Solon the Lawgiver: Lessons From History

While putting together notes on the famous Athenian lawgiver Solon (c. 638 BC–558 BC), it becomes clear that government regulation of the economy in the ancient world was fairly widespread. Though I am often skeptical of such practices, one must nevertheless study politics first in terms of history (as people really act) before moving to the level of theory (how we think they should act).

In the case of Lycurgus, the Spartan counterpart to Solon, such measures were quite drastic. Sparta became a barracks state, dominated by the military, with an equalization of wealth and prohibitions on commerce and trade. Solon was more moderate, though he did restrict certain imports and exports. His measures came at a time of economic transition, as Athens shifted from impoverished subsistence agriculture to sea born commerce.

Part of the problem with ancient economies is that, whether dominated by the tribe, the rich or the demagogue, there was seldom a real free market in operation. Some of Solon’s measures, however, did seek to address this. Land was the inalienable property of the family clan, and it could not be sold or mortgaged. Many people were forced to work as sharecroppers. Even those who had their own farm were unable to use it as security for a business loan. Likewise many Athenians became indentured servants, virtually enslaved to their creditors. Under Solon this was no longer the case.

While economic freedom is threatened by radical levelers like Lycurgus of Sparta or the Gracchi brothers of Rome, one should not overlook the fact that greed generally seeks to undermine the freedom of others, even while claiming liberty for itself. Without an equitable legal system, many of the rich and powerful will indeed exploit the weak and poor. This is not just true in periods of relative lawlessness. Even under modern state planning we see how big businesses may actually favor heavy governmental regulation (ostensibly to promote economic justice) because it eliminates smaller competitors.

“Society is well governed,” observed Solon, “when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law.” For political and economic liberty to work, it must be demarcated. These things do not assert themselves spontaneously. The free market, for example, demands that people play by the rules. Liberty is thus the opposite of anarchy, a point not always well understood by extreme libertarians like the followers of Murray Rothbard.

Our own Anglo-American notions of free enterprise came out of centuries of experience, as Europe emerged from the servile economies of Roman slavery and early Medieval serfdom. But this development took place within a framework of definite legal and social customs. While Solon was a philosopher and a reformer, he also knew that politics can never be the product of pure theory. A point that I hope to develop in later posts is that widespread freedom may be the ideal regime, but it is not the typical political arrangement. It is something that is arrived at gradually and must be guarded carefully.

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