Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World

The Spivonomist brings forward some of his usual light-hearted polemic, and he has every confidence to be light-hearted and incisively dismissive of the “property is theft” meme that seems to crop up with every new round of vampire movies, for “property is respect” is not far removed from the basic precepts of human dignity since the very beginning of Western Civilization. To shovel up and turn over that foundation would be one heck of a people’s revolution, overturning at least 4500 years of precedent, inculcated in our several language systems and in our various justice systems.

Moreover, those precedents are rooted in narrative history, meaning the precepts represented within the earliest organizing legal documents have been forged through the human experience and practice of Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and Anatolia. In other words, not only are these precepts organic in their nature, but their systematization also reflected generations of legal application, balancing the varied uses of force and mercy to maximize stability and prosperity.

For example, one of the earliest complete examples is a treaty created by my best friends, the Sumerians, a royal inscription known as the Eannatum Treaty, created during the 25th Century. Its significance lies in no small part that the treaty was not of one subjugating nation over a subjugated nation, as the later Hittite treaties exemplify, but is a treaty between two allied cities who were susceptible to boundary disputes and the occasional ambitious, conquest-minded ruler, conflicts which flared up during the course of hundreds of years. A few things emerge when working through the treaty:

  1. The basis of the treaty is a narrative rooted in historical realities, witnessed by heaven and earth (the deities).
  2. Once the frontier was secured, the concern was rebuilding infrastructure and returning soldiers to their ordinary occupations.
  3. Once the army was largely disbanded, the concern was defense of the frontier against outside invasion, as opposed to civil disputes between two cities.

In a word, the concern was establishing peace in order for the people to prosper. A rising tide lifts all boats, including the boat on which sits the throne.

More importantly, this particular treaty has parallels throughout the entire larger region, including a contemporary treaty found at Ebla, near Damascus. Unlike the Eannatum Treaty, however, it was one nation subjugating another. Nevertheless, its primary concern was the provision of mutual protection of merchants, detailing how sojourners were to be received and how the sojourners themselves were to conduct business. Continue reading “Property and Personal Dignity in the Ancient World”


How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital

Lamenting the atomism of modern society, the decline of community, associations and other forms of “social capital,” is such a common refrain on both the left and right that one wonders why they haven’t put aside their differences to form a club! I hear there are some vacancies down at the YMCA, and I bet you rates have never been so good. Call it… the Enemies of Anomie & Toastmasters Society.

Yet theorists of social capital spend more time writing about it (in itself a highly autonomous practice) than they do actually forming new co-valent social bonds. Perhaps it’s because, for both camps, the decline is seen to have been caused by such deep and hard to resist forces that they are equally resigned to pontification.

On the right, the deep source of creeping atomism is the all-encompassing, bureaucratized welfare state. Redistribution in this view is inherently trust-reducing due to its zero-sumness (Mary robbing Peter to pay Paul). For example, its argued that universal social programs crowd-out private safety-nets, like religious organizations or the family, destroying unseen pro-social externalities. In some accounts this merely accelerates a feedback loop of eroding social norms that was initiated the second Western Civilization embraced value pluralism.

Surprisingly, many on the left have come to similar conclusions, if only in a different vocabulary. Habermas, for example, has argued that state welfare systems “colonize” more natural forms of solidarity, contributing to their “reification” — an objectifying process by which implicit social relations are made explicit and impersonal, sapping them of their moral character. Readers of Sweet Talk might know this as a re-balancing from the sacred to the profane, the inherent transcendental and instrumental duality of all social relations.

Heady stuff. But is any of it accurate? Is it an inexorable law of late capitalism that we become individuated narcissists? Is there some theorem in Public Choice that says more welfare = less social capital? The answer to both is a big fat no.

In fact, the inverse relationship between social capital and the modern welfare state has been greatly exaggerated. There are three main reasons for this tendency, which I explore below: Continue reading “How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital”

Heraclitus The Happy

“They call you the Weeping Philosopher,” I said sometime during the wee hours that first night I got there.

“Nincompoops!” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people I know.”

The map is deceiving, how far east you must travel to get to Ephesus. Rome is right there, with Athens a hoplite’s skip away, and then, it seems, there’s Ephesus, where Heraclitus makes his home, which, by the way, is situated along the Mediterranean facing west, due west. He has a lovely cedar patio for a roof, complete with a fireplace surrounded by cedar furniture with down-padded cushions and a servant always in attendance to fetch us more wine and the occasional morsel of cheese and bread. Nevertheless, when you deplane in Athens, Ephesus is still a long way to the east, especially once you board the oxcart that gets you through the mists of time. The names are all Greek, but the land is all Anatolia. Moreover, there’s a distinctive gilding to everything, every road, every building, every conversation. The din of the Mediterranean West gives way to something more polite, measured, neighborly.

