Scholars on the political Left would deny that there was any economic liberalism in Athens, because they have been persuaded by those like Karl Polanyi--in The Great Transformation (1944)--who argue that the market economics of liberal capitalism is a recent cultural invention of modernity, and that for thousands of years societies have organized the production and distribution of goods through social and political planning without markets. In the ancient world, markets did not matter.
Scholars on the political Right would deny that there was any social or political liberalism in Athens, because they have been persuaded by those like Leo Strauss--in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968) and other writings--that Athens was like all premodern regimes in being a closed society, in contrast to the open society sought by modern liberalism. In his vehement criticism of Eric Havelock's claim--in his book The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics--that there was a liberal tradition of thought in ancient Greece, Strauss observed: "The city of Athens was rather liberal, but not so liberal as to tolerate every pursuit and every teaching. It seems that that city was so much opposed to Protagoras' activity that it had his writings burned and himself expelled" (47). And, of course, the Athenian trial and execution of Socrates for impiety and corrupting the young was for Strauss the dramatic manifestation of the inevitable conflict between society and philosophy.
Furthermore, new research in the social sciences over the past fifty years--particularly, in archaeology, anthropology, economic history, and classical studies--has shown that despite the uniqueness of modern liberal societies, there is a deep evolutionary history of liberal social order from antiquity to the present, and that ancient Athens is prominent in that history. This helps to answer one of the great questions in the social sciences today: why and how did the liberal social order of today--the modern world that is unprecedented in its explosive growth in wealth and population--arise in human history?
Proponents of the "new institutional economics"--particularly, Douglass North and his colleagues--have argued that the history of social order can be explained as a history of institutional rules for solving the problem of violence and determining who has access to socially supported organizations. As I have indicated in my post on North, Wallis, and Weingast's Violence and Social Orders (NWW), they lay out an evolutionary history of social order that moves through three stages: the foraging order, the limited access order (the natural state), and the open access order. Through most of our evolutionary history, our prehistoric ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small egalitarian bands that enforced limits on violence through the personal enforcement of customary social rules. But then once human beings settled into large agrarian societies, social hierarchies appeared with elites who lived by rent-seeking exploitation of the non-elites, and where the elite groups had to agree to abstain from violence among themselves so that they could benefit from their monopoly control of the governmentally protected social, religious, and political organizations. Finally, over the past three hundred years, a few societies have moved into open access social orders governed by the institutional norms of rule of law, property rights, and impersonal access to economic, social, religious, and political organizations that compete freely in the open marketplaces of life. These open access societies emerged first in England, the United States, and northwestern Europe, and then they have appeared in other parts of the world, bringing with them their historically unique growth in wealth and population.
The full transition to open access came in Great Britain, France, and the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, when general incorporation laws allowed for the open creation of economic corporations and political organizations through impersonal laws (NWW, 190-240). Previously, the formation of economic and political organizations had been an elite privilege; now it was open to non-elites. Once people were free to form economic, political, and social organizations that would freely compete with one another, open access had been achieved. "Individuals and groups may freely form organizations and enter into most economic, political, social, and other activities, subject to general rules applied impersonally, such as refraining from violence" (NWW, 117). This is the principle of classical liberalism. Indeed, it was at this time that the term "liberalism" came into common use to designate the idea of equal liberty in an open society.
Deirdre McCloskey has challenged this Northian evolutionary story of institutional rules. (My most recent post on McCloskey can be found here, which includes links to earlier posts. McCloskey has written a brief summary of her argument here for The New York Times.) She has pointed out that most of the institutional rules that North identified as necessary for open access societies have appeared throughout human history, and therefore these institutional rules cannot explain the unique increases in wealth and population that she calls The Great Enrichment. There are lots of examples in history--including ancient Athens--of a doubling or tripling of economic wealth per capita and of population growth over a few human generations. Such growth has come from trading activity in markets. And thus Polanyi is wrong in assuming that markets didn't matter in the premodern world. But these premodern spurts of growth eventually came to an end, and so they did not produce the self-sustaining and accelerated growth of The Great Enrichment, in which liberal societies over the past two hundred years have seen average daily income increase by 1,000 to 3,000 percent.
McCloskey argues that the cause of this Great Enrichment is not liberal institutions but liberal ideas--particularly, the idea that ordinary people pursuing their economic interests through trading in markets are equally honorable and dignified. In other words, the bourgeois life can be virtuous. This is what Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations called "the system of natural liberty," in which "every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men." This allows "every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Liberty Fund, 664, 687). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith embedded this liberal system in a moral life that recognizes this as expressing the bourgeois virtues.
