliminated either, until the human race be changed, and while that is one of the major things the state is there to do, there are limits to how much it can do even there.

Public education can't "equalize the desires" of mankind, let alone inspire them all with a love of philosophy. And my reading of the American experience is that it can't be trusted very far to do much of anything.

Grim said...

Even on that limited reading -- 'property' not as a source of envy, but as a source of revolutionary force -- the section actually does speak to a very important current subject: campaign finance reform.

You can think about the arguments floated here as versions of the argument you're raising: equal property (at least in terms of spending limits, 'equal time' laws, and so forth) is important because it prevents individuals with 'excess' wealth from having an 'undue' influence.

After all, you can use money to hire people to do things that poor people would have to find volunteers to do: pass out fliers, for example. (And of course you can pay for fliers to be printed, and for better-designed fliers...)

Grim said...

Looked at in that light, then, you have on the side of Phaleas those who want to impose some sort of 'fair' laws about how much property can be brought to bear on elections; and who advocate that everyone should be educated (by public schools) as to what kinds of desires are permissable ("it is not the possessions but the desires of manking which require to be equalized, and this is impossible, unless a sufficient education is provided by the laws").

That suddenly sounds quite familiar and relevant, does it not?

Joseph W. said...

The section actually does speak to a very important current subject: campaign finance reform.

I'm not reading Aristotle's reasoning that way - he raises concern that a person "may be living either in luxury or penury" and at crime control, rather than political influence. Except for his view that "men of ruined fortunes" are likely to stir up revolutions - but even there, it's a matter of too little wealth, or too sudden a decrease, rather than having them buy too much influence with too much wealth. I only know the text that is in front of me and I may well be missing something - but I don't see that as the concern he's talking about.

You have on the side of Phaleas those...who advocate that everyone should be educated (by public schools) as to what kinds of desires are permissable ("it is not the possessions but the desires of manking which require to be equalized, and this is impossible, unless a sufficient education is provided by the laws").

Is anyone advocating that public schools should teach everyone to be unambitious (in the material sense)? We need exceptional and ambitious men -- not that everyone can be that way, but they're important for creating new wealth and improving our ways of life. Phaleas' idea might well make sense for a static order of the kind I was talking about above -- I think this article on the Tao Te Ching is relevant -- especially the middle section, starting with "This business of keeping the people ignorant..." -- but for a dynamic developing economy, we need people who want to accomplish more.

And while there are many kinds of indoctrination that public schools can do well -- teaching the state religion or the national myth, for example -- I haven't seen evidence that they have (or ought to have) the power to get people to want less - or to want only what the government thinks is proper for them to want - or that it would be in any way good even if they could do that.

Grim said...

I've seen evidence of it.

I went to the local high school football Homecoming game a couple of weeks ago. All the girls in the homecoming court have a brief biography and statement ('She would like to thank her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and mama,' was a line invoked in multiple versions). Part of the statement was what she wanted to do after high school.

With only one variation I can recall, the girls wanted to be "teachers" or "to go into the medical profession." (There's a vague ambition! But the one exception made up for it: she wanted to be an oncologist.)

These folks have clearly internalized a picture of what kinds of careers are acceptable: teaching and helping. Nobody wanted to go into big business and make a fortune, or finance, or even retail. You'd have thought there would be farmers among them, but I think they maybe expected to marry a farmer rather than to be one themselves, and have learned the old definition of a successful cowboy (i.e., "One with a wife who has a good job in town").

Joseph W. said...

People who've been taught to wish for a doctor's salary haven't exactly been taught to "want less" or limit their desires, I think. And if Artistotle's worry is that people who're too ambitious are going to be a cause of social unrest...what happens when you put those desires up against the competitiveness of medical school, and the brutal fact that half the girls you saw (at least) aren't bright enough to get through...?

I think what you saw is people being ambitious for social acclaim. If Georgia politics are anything like Alabama politics, then public schoolteachers are a sacred class...they've got to be praised incessantly, however incompetent they may prove in reality, and the panacaea for every political problem is throwing more money at them...so wishing to join this privileged, praised class isn't what the quoted passage is really aiming at, which is using education to teach people to be contented instead of ambitious, in the hopes of achieving social harmony. (Which I apprehend is the idea behind enforcing equality or near-equality of property.)

Teaching everyone to wish to be either an elite class of extremely well-paid workers, that only a few can be qualified to be, or else a specially praised class of tax-eaters, isn't a healthy thing in any case -- and I do not think the state can be trusted to teach a desirable mix of ambition and contentment. To root for the school team, or the state religion, yes.

Ymar Sakar said...

proto Marxism. Which makes sense since the Communist movement considered themselves modern and very Western based. Mao even went so far as getting rid of traditional Chinese families and ancient scrolls, to modernize China in the Western mold.