We propped our feet up on the railing while we listened to the ocean wash the rocks below, and I said, “Happy people don’t hate Athens like you do.”

Without looking at me, he put down his skin of wine, took his station at the railing, lifted his chiton, and urinated into the ocean. “I think ‘hatred’ is a rather weak attempt at capturing my utter contempt for those Athenian scum-sucking pigs,” he said. “Did you see how the wind pushed my golden river a few degrees to the south? Follow that river, and you’ll find Athens, where you’ll agree that micturition is only the smallest font of their many and varied stenches.” Then he added, “Besides, I’m not a philosopher. Philosophers have to know too much. Moreover, you’ve had too much to drink, and you’ve become a terrible guest. By sleeping you may help work out those things coming to pass in the world. So do us both a favor, all right?”

The next morning came at midday, and I had a headache. I was in no mood to eat, talk, or drink, so I sat under the sun, watching the ocean roll in from Athens.

“Wet soul?!?” I heard him shout, to my great discomfort. “The soul needs to be dried out by wine, as I told you, but it has a saturation point, whereupon it becomes wet again.”

“I feel like death,” I croaked.

“Perhaps your soul is not as wet as I thought,” he said. “You’re in good shape, then.” And he sat down, eating a bowl of yogurt with blueberries and, I think, grass. Between bites, he pontificated. “Cyrus brought friendship, you see, not conquest. There was virtually no war. The Haxamanis literally says, in Persian, ‘Having a friend’s mind,’ and that’s what they were all about. They settled affairs in their own country, working their way west while folding nations into their friendship like folding whipped goat’s milk into honey-beaten egg yolks.”

Cyrus the Great Standard
The standard of Cyrus the Great

He paused for a moment. “Grated nutmeg on top. Can you taste it? Delicious.” Whatever it was I was tasting at the moment was bilious, so I bade him continue.

“When they arrived here, in these parts, they met their first real resistance.”

“Because Hellas is hella!” I said. He ignored me, scraping the bottom of his bowl of grass-yogurt with his spoon.

“Athens, in the meantime, was having one bacchanal after another, their noble aristocracy dancing before their idols upon the backs of the farmers their families enslaved only two generations hence. Cyrus desired to set them free and end usury.”

“End usury? How would business get done?”

“Usury, the Haxamanis say, is the Lie. Debt is a force pushing forward deception, both on the part of the lender and the borrower, and the Lie, when it comes to property, creates slavery and imprisons innocent men. How can a man pursue arete when he is imprisoned by the Lie? How can he be human when he is on a leash?”

Very sobering, I thought to myself. I asked, “How did the resistance go?”

“We here, thankfully, are Persian, but only for the moment. Ionians are as witless as Atticans, driving off anyone with any sense at all. My teacher Xenophanes has made himself naked with them, to my great shame. We Greeks want our slaves. Darius will spill much Greek blood to set them free, but we will spill much Persian blood to keep them. Those Dionysian feasts are something to behold; and they call him ‘The Liberator.'”

“Haven’t you said that ‘all things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself’?”

“Something like that,” he replied. “But who wants that?”

“I thought you would.”

“Perhaps I do. So it comes, the injustice of war to make the injustice of slavery come to an end, and then we will have justice for a time, while they grapple with one another, intertwined, for mastery.”

For some time while Heraclitus was lecturing I felt in my belly a compassion that had sprung for the farmers who had been enslaved, and it rose. There it was again, much higher, manifesting itself next to the beating within my breast. It was hatred.


 Fragments Consulted


It needs be that by having inquired well of very many things men are philosophers —On Nature, Fragment XLIX

Those who sleep are laborers and co-laborers of the things coming to pass in the world —Fragment XC

Stupidity is better to conceal, but it’s quite the labor when relaxing also with some wine. —Fragment CVIII

A dry soul is wisest and best —Fragment LXXIV

All things the fire, when it comes upon them, will adjudge and seize for itself. —Fragment XXVI

Talk About The Passions

The Stoics give it a shot–at least Seneca the Younger does: talking about the passions. In defining anger, he plays the good Stoic, removing anger from man’s nature altogether; it is an alien characteristic.

Perhaps that isn’t fair: “Man’s nature,” he says, “is not desirous of inflicting punishment.” Inflicting punishment, you see, is the Aristotelian definition of anger with which he cites almost complete accord. Anger, therefore, is not in accordance with man’s nature. Is that fair to the Stoics? I think so.

