Monday, April 30, 2007

Liberty Begins at Sumer

The Liberty Fund is an educational foundation in Indianapolis that was established through the philanthropy of Pierre Goodrich. Liberty Fund is best known for their publishing program and for their conferences (170-180 a year)on various topics related to the idea of liberty. 

The logo for Liberty Fund is a cuneiform script (amagi) that is thought to be the first written symbol for "liberty," which was found in an ancient writing dating from 2,300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash. I assume that Goodrich picked this up from his reading of Samuel Noah Kramer's book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, first published in 1956 and reissued in a 3rd edition in 1981 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. 

The story told in the original Sumerian text illustrates my claim that the conservative commitment to ordered liberty can be supported as rooted in the natural desires of evolved human nature. The story is in Chapter 7: "Social Reform: The First Case of Tax Reduction." The ruler of the city-state of Lagash--the ishakku--had raised taxes on almost every article of property to the point that the wealth of the palace grew while the people of the city were impoverished as the tax collectors appeared everywhere to collect their assessments. The oppression became so great that the people were willing to recognize a new ruler--Urukagina. According to the Sumerian text, "He removed the inspector of the boatmen from the boats. He removed the cattle inspector from the cattle, large and small. He removed the fishers inspector from the fisheries. He removed the collector of the silver which had to be paid for the shearing of the white sheep. When a man divorced his wife, neither the ishakku nor his vizier got anything. When a perfumer made an oil preparation, neither the ishakku, nor the vizier, nor the palace steward got anything. When a dead man was brought to the cemetery for burial, the officials received considerably less of the dead man's goods than formerly, in some cases a good deal less than half. Temple property was now highly respected. From one end of the land to the other, . . . there was no tax collector. Urukagina established the freedom of the citizens of Lagash." 

Kramer, one of the leading Sumerologists of his day, presents this as evidence that the people of Sumer understood the value of "freedom under law." In many ways, these ancient Sumerians of 4,500 years ago were like us. They had the same natural desires, including the desires for property and justice as reciprocity. They also showed a desire for political rule, such that a ruling few would desire to dominate, and the subordinate many would desire to be free from exploitative dominance. Although they did not fully achieve it, it seems that the ancient Sumerians were moving towards limited and balanced government in which the power of the ruling few would be checked to secure the liberty of the ruled in their private economic, familial, and religious lives. 

It is not too much of an overstatement to see the whole history of the world over the past 5,000 years as a movement towards free societies in which the natural desires of human beings could be satisfied through a delicate balance of governmental authority and individual liberty. Such an account of history has been elaborated in Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of History's Destiny (2000). He argues that human history shows a directionality towards ever wider and more intricate cooperation to secure the potential benefits in non-zero-sum games. For that to happen, human beings had to emerge through biological evolution to have the natural propensities for social cooperation based on kinship, mutualism, and reciprocity. But then we needed thousands of years of cultural evolution to develop the technology and social institutions that now allow us to cooperate today at a global level. 

There is nothing in this Darwinian logic of biological and cultural evolution that would dictate that history had to follow the exact path that it did. But given human nature and the opportunities of cultural history, it was highly likely that human history would move towards the sort of ordered liberty that is achieved in modern constitutional republics. In that sense, human history is the history of the unfolding of human liberty through the coevolution of human nature and human culture. 

The logo for the Liberty Fund is appropriate, therefore, because it suggests that the work of the Liberty Fund is to understand the natural and cultural logic of the history of liberty from ancient Sumer to the present, and thus to understand the conditions for liberty in the world. It is poignant to observe that Sumer was located in what is now southern Iraq. This reminds us that even if there is a broad historical movement towards liberty, the actual achievement of liberty in particular circumstances is difficult, because it depends on complex cultural conditions that emerge by spontaneous order and not by human design. That's why the American ambition for democratic "nation-building" through military occupation in Iraq is so imprudent, because it is based on a utopian fantasy that constitutional liberty can be created through the rational design of bureaucratic planners with little regard for the cultural conditions.

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