The Athenian Constitution

Roderick Long has a great analysis of the "constitution" (meaning political organization) of ancient Athens. He looks at later critics of that system, and finds it generally admirable.
it is odd that [Isabel] Paterson so roundly condemns the Athenian practice of ostracism, when she praises the Romans' habit, during the Imperial period, of assassinating their Emperors (about a third of all Roman Emperors died by assassination) as a useful constitutional adaptation, akin to a letting a fuse blow to protect a circuit in event of a short. Surely the Greek ostrakon, whatever its faults, was a more civilized response to the threat posed by powerful individuals than the Roman dagger.
Interesting political ideas in Athens: representation by lot, not voting. Ostracizing the powerful for no good reason whatsoever, other than that they are powerful.

Like other quasi anarchic systems, it died via conquest, not collapse from state engorgement. Of course being conquered has been the fate of most states; so this does not distinguish it much. Still, what we can say is that states that collapsed on their own were not well designed. That doesn't mean the other were, but they might have been.

Long has a second article on Athens, discussing its civil society:
One of the most remarkable features of Athenian democracy is the extent to which legal services themselves (dispute resolution and enforcement) were the province of civil society rather than of the state. Laws were passed by the state (or at any rate through the state, via popular referendum), and applied by governmental courts (manned by juries). But there were no police, and no public prosecutors. All suits were treated as civil suits, prosecuted by the victim; offenses against the community as a whole were prosecuted by self-selected individuals on behalf of the larger society, rather like class-action suits today. (No distinction between crimes and torts was recognised.) And even before coming to court, litigants were asked to seek private arbitration, thus exhausting all avenues within civil society before turning to the state (rather the opposite of today's practice):

Private arbitration ... had a long history, extending back to the time of Homer and Hesiod, before the emergence of the state .... It was a private mechanism evolved to serve the needs of a society where kinship and the reciprocal obligations of kin and friends predominated. With the emergence of the state, private arbitration did not disappear but continued in use. ... [T]he courts were only a final stage in a complex disputing process which allowed, indeed encouraged, adjudication to coexist with arbitration and mediation.
(Hunter (1994), p. 67.)

But the most intriguing aspect of the Athenian "private law" system is the privatisation of enforcement:

The ancient city-state had no police other than a relatively small number of publicly owned slaves at the disposal of the different magistrates .... [T]he army was not available for large-scale police duties [because it] was a citizen militia, in existence as an army only when called up for action against the external world. [Yet] a Greek city-state ... was normally able to enforce governmental decisions ....
(Finley (1994), pp. 18-24.)

Most of the major tasks of policing -- investigation, apprehension, prosecution, and even in some cases enforcement of court decisions -- fell to the citizens themselves. For private initiative and self-help were the rule. ... Here punitive enforcement is not the result of coercion by a central authority but of autonomous self-regulation on the part of the community. ... For many of the functions that the modern state now entrusts to bureaucracy, police, or judiciary were embedded in a variety of social institutions ....
(Hunter (1994), pp. 3-5.)

Since there were no regular police in Athens, such street fights were not uncommon, and it lay with the spectators to decide who was in the right and restore order. ... It is clearly recognised as a duty of bystanders to help any victim of violence; this was very necessary in a city so ill-policed as Athens, for the safety of the community depended upon active support of the law by all well-constituted citizens. ... It will be noticed that the State made no provision for arrest and bail; these were private transactions. This led to abuses, such as ... wrongful detention ... but each man involved took care always to provide himself with witnesses .... There was no police-force; hence the bystanders took a lively interest.
(Freeman (1963), pp. 105, 128, 177.)

Even tax collection was privatised:

From his own assets, the wealthy contributor of proeisphora paid immediately the total amount of eisphora due from a number of other taxpayers. In return, he was given the right ... to recover his excess payment from the various obligors.
(Cohen (1992), p. 197.)

Rather anarchic. Yet it persisted for hundreds of years.


Two days ago on NPR I heard a story about Abu Ghraib, where the news reader referred to "the alleged abuses". Not "torture" - "abuse". Now, I don't think there is any question that there was abuse. One needs only to look at a few of the photos. And I don't think that anyone is claiming the photos are doctored, or otherwise untrustworthy.

So here we have something that is about as close as we can get to a consensus fact: that there was "abuse" in Abu Ghraib. The media have gotten completely silly about the use of "alleged". The word means that something has been asserted by somebody, but that something is questioned by at least one other person.

Was there "abuse" in Iraq? Yes! It's as plain as the alleged nose on my face.

America is mine, that's why

Gene Callahan on Moral Equivalence. I have exactly the same feeling reading a lot of neocon sites.
I'm going to ... share some of my worst difficulties with you all.

They arise from the horrible case of "moral equivalence" that my wife somehow has contracted, most likely from her frequent contact with "leftists" while working in Manhattan. The most common form of the disease manifests itself in the infected person voicing one or more complaints about immoral or illegal actions undertaken by the US government. Moral equivalence can then immediately be diagnosed by any neoconservative or neoliberal, who can point out that, even as the infected person is protesting some action by the American state, that he is failing to note all of the other instances in history when some other government did something similar, but even worse.

Well, my wife has this disease in a bad way, even if the form she has contracted is not the most typical. Let me give you a few examples. For instance, the other night I weaved my way home after having about ten beers. As I stumbled through the door, she berated me for having gotten trashed. Now, wait just a second: Somewhere, I read about Stephen King confessing that he was drinking an entire case of beer – that's 24 of them, for you non-brewmeisters – pretty much every night for a couple of years. But was my wife there at his front door, waiting to berate him when he stumbled through its portal? Has she ever even raised her voice in protest against his excesses? No, she has not!

Old Thoughts on Torture

Folks popping in from UO: hi. No mention of torture up here -- what Jim is referring to is a blog entry from last year.

Own up to your values

Thanks to a link at UO, I popped over to Crooked Timber to read this:
How would you rank the following priorities for making the planet a better place?

* A major improvement in health in poor countries, saving millions of lives each year

* Substantial progress in reducing the rate of climate change, preventing large-scale species extinctions and other environmental damage

* New and improved advertisements for consumer goods

You don’t have to be Bjorn Lomborg to agree that, given the choice, improvements in health should get top priority.
From which he goes on to argue the standard leftist claptrap. If "we" would just give up our ads, "we" could fund this or that socialist policy!

I left the following comment, which I share for my readers.

You can easily reduce the amount of advertising consumed by Americans (assuming you are one).


Turn off the TV. Don’t watch the programs which are supported by commercial advertising. Don’t watch Buffy, or those reality TV shows that you love to hate. Don’t even watch public TV, with all that “underwriting”.

Turn off the radio. Don’t listen to music which is supported by commercial advertising. Buy a CD and a CD player, or do without.

If you are unwilling to do that — to stop watching the commercial TV shows that you like — then please stop whining about how you don’t like commercials. The fact is, you are revealing your preference for them, by watching them. The fact is, you do, actually, value them (for making possible the programs that come with them), more than you value food for poor people.

Instead of watching an hour of TV, work an extra hour and donate the money to OxFam.

Stop being a hypocrite, or, own up to the fact that you value the things that you do.

NB: I do watch a small amount of TV. But I am not a hypocrite. Every evening, I have the choice whether or not to watch that TV, or work for the poor, and I choose to watch TV. I value it above feeding the poor. I am responsible for what I do. What about you?