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.