Until the 19th century in Great Britain, the life of trading in markets was common, but it was disdained as an ignoble or corrupting life. And thus it was in ancient Athens, which was a commercial society: prosperity came from the entrepreneurial activity of merchants, tradesmen, and artisans, but the lives of such people were scorned as morally inferior to the lives of warriors, aristocrats, and philosophers. The Great Enrichment was not possible until there was a change in moral and intellectual rhetoric so that the bourgeois life could be honored rather than scorned. McCloskey's project is to support this new pro-bourgeois rhetoric by showing how the bourgeois virtues include all of the traditional virtues--the pagan virtues of courage, temperance, prudence, and wisdom, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.
The best Northian response to McCloskey would be the argument that institutions include or depend upon ideas. After all, as NWW indicate, successful institutions require "shared beliefs." And so, the move to open access societies required a "transformation in thinking," because "open access societies depend for their operation on impersonal identity and the associated beliefs in equality and fairness" (NWW, 117, 192, 258, 262). These "beliefs in equality and fairness" include the rhetoric of the bourgeois virtues that is emphasized by McCloskey.
In his recent book The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015), Josiah Ober does not mention McCloskey, but he does agree with McCloskey that ancient Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE was one of those premodern societies that showed an "efflorescence" (in the terminology of Jack Goldstone)--a period of increased economic growth as well as increasing population and cultural achievement promoted by a vigorous commercial life that is similar to what we see today in modern liberal societies.
Ober disagrees with McCloskey, however, in that Ober fully embraces Northian institutionalism as adequate to explain the Athenian efflorescence as well as the modern liberal social order. And yet Ober does partially disagree with North, Wallis, and Weingast, because while NWW think that ancient Athens reached the "doorstep" of the open access society, Athens did not actually pass fully into the open access order (NWW, 134-35, 150-51); Ober and his colleagues argue that "Athens went beyond the doorstep conditions and transitioned to an open access society" (Carugati, Ober, Weingast 2015, p. 4). By contrast, NWW would call ancient Athens a "mature limited access order."
Like McCloskey and North, Ober sees the evolution of liberalism as moving through three stages. In the foraging bands of the Paleolithic, hunter-gatherers lived as equally free in their autonomy, because anyone who attempted dominance over others would be punished by others in the band enforcing customary norms of resistance to dominance. (Here Ober relies on Christopher Boehm's account of "reverse-dominance hierarchies.")
Then, in the agrarian states that came with agricultural settlements, social hierarchy and exploitation of non-elites by elites arose as the prevalent form of order--"natural states" as NWW call them. But occasionally, after the collapse of these exploitative hierarchical orders, societies could fall back into the norms of rough egalitarianism that prevailed in the prehistoric foraging societies, which showed the human capacity for decentralized cooperation, which had evolved in the foraging environments of evolutionary adaptation (Ober 2015, pp. 105, 129-31, 347, n. 13). This is what happened in ancient Greece, after the collapse of the Late Bronze-Age-Mycenaean kingdoms (around 1177 BCE), and the Greeks moved from palace-centered regimes to citizen-centered regimes. But even so, such citizen-centered democratic regimes were rare in the premodern world.
It was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that liberal democratic open access regimes became prominent in the world. Unlike the natural states, these modern open access regimes show greater adaptive flexibility, which leads to economic, social, and cultural flourishing, because such regimes are rooted in the naturally evolved human capacities for decentralized cooperation. Through a Darwinian cultural evolution, liberal social orders have emerged as more adaptive than the alternatives.
Ober is persuasive in surveying the evidence against the common assumption of many scholars that ancient Greece was poor and experienced little or no economic growth. In fact, Greece in the classical era (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) had rates of growth in both consumption and population that were much higher than the premodern normal and higher than any other period in Greek history until the middle of the 20th century (Ober 2015, pp. 71-100). Ober offers a Northian institutional explanation for this: "Fair rules and competition within a marketlike ecology of states promoted capital investment, innovation, and rational cooperation in a context of low transaction costs" (103).
Similar conclusions about the ancient Greek economy have been supported by Alain Bresson (2014, 2016). The ancient Greek economy showed some of the features of capitalist society that supported a long period of unprecedented economic growth. The rule of law enforced property rights and contractual obligations in a way that sustained both domestic and international markets for trade. The Greek city had two institutions for trade--the agora, or internal market, and the emporion, or market for international trade. This trade allowed for an extensive domestic and international division of labor. The Greek world experienced the first world economy based on long-distance trade. Like Ober, Bresson relies on Northian institutionalism to explain this.
Although I generally agree with Ober and Bresson, I disagree at one crucial point where Ober and Bresson fail to answer the objections of McCloskey to Northian institutionalism: Northian institutional rules cannot by themselves explain the Great Enrichment that began in the middle of the 19th century in Great Britain and the United States, because explaining this requires the emergence of liberal ideas about the bourgeois virtues that began to appear in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the first time in history.
