The Economic Roots of Democracy
On a recent trip to Europe, I found myself reading The Economist while standing on an ancient foundation that dated back to the Bronze Age. This gave me great pause when I considered that literally and figuratively, much of the economic basis of democracy that we enjoy today had its beginnings in ancient Greece.
During my trip, civil unrest, political troubles, roiling debate over sovereign debt, extreme weather, and the identity crisis of the greater Euro-personality cast a long shadow over the magnificent landscapes, and the excitement of experiencing different cultures, languages, art, and food.
I spent much of January with McDaniel College faculty members and students, in Greece, a land of ancient lore that has stood guard over the roots of democracy and western philosophy for thousands of years.
The McDaniel semester studies in Greece were led by classics professor, Dr. Tom Falkner and his wife, Rose. The class focused on ancient Greek governance, art, culture, and religious beliefs and practices, and how they are related to our world today. In addition to extensive time and study in Athens, we also traveled to Corinth, Crete, Delphi, Eleusis, Meteora, Mycenae, and Olympia on the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
Greece is a small country situated between Italy and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean that has a population of approximately 11 million and commands barely two-percent of the entire Gross Domestic Product of Europe.
Notwithstanding its current economic malaise and sensational media accounts of larger-than-life civil unrest, public demonstrations and depictions of a government in varying stages of deterioration and destruction, Greece remains a wonderful destination for the scholar, historian, political scientist, economist or the fun-loving adventurer who wants to take-in the wonderful scenery and have some great food.
Despite its size, Greece has loomed large in the international news in recent years and has an even greater role in world history.
Most examination and analysis of the ancient art, culture, and structure of Greece focuses upon memorized dates, the size of the building, its meaning, or intended use, or the nature of a particular building’s construction materials.
However, whether one is examining a collection of pottery, Hadrian’s Arch, the Minoan Palaces, or the large and complex structures of the Acropolis, you have to wonder how or what paid for such huge public works projects.
I literally pondered this thought one day as I stood in the shadow of Hadrian’s Arch in downtown Athens, while studying a map trying to figure out the directions to the closest subway station.
Both projects, the arch and the subway, are separated by thousands of years, but roughly share the same economic concepts. They both had a price tag and the governing body at the time had to pay the bill.
The greater question is what was the structure and basis for the economy that created the capital necessary to undertake such public works projects, and what role did democracy play in the economy.
It’s a critical question as one ponders the growth of capitalism in communist China or when a young American family tries to plan its future as the United States drifts away from democracy to a government and economy modeled more after a European-style socialist-welfare state.
Last January, as I reflected on the hundreds of vases, sculptures, and artifacts I had the pleasure of seeing, I did not once see an ancient check made out of pottery, a government bond written on papyrus, or a chiseled-marble credit card.
One day in Athens, I took the time to visit the Museum of Cycladic Art. The museum opened its doors in January 1986 in the heart of the city just past Syntagma Square and a couple of blocks away from the Parliament of the Hellenic Republic – Greece.
A number of exhibits in the museum provided some insights into the economic basis of democracy. A brochure provided by the museum reports that the collections housed in the four-story institution, contain 3,000 “unique artifacts of Cycladic, Ancient Greece, and Cypriot Art…” from the 5th millennium BC to the 6th century AD.
A display of coins explained that as far back as the 7th and 6th centuries BC, “The rapid growth of trade” made pressing the need for standard media of exchange.
“In earlier periods, traders used various devices for measuring and exchange, such as ingots, (rectangular slabs of copper,) and spits, (rods made of iron and bronze.)
“Around 590 BC, however, the first metal coins of standard weight and value were produced in Ionia and Lydia, (in Asia Minor.)
“The new practice spread quickly all over the Aegean, and soon most Greek cities began to mint silver coins. Sixth century coins bore the symbol of the city or its patron god on one side.”
Another exhibit, “The Economic Basis of Democracy” explained, “The development of democracy and the flourishing of art and culture in 5th century BC Athens would not have been made possible without a solid economic basis. This basis was largely secured by the city’s self-sufficiency in precious metals.”
According to the museum exhibit, “In 483 BC, the discovery of a new seam of silver in the Laurion mines allowed the Athenians to fund the construction of the fleet that routed the Persians at the battle of Salamis, and then to mint and circulate a large number of coins.”
“Athenians soon dominated maritime trade and the famous Athenian ‘Owls’ (a predominant denomination of coined currency,) became the basic means for commercial exchange in the Aegean and the entire Mediterranean.”
Of course, if Frederick were to issue coins of the realm, they might bear the image of the county commissioners.... Although it could be easily argued that the likeness of Delegate Kelly Schulz or Joan Aquilino would be more pleasing.
Of course, in the state of Maryland, all coins would bear the likeness of Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
. . . . . I’m just saying. . . . .