Saturday, August 29, 2009

Human Behavior and Its Relationship to Political Systems

Human beings are not created equal, but, in fact, differ according to a normal distribution – big to small, thin to fat, athletic to clumsy. Similarly, intelligence is distributed across a measurable range with the average IQ set at 100. Geniuses at the high end and idiots at the low end represent extremes compared with the large number in the middle.

Our species has endured because the average human can survive either by his own wits or an association with others he can depend on. Most of us are social animals, more comfortable in the company of others than in isolation.

When people become part of a social structure, another kind of distribution occurs – the distribution of labor. If the group is small, the distribution is narrow. In ancient times, for example, tribes or clans had a flat hierarchy – a small group of physically strong leaders and everyone else gathering food or farming. When the tribe grew into a community, a village, a town, and finally a city, the distribution was forced to expand to meet the goods and services requirements of a complex society. The people in those cities assumed a socio-economic position according to three drivers of human behavior: physical, mental, and psychological. The ability of any individual to rise in status depended on the strength of these characteristics in combination. A good soldier would need physical strength and courage (psychological strength). Mental ability would not matter unless he was the commander. A merchant would be psychologically strong and able to sell his goods without being physically strong. He might also want to be mentally strong because he has to use his brain to run a business. A philosopher may be mentally strong but weak in the other two characteristics: adept at thinking but not able to stand up to other people.

So we see that human beings in society gravitate to positions that reflect their aptitude. That’s why we have kings, blacksmiths, writers, artisans, laborers, soldiers, beggars, and criminals. Wealth and power are hereditary. The sons of the rich and powerful start out with an advantage. Some use it; some squander it. Many men rise from nothing to success through hard work and intelligence -- strong in the psychological and mental traits. Others are capped by their limitations and must do hard labor. Nothing one can change this reality of human capability.

Political systems evolved because common people wanted protection against the abuses of the rich and powerful. The spark was the realization by individuals that they deserved certain rights: rights that gave them freedom to live based on their own choices. The early political systems of Greece and Rome came into being when political power was balanced enough to support the creation of laws written to protect these rights. Democracies and Republics were born out of the incubator of social conflict after many fits and starts.

In exchange for freedom, men were willing to trade responsibility. What I mean is they realized that freedom transfers responsibility to the individual: responsibility to live by his own means, be a good citizen, and accept what comes along in life. The will to freedom carries a price. Scary but desirable. Of course, some were never able to take that step because they lacked the capacity. The world has always had beggars.

Let’s look at a couple of modern examples where human behavior has been ignored by political theorists and politicians. The price paid for ignorance is failure.

The first example is Karl Marx and his theory of communism. Marx was idealistic, angry, clever, and completely lacking an understanding of human behavior. How he could possibly think that his theory was practical, I can’t imagine. Was he only putting out a theory – a utopia for the proletariat? I don’t know. He was amazingly na├»ve to think workers would unite in a common cause because, historically, lower classes never have a major part in revolutions. Since they lack the intelligence and organization to accomplish their goals, they typically only participate in mob activity in the beginning.

Fast forward to the Russian Revolution, where the theories of Marx were supposedly put into practice and, in fact, weren’t. The soviet leadership used communist theory as veneer over the creation of an autocratic regime incorporating many of the same elements that caused the revolt against the Czars in the first place. Soviet leaders must have had to stifle their laughter while preparing speeches about the wonderful communist ideology, because they weren’t really interested in creating a culture with a single socio-economic class. Surprisingly, many simple-minded liberal intellectuals in this country did not see the difference between theory and reality either. Were they merely channeling anger against the capitalist model or was it just the fact that communism was fashionable? Where are those communist adherents now when their favorite model has failed everywhere? They never understood that the hierarchy of man in society cannot be removed.