Ober relies on Goldstone's account of the "efflorescences" in premodern history--spurts of growth in wealth and population--that include the High Middle Ages in northwestern Europe (1150-1250), Golden Age Holland (1570-1670), High Qing China (1680-1780), Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), perhaps also classical Greece (5th and 4th centuries BCE). But Goldstone is clear that in none of these efflorenscences does one see the self-sustaining and accelerating explosion in economic growth that began in Great Britain around 1850, which McCloskey calls The Great Enrichment (Goldstone 2002, pp. 327, 329, 331-32, 334, 341, 354, 354-58). And, indeed, even Ober concedes that the ancient Greek efflorescence and all the other efflorescences failed to achieve anything like The Great Enrichment (Ober 2015, pp. xiv-xv, 2-4, 77). So although Northian institutionalism can explain these efflorescences of economic growth in per capita income of up to 1% per year, it cannot explain the unprecedented growth in the past two centuries, in which liberal societies have seen increases in average income from 1800 to the present of over 1,000 to 3,000 percent. To explain that, McCloskey argues, we need to see the crucial rhetorical change that led to the great Bourgeois Revaluation that recognized the moral and intellectual virtues of the bourgeois commercial society.
But then wouldn't Strauss and the Straussians object at this point that the material economic benefits of a liberal society do not in fact promote human excellence, particularly the intellectual excellence of the philosophic life? Must there not always be a conflict between society and philosophy that liberalism cannot resolve? Don't we see that in the fact that even in Athens, as liberal as it was, there could be no complete toleration for philosophers, as indicated by the persecution of Socrates and other philosophers?
Ober's answer to this objection is suggested by his essay on the trial of Socrates (Ober 2011). He points out that Socrates lived his philosophic life in Athens until his death at age 70, a life that he could not have lived in illiberal Sparta, where the freedom of thought and discussion for philosophers was impossible. The trial and execution of Socrates in 399 BCE can be explained as an extraordinary consequence of the disorder in Athens after its defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE and the reign of the Thirty Tyrants set up by Sparta in Athens, followed by the restoration of democracy in Athens in 401. Two of the Thirty Tyrants--Critias and Charmides--were associates of Socrates, and so Socrates was regarded with some suspicion by the supporters of the restored democracy. A proclamation of amnesty, however, made it impossible for anyone to file legal charges against anyone suspected of supporting the tyrants. So when Meletus brought the charge of impiety against Socrates, he was pursuing an indirect way of eliciting the citizens' suspicions of Socrates.
As indicated by the quotation above from Strauss, he saw the execution of Socrates as part of a general pattern of Athenian persecution of philosophers, including someone like Protagoras. But, in fact, most of the stories about such persecuted philosophers in Athens are stories for which the evidence is very dubious (Dover 1976). Strauss mentions the story about the burning of Protagoras's books and his expulsion from Athens. But Strauss provides no source for this story. And he is silent about the claim of Socrates that Protagoras enjoyed a high reputation in Athens throughout his life (Plato, Meno, 91e).
Ober notes that Athens allowed philosophical schools (like those of Plato and Aristotle) to organize themselves as voluntary associations in which philosophers could pursue the philosophic life in friendship with others, and thus the open access order of Athens applied to ideas as well as market exchanges (Carugati, Ober, and Weingast 2015). Here Ober is relying on a dissertation by one of his graduate students on freedom for associations in classical Athens (Kierstead 2013), which builds upon the work of Nicholas Jones (1999).
Even Plato in The Republic recognizes that democracy is the only regime that secures the freedom that allows people like Socrates to study philosophy, and thus "anyone by nature free regards this city alone as a fit place to live" (558c-62a). Some readers of The Republic (like Will Altman) have seen this as Plato's endorsement of liberal democracy.
As I have indicated in some earlier posts (here and here), this shows the Aristotelian liberalism of philosophic friendship in a free society that Adam Smith and David Hume saw as emerging in the modern commercial society of Scotland in the 18th century.
Bresson, Alain. 2014. "Capitalism and the Ancient Greek Economy." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 1: The Rise of Capitalism: From Ancient Origins to 1848, eds. Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, pp. 43-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bresson, Alain. 2016. The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Carugati, Federica, Josiah Ober, and Barry R. Weingast. 2015. "Is Development Uniquely Modern? Athens on the Doorstep." Working paper. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.
Dover, Kenneth. 1976. "The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society." Talanta 7: 24-54.
Goldstone, Jack A. 2002. "Efflorescences and Economic Growth in World History: Rethinking the 'Rise of the West' and the Industrial Revolution." Journal of World History 13: 323-389.
Jones, Nicholas F. 1999. The Associations of Classical Athens: The Response to Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kierstead, James. 2013. "A Community of Communities: Associations and Democracy in Classical Athens." A Doctoral Dissertation for the Department of Classics, Stanford University.
Ober, Josiah. 2011. "Socrates and Democratic Athens," In Donald R. Morrison, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, 138-78.
Ober, Josiah. 2015. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.