Are the Stoics being fair to the human experience? I don’t know. I do know, however, that we at Sweet Talk talk an awful lot about virtue, about justice, about honor, and other abstractions. I mean, I’ve been pecking away at AG’s perfectly innocent little post on Justice for two days, now, and I realize that I’m just digging around for nothing, as I told him offline, maybe, finally, for some worthless crystal-nugget of enlightenment. Who knows? Indeed, mine is a pure intellectual pursuit. If I gain intellectually, what gain?

Philosophers seem readily able, armed with massive libraries, to speak with all due palaver on empty prayers and empty mouths, but I don’t know that we have much in the way of philosophical repositories to do the work of speaking about the entire human experience. It’s a tyranny, of sorts, to put the desires of the gut into the hegemony of the intellect. We have made an easy move relegating passions as primal responses to environmental stimuli, but the Stoics recognized that such a passion as anger is not found in the wild kingdom; it is unique to the human experience.

Likewise love. Come to think about it, so is justice, honor, virtue, etc.

“Easy,” as I write above, is a pejorative term, and I mean for it to be. I suppose the long and short of this post is somewhere in this question: Is it ideal that the intellect should rule passions? We certainly like it that way, but Plato’s Divine Maxim requires it not to be so.

Might I suggest, as my tantrum subsides, that newfangled category all the kids are dancing to these days: human dignity. Can we talk more about that?

Dave Brat and Deirdre McCloskey

Something rather remarkable has happened in American politics. An incumbent has been ousted in the primaries. What’s more, it’s house majority leader Eric Cantor. A house majority leader lost… in the primaries. A first time for everything. Needless to say, the press has been in a tizzy.

Quoth Tyler the Cowen: “”Brat loves Deirdre McCloskey” is surely worth a blog post from…someone.”

Challenge accepted.

From Brat’s “Protecting Values” page (here)  (emphasis added):

As our congressman, Dave Brat will oppose any efforts to allow those who entered this country illegally to cut in line, violate the rule of law and take jobs and tax dollars away from hard working Americans who have played by the rules.


Dave will protect the rights of the unborn and the sanctity of marriage, and will oppose any governmental intrusion upon the conscience of people of faith.

Dave Brat cites McCloskey approvingly here. Le quote (emphasis added):

“Economic growth is important. Without economic growth, the entire world was trapped at incomes of $500 per year until about 1800. Today, the average American worker is closer to $50,000.

“What caused this massive increase in human welfare? The basic lecture in economics would tell you the answers are capital investment, education and technological advances.

“However, Deidre McCloskey’s work reveals that virtue may in fact be the one major cause of all causes of economic growth.

“About 1800, some countries in northwestern Europe began to socially validate and value and even praise the innovator class — the geeks. We called them morally good.

“Prior to this virtue story, other economists, such as Doug North and Brad DeLong, were  showing us how important property rights, the rule of law and even Protestant institutions were to economic growth in northern Europe.

“The latest in economic research shows that ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth.”

I assume that given Brat’s interpretation of virtue, he’s not inclined to cite Auntie Deirdre’s most moving work (excerpt here) detailing her transition from Donald to Deirdre.

Look people. I’ve said it elsewhere, and I’ll reckon that if Professor McCloskey herself stops by, she might be inclined to endorse this sentiment, the best heuristic for governance we’ve stumbled on in the history of Western Civilization comes to us from Plato via Aristotle, Solon, and Adam Smith himself: the divine maxim to do no more harm to the nation than you would to your own parents. If you’d be willing to throw your own mother in the slammer because she’d dare fall in love with another woman or hire help from overseas, perhaps you’ve abdicated the moral high ground.

Cue Skwire’s First Law.

Honor = Innovation?

Sam’s characterization of honor (as a personal characteristic–honor type A–rather than a reward–honor type B) is honor as a public good. It’s costly to have honor and the benefits of honorable behavior are not internalized by the honorable individual. It’s a positive externality in need of subsidization. Sam’s subsidies are honors (the reward–honor type B), things like ribbons, monuments, songs etc. Sam finishes his excellent post with a cautionary meditation on the public versus private provision of these subsidies:

Describe quietly to yourself as you reflect on this the likely agency problems of the sovereign awarding honors. Compare that to private honors offered by people unencumbered by a principal-agent problem.

