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Athens and the US: The Decline and Fall

Mises Daily: Friday, May 12, 2006 by

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Suppose there existed a world democracy with one vote for each person in the population. Is it not obvious, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe points out, that the world would adopt a flagrantly favorable policy towards China and India at everyone else's expense?

On the other hand, suppose two robbers break into a house and start ransacking the place. When the owner comes down to protest, the robbers, if abiding strictly by the rules of democracy, could simply hold an election to determine whose property the belongings actually are, and with their superior numbers, outvote the legitimate owner.

These examples may seem theoretical, but our government today abides by this exact philosophy. As Murray Rothbard said, "On the free market, everyone earns according to his productive value in satisfying consumer desires. Under statist distribution, everyone earns in proportion to the amount he can plunder from the producers."

Indeed, it is not capitalism that leads to exploitation as the Left contends; it is democracy. Government housing projects benefit well-connected developers, bureaucrats, and insurance companies while the poor end up in dilapidated, crime and drug-infested neighborhoods. Business leaders support the Export/Import Bank, the IMF, the World Bank, farm subsidies, and war because these institutions insulate them from competition and provide them with lucrative contracts. Important congressional chairmen get the best roads and public works projects through their districts, regardless of actual need. In each case, taxpayers foot the bill.

To those who say that this is not plunder, but compassion, I ask, is it right to pick-pocket your neighbor if you give that stolen money to the poor? To those who say that government is voluntary and that taxes are equivalent to rent, I ask, what will happen if you attempt to secede from the government and refuse to pay your income tax?

The founders were well-read and were well-aware of historical instances where this democratic mentality was paramount. Classical Athens particularly stands out as an example where democracy ran amok.

According to the contemporary historian Thucydides, the Athenian politician Pericles, in a funeral oration to fallen soldiers, praised the dead and the city they died for. He boasted about how the power resided in the people and not in a small governing elite as in Sparta. He praised the modesty, generosity, and intelligence of the Athenian people and their government.

Yet, as Thucydides points out, the government of Athens was not as wise, efficient, or free as Pericles boasted. The Athenians ruled over the Delian League which was in theory an alliance but in practice an Athenian-led Empire. Each polis (city-state) in the league was forced to pay tribute — any attempt to withdraw was crushed. Moreover, Athenian attempts to maintain dominance over so-called allies would directly lead to a bloody conflict with the sworn enemy, Sparta.

Throughout this war — the Peloponnesian War — the Athenian assembly repeatedly made ill-advised decisions and in several instances, changed its mind after deciding on important issues. Thucydides, for instance, points out that the Athenians blamed the early misfortune in the war on Pericles and then dismissed him. However, "Not long afterward," he writes, "as in the way with crowds, they re-elected him to the generalship and put all their affairs into his hands."

The worst display of inconsistency the assembly showed, however, was after the revolt on the island of Lesbos had been defeated. In a fit of anger, the assembly decided to put all men in the city of Mytilene to death while enslaving the women and children. The next day, however, some members began to have second thoughts and the issue was brought up for a second vote where the decision of the previous day was reversed. Since a trireme had already been dispatched to deliver the orders, a second was forced to set out to recall the first ship and arrived just in time to save the city. The Athenian general, Cleon, chided the assembly, saying it was better to have bad laws enforced consistently rather than good laws enforced inconsistently. Later in the war, however, the assembly would make mistakes far worse than changing their minds.

The campaign launched against Sicily was a disaster for Athens and was the main reason the war was lost. Thucydides blames the Athenian assembly for voting in favor of the invasion. He writes, "The result of this excessive enthusiasm of the majority was that the few who actually were opposed to the expedition were afraid of being thought unpatriotic if they voted against it, and therefore kept quiet." The population was swept up in greed when they thought of the rewards of a successful expedition and did not listen to general Nicias's warnings of the difficulties of launching such an attack.

The assembly did not engage in intelligent debate and did not accurately assess the risks. Despite the hasty decision, Thucydides contended that success in the campaign still would have been possible if it was not for civil strife back in Athens which created confusion in state policy and contributed to a lack of adequate support for the operation. He blamed the strife on demagogues competing for popular support and contended that democracy was not rule by the people, as Pericles had said, but rule of the "first citizen."

The distinction between direct and representative democracy makes no difference. Indeed, Hitler, under the Weimar Republic, both came to power and transformed his country into a totalitarian state legally. In March 1933, the Nazis won 43.9% of the vote, giving them and their coalition partner (a similar right-wing party, the German National People's Party) an absolute majority, which they used to pass a series of laws known collectively as the Gleichschaltung.

These laws were strongly supported by the German populace and were passed using the appropriate legal framework. Indeed, the Enabling Act, the act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers, was renewed every four years up until the end of World War II. In a democratic sense then, all the atrocities that Hitler's government committed were legal.

The United States is by no means Nazi Germany, but still, despite being praised as free and fair by politicians, the United States government is recklessly inefficient and immoral. It's a system that includes 130 agencies of which a grand total of 8 were given good grades in the Office of Management and Budget's most recent federal agency evaluation; a system that the Senate Committee on Government Affairs concluded in 2001 has "terrible" management and a "staggering" problem of waste, fraud, and abuse; a system whose General Accounting Office has not been able to certify its financial statements for seven years in a row (this includes an astonishing $17.3 billion that went unaccounted for in 2001) because of weak accounting controls). Federal debt is approaching nine trillion dollars.

US foreign policy is in a similar state, marked by nation-building, foreign intervention, preemptive war, and global government, Washington has created its own Delian League throughout the world, with 54 foreign countries experiencing over 1,000 US troops on their soil since 1950. Instead of Sicily we have Iraq.

The passage of the 16th amendment which provided for the enactment of the income tax was secured by appeals to democratic ideals, not those of liberty. It has made the welfare/warfare state possible. Indeed, once a nation becomes a democracy, the purpose of government changes; to placate the majority, it sets about attempting to micromanage the economy in a futile attempt to bring about economic equality. Power is transferred from the people to the government. Increasingly, lobbyists compete for influence in Washington, instead of businesses competing to please consumers. Government decisions are made with increasing deference to power, money, public opinion polls, and demagoguery; because of this, any difference between the Democrats and Republicans become negligible.

Empire destroys: $35
There are a number of reasons why this happens. As Representative Ron Paul has noted, "Hysterical reactions to dangers not yet seen prompt the people — at the prodding of the politicians — to readily sacrifice their liberties in vain hope that someone else will take care of them and guarantee their security." And Hans-Hermann Hoppe succinctly explains:

One-man-one-vote combined with "free-entry" into government democracy implies that every person and his personal property comes within reach of and is up for grabs by everyone else. A "tragedy of the commons" is created. It can be expected that majorities of "have-nots" will relentlessly try to enrich themselves at the expense of minorities of "haves."

Politicians elected to run the government for a set number of years have the incentive to cut taxes and increase spending because in the short term this seems to benefit everyone involved. But when debt piles up and the currency plummets in value, the politicians who enacted such destructive policies are not in any way responsible; they retire to their estates and congratulate themselves for a lifetime of "public service."

Only in a society where all services are provided through voluntary association, where consumers hold ultimate sovereignty by providing the most efficient producers of necessary and luxury goods with profits can rule of law, individual liberty, and property rights be upheld. Such a society is not in a state of anarchy; authority is simply decentralized to the lowest possible and most just level — the business, the community, the family.


Eric Phillips is majoring in history and economics at the Geroge Washington University in DC. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.