Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 913a–920c

A merchant displays his wares.


The translator’s note points out that the next several sections deal with various aspects of law that are only related to each other as one topic flows into the next, apparently without any overarching connection. I think I agree with that—it is even possible that this is one of the unedited portions of the text. And yet, it is also possible that the Athenian intends each of these categories of law to be a reflection of the piety he was discussing in the previous book. After all, the book of Proverbs can appear to be somewhat haphazard if one doesn’t remember that the overall context is established by the first and last few chapters.

In any case, the Athenian begins by examining the laws that govern property:

I suppose something like this will serve as a general rule. Ideally, no one should touch my property or tamper with it, unless I have given him some sort of permission; and if I am sensible I shall treat the property of others with the same respect. (913a)

A fiscal golden rule is to dominate our assumptions about property. That doesn’t mean there are no other laws or that the Athenian is encouraging an economic libertarianism, it just means that our default assumptions should be to respect what belongs to others without trying to claim it as our own. This includes the times when we do not know who the rightful owners are. The “modern” Greek world of Plato’s day was built on top of several centuries of more-or-less civilized predecessors who from time to time lost or hid treasure. When people would discover that treasure, it was the equivalent of winning the lottery in our time. The Athenian thinks this practice is immoral and dangerous:

I should never pray to the gods to come across such a thing; and if I do, I must not disturb it nor tell the diviners… who (I shall find) can always invent some reason for advising one to remove something deposited in the ground. The financial benefit I’d get from removing it could never rival what I’d gain by way of virtue and moral rectitude by leaving it alone; by preferring to have justice in my soul rather than money in my pocket, I’d get—treasure for treasure—the better bargain, and for a better part of myself, too. (913b)

In our day, I think the Christian equivalent of this is the principle that we ought never pray to win the lottery (whether one ought to even play it in the first place is debatable as well), despite the fact that we will always be able to find some religious authority willing to give his imprimatur to our windfall in the event that we do win. It’s better by far to pursue virtue in poverty than to be corrupted by quick and easy riches. No doubt there are people who use such economic blessings well, but in general “person X unexpectedly received a large fortune and lived happily ever after” is not a story we often hear.

This point about buried treasure feeds into the larger principle: leave alone that which belongs to others. This isn’t really a law governing theft, it’s a law governing property that is lost or left in public and then claimed by someone else. That’s why there is some kind of legal process for determining true ownership. There is apparently a provision for registering one’s property with the state to remove all doubt, though the Athenian’s details about that procedure are left unspoken—perhaps it was a common Greek political practice that I’m unaware of.

If the “lost” property in question is a slave or a freedman, the law gets a bit more complicated since in that case it is a question of escape or violation of social roles (in the case of the freedman). In these instances the law is much stricter, presumably since the “property” in question has some agency in the matter. This is obviously a different approach to slavery than the Republic, which had no category for unfree peoples in the best state. With that said, the fact that the Athenian argues for some kind of process suggests that some thought had been given to the proper treatment of slaves. That doesn’t excuse some of the harsher aspects of these laws, but it might put them into context.

From laws governing the ownership of property we move to the laws governing the transfer of property. We’ve seen something of these laws already, the Athenian now returns to treat the topic in extended detail.

Some of the regulations here may seem strict. Trade is to be done publicly, by an agreed-upon price, and without credit of any sort. Any kind of trade that involves a promised future payment must be understood to be totally reliant on the promises made—lawsuits are not permitted. Likewise, full disclosure must be made about products offered for sale, including potential or actual defects and problems that may arise. When there is a conflict over a trade, the courts are to determine whether the trade was truly fair, or if one side was trying to grift the other. The point of these regulations is to make the marketplace open, clear, and honest, because the market has a point beyond itself:

Everyone should think of adulteration as essentially the same sort of thing as lying and deceit—which in fact people commonly describe [in the marketplace] as quite respectable. But they are wrong to defend this sort of conduct as “frequently justified, on appropriate occasions,” because what they mean by the “appropriate” place and occasion they leave vague and indefinite, and their dictum does nothing but harm both to themselves and to others. Now a legislator cannot afford to leave this vague: he must always lay down precise limits, however wide or narrow they may be. (916e)

We say we value honesty, but then we make allowances for used car salesmen and infomercials on the one hand, and dishonest returns and attempts by customers to fleece the big company “who can afford it” on the other. (I could tell you some horror stories from my time working in retail on both sides of that equation.) Economics must not be a place where we let dishonesty run rampant for the sake of a profit.

That trade has come to such a state of affairs is, according to the Athenian, truly unfortunate given the noble and virtuous role that trade ought to play in the state:

The natural function in the state of retail trading in general is not to do harm, but quite the opposite. When goods of any kind are distributed disproportionately and unequally, anyone who makes the distribution equal and even cannot fail to do good. It needs to be stated that this redistribution, in which money too plays an effective role, is precisely the purpose the trader is meant to serve. (918b)

Trade is to be the means by which goods and services are spread (largely evenly) across the state. Whether we read this passage as a proto-communist text (emphasizing the equal distribution element) or as a proto-capitalist text (emphasizing the “work” and “trade” elements) is hardly relevant, because in modern times the practice has become corrupted by greed. The temptation to gain fabulous wealth offered by the marketplace is for all intents and purposes overwhelming to all but the very few

…it’s a rare bird that’s sober enough to prefer a modest competence to wealth. Most people’s inclinations are at the opposite pole: their demands are always violent demands, and they brush aside the opportunity of modest gain in favour of insatiable profiteering. (918d)

Just look at how terribly hotel owners treat their guests! (The translator suggests that Plato had had a bad experience on the road—haven’t we all?)

To offset the temptations of the market, we’ve already seen that retail is mostly forbidden to the citizen body. The Athenian adds three further restrictions:

1) the number of merchants is to be small;
2) the merchants should be somewhat outside the state, so that if they are wicked it won’t damage the citizen body (we see later that this means foreigners and resident aliens are to be the merchants)
3) strict regulations are laid down on their actions to keep them from going too far.

And so the market is to be strictly supervised not so much with the Guardians of the Laws setting prices, as with them keeping an eye on things to make sure there’s no price gouging or profiteering going on.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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