Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Aristotle: Household, Wealth, Common Property

We're talking about Aristotle's The Politics , starting here.

The household

The first few chapters, on the household, do seem like a relic of a distant 350 BC, and are best hurried through. It is hard to relate to the small farms or city households of ancient Athens or the Troad. This household management, oikonomia , is however the origin of the term "economic."

Most objectionately to modern readers, he believes some people lack the capacity for deliberative reason, so that they are slaves by nature ( although ancient slavery was not racially based). He also takes for granted strict division between the sexes. The head of the household must have moral virtue in its entirety; others, such as women, children, and slaves, in lesser degree.

He was perhaps more enlightened than many of his time , but he was of his time. He took for granted that, as a matter of practical necessity, some had to labor, not least because they were not suited to do anything else.

Of course, for us automation has removed much of the raw mechanical labor from life, although the economy still has an insatiable appetite for cheap labor in many agricultural and service industries. And we more optimistic about people's capacity for reason (although sometimes I wonder, if you see any episode of Access Hollywood or other celebrity glop).

What he says also entails one expects much more from the free, independent head of household in moral terms than children or servants or dependents. We still believe that of children, of course. Perhaps the capacity for moral virtue differs, and that is something we set aside in contemporary debate.


He talks about the acquisition of property, and the definition of wealth. Wealth, properly thought of, is a tool:

Solon in one of his poems said "no bound is set on riches for men." But there is a limit, as in the other skills; for none of them have any tools which are unlimited in size or number, and wealth is a collection of tools for use in the administration of a household or state. (P 79 in the Penguin edition).

Of course, one can acquire goods without limit, but the function of the household is to use them.

The reason why some people get this notion into their heads may be that they are eager for life but not the good life; so, desire for life being unlimited, they desire an unlimited amount of what enables life to go on. Others again, while aiming at the good life, seek what is conducive to the pleasures of the body. So, as this too appears to depend on the possession of property, their whole activity centers to business. For where enjoyment consists in excess, men look for that skill which produces the excess that is enjoyed. (p85)

This of course is still a live political issue - is there a point where we have enough? How much is enough? (the title of a book I looked out a few weeks ago). It is also very much linked to questions of environmentalism. There is a very old tradition which sees the answer to human happiness not in prosperity and abundance but in limiting human desires. That ancient ascetic creed can surface today in those who want us to abandon growth and return to a significantly simpler lifestyle.

I think the answer is it is almost impossible to define what "enough" is, or what wealth itself is, without some conception of the good life and flourishing. Seeing wealth primarily as a tool for particular purposes, something to use and activate, rather than a pile of gold or financial assets is productive. It can be hard to transform financial assets into a flourishing, happy, secure life, as many celebrity divorcees or high-profile occupational burnouts know.

Aristotle also somewhat disapproves of trade and charging interest, "since it arises not from nature but from men's gaining from each other", views which were to still resonate late into the modern period, and underpinned nobility looking down on the merchant classes. We have seen this before, (including a quote from the Politics) in the deep suspicion of many religious and philosophical traditions of the institution of money.

But pragmatist that he is, he can have a shrewd appreciation of business. Thales of Miletus, he says, was criticized for making little money from philosophy. So one year he cornered the olive oil presses on his island just before a good harvest.

He made a lot of money, and so demonstrated that it is easy for philosophers to become rich, if they want to; but that is not their object in life. .. the principle can be applied more generally: the way to make money is to get, if you can, monopoly for yourself. (P90).

And that is also why we have to be very careful of monopolies and businsss restrictions and regulation sometimes.

It is also an illustration of how most ideas in the humanities and social sciences are rediscoveries or permutations of much older themes. Michael Porter would advise the way to profitability is to build barriers to entry (Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors). Warren Buffett looks for businesses with a "moat."

Against common property

Aristotle then turns to the state and comparative politics, looking at a number of constitutions including Athens, Sparta, Crete and Carthage.

