The Greek debt crisis is playing out as if, as Henry Ford said, history is bunk. But if we look to history, we immediately see that the stakes are much higher and the problems are much deeper than either the current Greek leadership or the current EU leadership is willing to admit.
Just before the Greek people went to the polls to decide their future by voting in a miserably mismanaged referendum, George Katrougalos, Greece’s deputy minister for administrative reforms, announced that “The whole question has moved now from the field of economics to the field of democracy.” Meanwhile, the EU leaders, who apparently regard the Union as little more than an accounting device, seem incapable of thinking about the geo-strategic long term. But, like the United States of America, the EU is more than an accounting device. A democratic federation is an attempted solution to the problem of conjoining democracy, prosperity, and security in a dangerous, mutable world. America’s Founders knew that. Europe’s technocrats seem not to.
If the Greek and the European leaders bothered to read history, they would learn that the solution to uniting democracy with prosperity and security was first devised in Greece—2,500 years ago. Greece was a poor place in the 9th century BCE, the dark age sporadically illuminated by the poetry of Homer. Jump forward 500 years, to the classical era of Plato and Aristotle: Greece was densely populated and far more urbanized than anywhere else in Europe. Although Classical Greece was prosperous, inequality remained relatively low. As we know from the study of skeletal remains, ordinary Greeks and even their slaves were remarkably well nourished and healthy by the standards of any premodern society. Prosperity was driven by competition and exchange of goods and services. Trade boomed, promoted by high levels of economic specialization and deep investments in infrastructure and human capital. The arts and sciences reached new highs. Prosperity produced the culture that grounded secular Western civilization.
So how did the Greeks bootstrap their society out of poverty? The basic answer is democracy. Most of the hundreds of independent city-states of the classical Greek world were organized as citizen republics. We know most about the greatest of them: Athens. The Greek word democracy, invented in Athens, did not mean just “majority rule.” It meant “the citizens are capable of ruling themselves.” They took responsibility for their own government; they paid costs in order to reap the benefits that came of living without autocrats. The economic rise of classical Greece was built on a political foundation: formal laws and cultural norms created and sustained by citizens who were free, equal, and secure in their dignity. Citizens were protected from exploitation by powerful individuals, or by an over-reaching government. Because they were secure, they willingly invested in themselves and in their communities. By law the richest paid the taxes. Ancient Greeks were no fonder of taxes than their modern descendants. The difference is that the ancient wealthy paid their taxes in order to share in the prosperity and security that democracy brought in its wake. Middle-class citizens were also taxed, not on income, but through the time they devoted to military and political training and service.
The Greek referendum was billed, by its defenders and detractors alike, as “democracy before economics.” Democracy drove ancient Greek prosperity because it was based on well-informed citizens who performed public service and obeyed the law. They did so because they understood that it was in their own best interest. Modern Greek citizens, in common with modern Europeans and Americans, lack meaningful experience deliberating and voting on existential questions. We are no longer the trained and knowledgeable citizens who built and sustained the institutions that created classical Greek civilization.
The age of Greek prosperity outlived the classical era. After the collapse of Alexander’s short-lived empire, warlords threatened Greek city-states. Greece might have collapsed into poverty; its cultural legacy might have been lost. But the Greek cities did not collapse. They had invested heavily in civic infrastructure—notably in massive stone walls. And they had invested in the human capital represented by well-trained citizen-soldiers. Predatory warlords were forced to negotiate with the cities because attacking walls defended by citizens was too costly. The cities paid light tributes and the warlords soon morphed into kings, who had learned some history and were capable of planning for the long run.
Because the ancient Greeks solved the question of integrating democracy, prosperity, and security, Greek culture survived long enough to be passed on to us.
If the leaders of the EU and of modern Greece step back from their short-sighted squabbling, if they recognize the high stakes and how much history could teach them, there is a bright future for Greece and the EU. It is time to stop the blaming and posturing, time for Greeks, Europeans, and the citizens of the world’s democracies alike to think seriously about how democracy can underpin—or undermine—security, and prosperity. We need to ask how we, as citizens, can learn to participate responsibly in politics—and what it means for our way of life if we do not.
If we do not learn from history, we may be history. The age of dangerous warlords did not end in antiquity.
Josiah Ober teaches political science and classics at Stanford University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Princeton University Press.