Democracy, patronage, and redistribution

Peter Leithart, reflecting on an essay on ancient Athenian democracy by Paul Millett, notes that the Athenian system featured payments to the poor as a way to break the “dependence” caused by private patronage and debt. I have requested the book containing Millett’s essay from the library and hope to read it soon, but from my knowledge about ancient Athens I can fill in a few of the details. The practice of selling Athenians into slavery because of debts sparked the rise of Solon, the famous Athenian lawgiver. By the 5th century BC, when Athens was at its height, the poor were paid for attendance at the assembly (the body of all adult male citizens that passed laws and elected officers), for serving on juries, and for attending religious festivals so that missing work would not hurt them financially. I look forward to having a better understanding after reading Millett’s essay.

Leithart concludes with considerations for contemporary democracies:

Aristotle thought that the Athenian system of “public pay” was one of the marks of advanced democratic governance. Is he right? Is redistribution of resources perhaps not a corruption of democracy but a prerequisite for it? The problem is not one of ancient history: If democracy requires redistribution and capitalism requires accumulation of private resources, is “democratic capitalism” a coherent concept?  Or, we could ask: Can a political system that values equality thrive in an economy founded on debt?

Put it this way: Athenian democracy was able to demolish the corrupting webs of personal patronage by making the polis the universal patron and turning all citizens into clients of the state. If democracy has an internal pressure toward redistribution, and we don’t like redistribution, what is the alternative? Perhaps something more Roman or medieval, perhaps a system that includes zones of personal patronage or, perhaps, a system patterned by subsidiarity.



  1. Democracy and capitalism can coexist complementarily in society, of course, but not on the same issue since each describes a mutually exclusive method of decision-making. In that sense, they are antagonistic.

    Equality of vote may be necessary for democracy, but wealth redistribution is not. And it strikes me as odd to say that capitalism requires accumulating private resources.

    However, Leithart makes a fair point that democracy may have an internal pressure toward redistribution, since it is a tyranny of the majority. But it seems to me that even the alternatives of patronage and subsidiarity that he suggests would first require securing certain basic rights, ideally by some democratic process.

    I don’t think democracy is really the problem, I just think we’ve lost our healthy fear it, our understanding of what it means to be the least bad means of coercion, and therefore our checks and balances and constraints on government.

    I did some brief searching to read up on Solon and “public pay” a bit:

    Google Book’s Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece has an intriguing footnote, but I can’t read the page referenced:

    T6b: In later chapters, Plutarch attributes to Pericles a series of popular measures, including pay for public service, that corrupted the demos (9.1). He explains these measures with Pericles’ need to compete with Cimon, whose wealth and private generosity to the people he could not match; hence he began to distribute public wealth, “and soon, introducing allowances for public festivals, pay for jury service, and other grants and gratuities, he succeeded in bribing the masses wholesale” (9.2-3).

    Wikipedia’s Solon makes an interesting connection between inalienable land and slavery:

    Up until Solon’s time, land was the inalienable property of a family or clan [81] and it could not be sold or mortgaged. This was no disadvantage to a clan with large landholdings since it could always rent out farms in a sharecropping system. A family struggling on a small farm however could not use the farm as security for a loan even if it owned the farm. Instead the farmer would have to offer himself and his family as security, providing some form of slave labour in lieu of repayment.

    I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Millett’s essay!

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