Thursday, July 31, 2008

The War Between Athens and Sparta

The differences between Sparta and Athens didn't stand in the way of a confederation, when the Persian empire threatened them. But after the victories at Salamis and Plataea, Sparta did not join the Athenian maritime federation. The Spartan warriors were too intent on not endangering their position of power on the Peloponnesian peninsula. They had there not only subjugated the Messenians, but also forced most of the other city-states into cooperation in the Peloponnesian league. Sparta and Athens both had now brought a large number of city-states behind them, and competed for the hegemony in Greece.

Starting in 431 BC, the two powers led war against each other. Because Athens had the strong fleet and much money, Pericles and most of the Athenians thought that they could attain the ultimate hegemony in Greece. The Spartans had neither a fleet nor money, but announced an inflammatory goal for their war: all Greeks should be free and independent - specifically from the oppressive Athenian mastery over the maritime confederation. Because both sides had many allies, and wanted to win unconditionally, almost all Greeks were soon enveloped in a long and bloody struggle. Finally, the Spartans even worked with the Persians, in order to build a fleet also. Athens was weakened, as shortly after the war's beginning, many people died of a plague. After that, victories and defeats alternated. Finally, Sparta defeated Athens at sea. The city was starved, and had to surrender in 404 BC.

But it became clear in the next century that actually both powers had lost. Sparta could maintain its new leadership position in Greece only with violence, and even then not continuously. The continuous oppression of the majority of the inhabitants in their city weakened the Spartans too much. And even democratic Athens could not win its old power back again.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What Type of Liberalism?

The original wave of liberalism was lead by thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith in the 1700's. This became known as "Classical Liberalism" and emphasized the freedom of the individual. Several centuries later, we are confronted with what is often called "New Left" Liberalism. How are these two sorts of Liberalism different? We will see that the word "Liberalism" can refer to very different schools of political thought.

Originally, liberalism had referred to political and economic liberty as understood by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. For them, the ultimate desideratum was maximum individual freedom under the benign protection of a minimalist state. The size, power, and role of government were to be kept to a minimum, to prevent it from controlling individuals and thereby reducing their freedom. A free market would be good for the poor, as it offered them opportunities, instead of keeping them locked in poverty. The freedom of association guaranteed that civil society would be a free and open space occupied by voluntary groupings - neighborhoods, clubs, sports teams, political parties, any kind of voluntary gathering - independent associations of citizens who pursue their own interests and ambitions free from state interference or coercion. Classical liberalism saw government as a necessary evil, or simply a benign but voluntary social contract for free men to enter into willingly. Civilized people have disagreements, and those who participate in a parliamentary democracy have arguments: classical liberalism is based on this fundamental insight - individuality is more valuable than unity. An ideology of individual freedom and democratic government - the result of parliamentary debate and majority rule - gave birth to the true civil rights movement in the 1960's, when Martin Luther King declared that we should judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Freedom of speech, religion, the press, and thought are part of the package of classical liberalism.

This sounds good. So why would anybody oppose it?

A different breed, the New Left Liberals, arose because of well-intentioned desires to promote "the common good" in society. For example, cigarette smoking is bad, so should we impinge on the liberties of individuals to deter or prevent them from smoking? By doing so, we will, after all, help them to be more healthy, and save the rest of society from paying the medical bills involved. Another example is the economy: people will suggest that the government can alleviate the suffering of the poor by setting maximum and minimum prices for certain products. Certainly we all want to help the poor. Or maybe we can make a more harmonious and peaceful society by asking people not to voice certain opinions.

Out of good desires - for public health, or helping the poor, or reducing hate in society - people are tempted to violate the first principle of civilized society: to protect individual freedom. Even if we know cigarette smoking is harmful, we must allow individuals to do it. Even if we guess that certain economic measures might help the poor, we must allow individuals to make their own decisions with their property and money. Even if holding serious moral beliefs makes some people uncomfortable, we should not attempt to stop those who engage in ethical meditations.

History teaches us about the bad results of good intentions: the Prohibition Era was based on a good desire to prevent alcohol-based problems, but gave rise to more crime. Stalin's Soviet Union wanted to create a classless utopia for workers, but ended up creating artificial famines to start millions of freethinkers to death.

There is no goal which justifies compromising the freedom of the individual. That is the essence of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Classical Liberalism.