He has a modern skepticism for Plato's notion of communal ownership or modern socialist property, not to mention sharing wives and children:

The greater the number of owners, the less respect for common property. People are much more careful of their personal possessions than of those owned communally; they exercise care over common property only insofar as they are personally affected. Other reasons apart, the thought that someone else is looking after it tends to make them careless of it. P108

That is also true for organizations, which is why assigning responsibility and accountability is often so important.

What was later called "to each according to his needs" is also met with skepticism by Aristotle.

For if the work done and the benefits accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit. To live together and share in any human concern is hard enough to achieve at the best of times, and such a state of affairs makes it doubly hard. P114

This has a very contemporary ring about it, no doubt because it is such a timeless human response. So common ownership of property has inherent difficulties. At least, he says, existing laws are strengthened by familiarity.

Far better is the present system - provided that it has the added attraction of being a matter of habit and of being controlled by sound laws.

Even if you could fix a level of common possessions, and achieve absolute material equality,

to fix a moderate amount for all, that would still be no use: for it is more necessary to equalize appetites than possesions, and that can only be done by adequate education under the laws. ... And civil strife is caused by inequality in distinctions no less than inequality in property, though for opposite reasons on each side; that is to say, the many are incensed by the inequality in property, whereas more accomplished people are incensed if honors are shared equally, for then, as the tag has it, 'good and bad are held in equal esteem. p129

This is very important for my interests, as an obvious response to economic abundance is some kind of minimum or basic income. It is an essential illustration of the issues which surround distribution more generally.

The matter of equal esteem and distinctions is also important. It suggests the difficulties of those small slivers of society which have actually achieved abundance in the past. The behavior of aristocracies (or as Aristotle would more likely say, oligarchies) is highly instructive. When landed estates mean they have no immediate material needs, the result has often been a focus on rank and status and courtier affectation, not a higher form of achievement or freedom.

It also is clear that many of our contemporary political issues are claims or conflicts about equality of esteem, more than economic equality.


Secondly, the depravity of mankind is an insatiable thing. At first they are content with a dole of a mere two obols, then, when that is traditional, they go on asking for more and their demands become unlimited. For there is no natural limit to wants and most people spend their lives trying to satisfy them. p131

Such is the fate of the welfare state as it develops toward fiscal catastrophe, perhaps. And it is a general warning about the complications and difficulties of redistributing wealth.

In general, he is concerned with the immediate psychology of how people will see things and behave in practice, rather than ultimate principle, which is why it is useful wisdom.

We of course instinctively see how what he says helps explain why the USSR and other communist states got into trouble. But it is also a warning against some of our own practices, though that may be harder to see.



He is very conservative with a small c.

.. it is clear that there are some occasions which call for change and that there are some laws that need to be changed. But looking at it in another way we must say that there will be need of the very greatest caution. ..A man will receive less benefit from changing a law than damage from becoming accustomed to disobeying authority. .. The law has no power to secure obedience save the power of habit, and that takes a long time to become effective. Hence easy change from established laws to new laws means weakening the power of the law. p138-9

Habituation is a major theme in his ethical approach. There can be significant downside to basing institutions and expectations on the thin and fragile ground of rational choice alone.

What should reformers take from that? Not that reform or major change is impossible, or ought not to be attempted. But that you have to be aware of the practical difficulties and downsides, and do something to avoid or confront or control them. As I said before the election, the left's dreams often turn into darkness , because they look at one shining principle at the expense of daily reality and psychology.

Progress should be measured not by intentions but by actual flourishing lives.

Of course, seeing this as wry, shrewd advice depends on assuming that some elements of human nature are constant, and the human predicament has some timeless elements that unite us with someone who lived so long ago. In international relations, there has been a long debate over Thucydides, and whether his similar observations of power politics and war and history in Ancient Greece (The History of the Peloponnesian War) still have application today.  

I would say that we do advance a little in social understanding over time. But not as much as we think.

I'll look at more tomorrow.



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