Sam’s right, we should carefully consider whether the public provision of honors is faithful to the stimulation of real honor, whatever we as principals think it to be. The problem Sam is describing neatly mirrors debates about intellectual property law. We have a public good—innovation—and we have a subsidy via signals—patents, copyrights and trademarks. The nut of the debate in IP policy is whether we are faithfully incentivizing science and art, or merely rewarding rent-seekers (the RIAA, MPAA, Big Pharma, etc.). And, just like private honors, we do have private rewards for creativity and innovation. Tenure is the most obvious, but we shouldn’t forget privately-funded contests like the X-prize, or soft rewards like the prestige of being a notable contributor to open-source software libraries or the power of a successful YouTube account. Let me leave that analogy between honor and innovation to percolate for a moment.

Adam chimes in suggesting that honors may not be incentives to honor so much as bits of information necessary to discover what is honorable.

What is honorable is not something we simply know the same way we know how to breathe. We learn what is honorable by, at minimum, using what is honored as a starting point.

In IP policy we often talk of both incentives and coordination. The inventor or artist needs both a goad and a direction. You can think of the subsidy policy as a vector: it has both magnitude (incentive to invent) and direction (coordination of what should be invented). Adam’s saying we may or may not need incentives for honor (and it is intuitive—as well as ancient—to say that honor is something you cultivate without reward) but he’s suggesting that we do need coordination.

Building on my IP analogy, I’d like to disagree (for the sake of conversation) with both Adam and Sam here. There is a school of thought in IP policy that says that most of the work of incentivizing and coordinating innovation is internal to the innovation itself. Von Hippel writes about “user innovators,” who invent and publicly release their inventions—i.e. provide public goods—because the fractional private benefit they obtain from invention-use is sufficient to stimulate the public good’s optimal social production. Similarly, first-mover-advantage and network-effects theories can also explain why innovation may need no external goad or coordination. I innovate because by being the first to do so I will more likely capture temporary monopoly rents (as competitors rush to imitate) or because if my product becomes the standard in a network (the Facebook to your Myspace) I’ll also capture rents.

Could honor have use value sufficient to stimulate optimal social production? Or, are there first mover advantages to an honorable person? Are there network effects to honor? If any of these questions deserves a yes (or even a maybe) then we have an economic theory as to why honor might be something that does not require external reward, i.e. honors. We have an economic theory explaining the Aristotelian intuition—honor is something you do without external reward. There are rewards internal to the behavior—especially in the long term—and no dire public good problem exists.

I’m not certain what exactly honor’s use-value, first mover advantage, or network effects would look like. My intuition tells me it’s basically stoicism or, perhaps, Taleb’s “antifragility.” Honor (or dignity) is a guard against anxiety, rash action, and—cumulatively—monoculture or herd behavior and the madness of crowds. People develop a personal bearing that, as Sam eloquently puts it, is “staid in adversity, durable against insult, and refuses to cower when threatened.” These are the traits that may cost you in the short run, but their use value—perhaps the psychic benefit of avoiding agitation—could be sufficient to warrant their adoption despite benefit spillovers. Or, similarly, they may enable you to reap some long term benefit from anti-fragility. As the crowd of lemmings goes over the cliff your once costly non-conformity has paid off big. Moreover, you cultivate this honor not because you can reasonably predict the realization of any of these rewards. Instead, it’s just something you do. As Taleb says,

Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

Who Should Be Empowered to Say “No”?

Sam tells us:

In private hands, “no” is a tender little syllable. It lends dignity to lives both modest and great. It is a tiny utterance that invokes Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.” In public hands contrarily, it is hewn in rock, forged in iron, printed in all caps. It channels Ahab: “you may not.”

This is all good and classically libertarian, but then Matt Bruenig chimes in and says “ah-ah-ah, a private ‘no’ is far from tender. Think of the starving man who goes to grab a piece of food from the grocery store to eat, and the store owner tells him ‘no’, consigning him to death or at least to suffering.” The only tender world, Bruenig suggests somewhat tongue-in-cheek, is a completely no-less one; the grab-what-you-can world.

The libertarian and economist has a quick response—the grab-what-you-can-world is a world of mass starvation, where everything is in the commons and therefore everything is overharvested until there is nothing left. But this invites Bruenig to reply: your basis for a private “no” is thus consequentialist, and following the consequentialist thread is unlikely to lead you to the property rights regime you probably want. I know many who would disagree with this outright—Pete Boettke for one. But Bruenig would certainly deny that property “lends dignity to lives both modest and great”.

I’m sure you all have an idea of how I feel about this but I want to put the question to you: how do you respond to Bruenig’s challenge? Is a “no” from a private property owner truly different in kind than a “no” from a government official? Why?