This is the fifth in a second series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. The themes of the essays are drawn from Plato’s “Laws,” his last and longest philosophical dialogue written shortly before his death in 347 B.C. “Laws” is a fictional account of a conversation involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos; Megillus, from Sparta; and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. They have assumed the role of founders of a new Cretan city, Magnesia.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of Plato’s economy is that it is sustainable.
A sustainable economy is one that reliably provides for the basic needs of a society from renewable goods produced within its boundaries. The Magnesian constitution achieves this by an equitable distribution of land among households and by laws prescribing the possession of it by a householder and his heirs in perpetuity.
Land may be owned, although only by citizens. It is allotted, and cannot be bought, or sold, or mortgaged. Also inalienable from a householder’s holdings are dwellings for family, slaves, storehouses, barns, cattle, beehives, and tools required to cultivate the land and gather and refine its harvest. No household, therefore, is ever without the means of subsistence.
It’s worth noting that the English word “economy” has Greek roots (oikos and nomos) meaning literally “household management.” Oikos and other adjectival forms signify being settled, the intimacy of a society with the place where it lives, and its material well-being.
Harvests are to be divided into three parts, more or less equal: one part for the householder and his family, another for slaves and servants. The third part, along with any surpluses, is offered for sale to resident aliens. A household’s wealth may increase beyond the value of its real property through the sale of this third part of its agricultural produce. And because some households are managed better than others, the inevitable result is differentiation in wealth among households. The Athenian Stranger recommends that there be a limit on the amount of wealth a household may accumulate. Special magistrates assess the value of the land, buildings, and equipment needed to cultivate the land — the basic allotment.
Plato is unclear about the method or standard of measurement. The constitution of the city requires that the total wealth of any household not exceed four times the value of the basic allotment. Any excess wealth must be passed on to the city to fund public works and services. The purpose of this restriction on the accumulation of wealth is clear. Plato’s aim is to design a constitution that will minimize the possibility of civil conflict and promote peace and friendliness among citizens. Grinding poverty and vast differences of wealth between rich and poor are inimical to these ends. The ideal that governs Plato’s policy is equality, a society in which there is one ruling class made up of the people or the aggregate of all citizens, living together amicably under the rule of law.
It is surprising, therefore, that the Athenian Stranger also prescribes a division of the people into property classes, which, as we shall see in a subsequent essay, are used in the selection of public officials. Starting from the bottom up: the fourth (this is Plato’s designation) or lowest class consists of those households whose wealth does not exceed the value of the basic allotment; the third class includes households whose wealth ranges between one and two times the basic allotment; the second class ranges between twice and three times the basic allotment; and the first class between three and four times the basic allotment.
Markets are created in each village and in the town center. The central market is a commercial center for the exchange of goods, not only of locally grown produce, but also imported goods, spices, dyes, weaponry, and also for the services of artisans. But the city is not primarily a center of external trade and commerce. The market is free and for the most part un-regulated. The Athenian Stranger is boastful of the result. Magnesia’s lawgiver can “say goodbye” to laws regulating “shipping and merchandise and peddling and inn-keeping and customs and mines and loans and usury” and concerns himself only with the needs of “farmers and shepherds and beekeepers.” Magnesia will have its own coinage to be used in local and overseas trade.
Just as the market is free, so is there no limit on the amount of wealth that may be accumulated by artisans, merchants, and other professionals whose goods and services are necessary for the improvement of life, and who, under the Magnesian constitution, are excluded from citizenship. This may seem a weak link in the chain of self-sufficiency and sustainability that Plato is attempting to forge, because it deprives the city of home grown artisans or traders and because it depends for essential goods and services on individuals — resident aliens — who have no special loyalty to the city and who may leave it whenever they please, taking their accumulated wealth with them.
Magnesian law prescribes that no alien may reside in the city for more than 20 years, except by special dispensation. More reflection finds that this policy fits well with Plato’s purposes: to marginalize commerce and entrepreneurial activity, while using its services. The policy is realistic, almost cynical. Given the way the world is, there are bound to be adventurers, who prefer to live abroad on the margins of society and remain free to grow rich. Since they will always be in good supply, a city will never be short of goods and services. They serve a city’s needs without corrupting its morals.
The economy of Magnesia seems designed for Plato’s purposes, but not for ours. It is a static economy. Ours is, or aims to be, dynamic and growing and it is hardly imaginable that this will change. Yet Plato’s economic goals remain very desirable. The Magnesian constitution provides an economic safety net guaranteeing that no household will lack the means to meet its basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. By limiting private wealth, it ensures that the land and other natural resources will not be overused and depleted. It prescribes that an individual’s worth, and the city’s also, depends not on accumulated wealth but on moral rectitude and thus ensures that the driving force of a city’s growth and development remain within every citizen’s capacity — for every citizen owns that prize possession, a soul, for whose cultivation it is enough that one is alive and well.
To us, then, there remains the challenge to figure out what sort of dynamic economy can ensure these social and moral benefits, and along with them a durable and complete equality, excellence in education, and a cultural sense of identity that is rich and expansive and does not need to resort to hype and deception to sustain its self-image.