Now fast forward again to the United States in 2009, where we see in the Obama plan something as impractical as Marx. I shouldn’t say the Obama plan because the legislative agenda is in reality the Democratic Party’s ideology. The left believes that its always good for government to take control in areas where some portion of the population is disadvantaged. This is government acting as caretaker for the nation. The problem is what we are left with at the end of this, as in the case of the current health care initiative. If the ideologues are allowed to pass this measure, the government will take a giant step toward taking over the life of every American. The problems with government control of a large component of the economy are several. In the first place, a gap exists between ideology and reality. Bills are passed too quickly without proper analysis and debate. The situation is worse when the bills are complicated. Often, legislators admit they have not read bills they voted for. This lack of care produces laws that have unintended consequences. Secondly large programs are expensive and cost more than rosy cost estimates project.

More importantly, to reiterate the point made earlier about the relationship between freedom and self responsibility – they go together. When the government takes responsibility away from people, it also takes away their freedom by subjecting them to a bureaucracy they can’t control.

Ironically, the Democrats, who espouse more Democracy (let’s let felons vote), are the ones taking steps to make us less Democratic. Once a law is passed and in the hands of the bureaucracy, it cannot be voted on and removed like an officeholder can. It takes on a life of its own. Each new entitlement accumulates governmental controls and removes freedom from every citizen.

Because of our unique founding Americans are well aware of the factors that made our country great – opportunity and liberty. We declared independence because we didn’t want the British controlling our lives. Now we have the same problem with a controlling bureaucracy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Evolution of the Polis

The Greek Polis is held up as one of the greatest political innovations of all time. Its guarantee of freedom, fair-minded legal institutions, and democratic character are well known to most of us. Like other Greek cultural institutions, the Polis reached its mature form during the fifth century B.C.

But the Polis did not appear out of thin air or develop over a short period of time. It was forged by the heat and hammer of life in ancient Greece – the geography and its isolating influence, the collapse of Mycenae and its aristocratic model, and finally the cultural isolation that existed during the Dark Ages. The heat that finally formed the Polis was population growth. When Greek villages became large enough to be called cities, they were able to support a more complex political system. A new wealthy class wanted the goods to fit their aristocratic lifestyle. Those goods required artisans to produce them. A warrior class developed to protect the Polis from attack – military power from the people and not paid mercenaries of a king. Farming capability expanded as more food was required by a larger population. At the center of it, we see human beings who divided themselves, like they always do, by capability and effort.

As populations grew, the social classes came into conflict. The Greek word Stasis is used to describe this. Out of this conflict a simple political structure was created – not restrictive enough on the wealthy to control them but certainly a structure that attempted to bring basic rights to the lower classes. This political incubator created a system of magistrates, councils, and a people’s assembly. All original ideas. On the judicial side, wise law givers were granted the power to make legal decisions for the community.

Still the class conflict continued. Emigration acted as a safety valve but the land could only support so many. Finally, in the middle of the seventh century, revolutions against the new institutions erupted. The systems that developed could not meet the needs of the people so opportunists seized power and became tyrants. These Greek tyrants were unlike what we commonly think of when we hear the word. These men were not morally corrupt. They were power hungry individuals who took advantage of an available political situation. Many, in fact, were welcomed as men who could achieve through threats and force the aims people did not think they could achieve otherwise. They lasted only a couple of generations but, paradoxically, the tyrants strengthened the future Polis by cleaning out its defects and forcing the people to raise their political conscious to the point of governing themselves.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Phalanx and Its Influence Over Politics and Social Class in Ancient Greece

In recent posts we have been discussing the historical periods of ancient Greece. We’ve been focused on the Golden Age because that is the period most historians are interested in – the great wars, the acme of the polis as a political system, and the rise of Athens as the center of historical culture. In the last post I talked about the Dark Ages: the period in Greek history which came immediately after the Mycenaean culture disappeared. There is also another period that stands between the Dark Ages and the classical times -- the Archaic Period.

Spanning the years from 800 B.C. to 500 B.C, the Archaic Period has two important features: the development of the Polis as a stable political institution and the emigration of the Greek people to new lands in western Europe and Asia as far as the Black Sea. It is the former that we will talk about here, specifically how the phalanx as a military formation drove changes in the political structure and social fabric of the Greek society.

By 650 B.C. Greek cities contained a mixture of wealthy, poor, and those who were rising in economic status -- a middle class for want of a better term. Military leaders realized that they could easily build a new battle formation out of men who could now afford to buy equipment based on their higher incomes. Since the phalanx was central to the Greek victory when operated as a single unit, each hoplite had an equal, and important role, in its success. The average soldier was now as important as the strongest and bravest.

Moreover, since every soldier was important to the phalanx, every soldier had the right to demand political authority when the war was over, because he had made an equal contribution to victory. This demand for political authority manifested itself in the strengthening of the legal code and the increased participation of the lower classes in the apparatus of government.

As the phalanx grew in importance, burying weapons with the dead went out of favor. They had lost their value as a status symbol because even the lower classes could afford them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Homer and the Epic Poems Odyssey and Iliad

There has been much discussion about Homer as a person and his relationship to The Odyssey and The Iliad. Scholars have speculated about the man (if he was a man at all), and when he lived, in addition to whether he was the author of the poems. In reading Early Greece, The Bronze and Archaic Ages by M.I. Finley, I became interested in his discussion of the poems and their origin.

He places the poems into the Dark Ages using their content as clues, establishing they were written in Ionia between the middle and end of the eighth century B.C. by two different writers. These writers were documenting a tradition going back to the Heroic age told through the centuries by professional bards who traveled the Greek world.

The authors of the poems had a working knowledge of Mycenae, but did not mention settlements in Ionia. They reference objects that became important during the Dark Ages, such as “bronze tripods” and glittering cauldrons”, and they also reference cremation. The Mycenaeans buried their dead, but later, in about 1050 B.C, the Greeks began cremation as a practice. After 200 years, the burial ritual began again. These facts place the origin of the poems in the early Dark Ages.

They also describe a society with few political institutions. i.e. pre-archaic. The leaders had power because they were wealthy and no other political groups are mentioned. The common people are silent as in the assembly meeting when Telemachus asked for their support against the suitors. The references to the Greeks themselves are also interesting. They are called Achaeans, Argives, and Danaans rather than Hellenes although the latter was in common use in the eighth century.

Finley makes a compelling argument that the poems did in fact represent a centuries-old tradition begun in the early Dark Ages, that they were modernized over time, and then finally written down at the beginning of the archaic period.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Asia Minor and the Greeks

One of the early periods in Greek history has been labeled “The Dark Ages”, because of evidence of a radical change in Greek culture and retrogression to a more primitive state. This period began circa 1200 B.C. and marked the end of the Mycenaean palace culture that had come before. It had first appeared that the Greek Peninsula had been overrun by invaders part of the so called Dorian invasion, but recent archeology has shown that the Mycenaean age was replaced by a new order which was crude in its beginning as evidenced by the low quality of art and technology. Despite this pause in the development of Greek culture, the loss of a sense of central government and the resulting isolation of small Greek communities set the stage for the development of the Polis.

Many of the characteristics of the Dark Ages are known. There was a rapid shift from bronze to iron technology, pictorial representation ended, luxury disappeared, and religion was practically non-existent. After one hundred and fifty years, however, new innovations began to appear around 1050. A new style of pottery, labeled protogeometric, was produced and by 1000 B.C. Greek expansion across the Aegean began. This large scale migration implies an outward-looking vision similar to that of the European explorers during the renaissance.

The Greeks crossed the Aegean and settled in Asia Minor by bands matching the dialects of the Greek language. The map below shows this with yellow designating Aeolic, blue Ionic, and brown Doric.

The reasons for the migration are obvious: attraction to fertile land near the coast and the lack of any powers or population centers that could inhibit the relocation drove the Greeks to Asia in large numbers. We know that three hundred years later Asia Minor was fully populated with Greeks and the Aegean had become the Greek lake, but the process that led to this including battles between the Greeks over the new territory is obscure. Much later the Spartan-led revolt in this new territory would lead to the Persian invasion of Greece.