The Athenian Empire & Bastiat’s Law
Posted by Orrin Woodward on December 19, 2012
I love reading history and examining the principles learned from it to the principles I have learned over twenty years of entrepreneurship. The parallels are amazing! In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the LIFE Business was developed by incorporating the proven principles from history. The Five Laws of Decline (FLD) are real and at work within thousands of organization right now. The key is to check them before they rot out the productive capacities of the company or community. In my book RESOLVED: 13 Resolutions for LIFE, I share more detail on the FLD. Anyway, here is a segment on Bastiat’s Law for your reading pleasure.
Delian League & Bastiat’s Law
Bastiat’s Law predicts that most people, given an opportunity, will choose the easier path of plunder over the more difficult path of productivity. The allies, jolted by Athenian abuses, were confronted with the new realities of the Delian League when the city of Naxos disputed Athenian control. With Aristides out of the picture, the complaints against Athenian arrogance and mismanagement had increasingly grown among the allies. Naxos, however, was the first to act upon these complaints by withdrawing from the league, terminating its tribute, and removing its ship from the league control in 470 BC. Athens, rather than allowing the independent city to exit peacefully, instead sent Cimon to blockade, siege, and force the submission of the once proud city. Thus, the league’s true colors were exposed, no longer an alliance of equals, but tyranny of Athens over weaker cities to provide revenue for the burgeoning Athenian Empire. Bastiat’s Law predicted that Athens, with unlimited power, would plunder the allies productive resources and Thucydides corroborates it, “This was the first allied State which was reduced to subjection contrary to the league constitution.” Strangely enough, Athens, who had previously sacrificed for Greek freedoms, now, for empire’s sake, sacrificed Greek freedoms for increased power and plunder.
Bastiat’s Law distorted the Athenian leaders thinking. Whereas before they fought to maintain the freedoms of the greater Hellas against the Persian oppressors, given the taste of tributes and unchecked power, they now became the oppressors of Greek freedoms, hypocritically denying to other Greeks what they valued so highly themselves. Author Evelyn Abbot describes the increasing compulsion of Athens over its “allies”:
The Athenians were extreme in their exactions, and caused great irritation by using compulsion upon men who had never been accustomed to endure any hardship. And by this time they were not so popular in the command as they had been. They were not content with their old position as an equal among equals, and they found it easy to reduce those who revolted. For this the allies were themselves to blame. Owing to their aversion to service, which took them from home, the greater part preferred paying money to providing ships, and thus they not only supplied the Athenians with money to increase their fleet, but when they revolted, they were as deficient in skill as in resources.
Indeed, by providing monetary tributes to Athens, the allies enslaved themselves in two ways. First, Athens enjoyed the extra income to fund ships and men, increasing its power. Second, the allies lost the martial skills necessary to defend themselves. As a result they surrendered control of their fate to Athenian goodwill. The Delian league had transformed into the Athenian empire, held together by force if necessary. Still, Athens justified its power politics when, shortly after the fall of Naxos, the battle of Eurymedon in 466 B.C resulted in Cimon’s forces routing Persia. Eurymedon effectively ended Persian resistance to the Delian league in a decisive victory in which 200 enemy ships were destroyed in a combined sea and land battle.
At any rate, after the battle of Eurymedon, Athens owned the Aegean, like the sea had become an Athenian lake, in which they controlled trade with little external interference. And, even though Athens viewed their success at Naxos and Eurymedon as confirmation of their imperial policies, the allies viewed it differently. Since Athens now enjoyed unlimited power to plunder allies, it resorted to threats, intimidation, and blockades against resisting “allies” when needed. For example, take the Thasians who rebelled from the league in 465 BC. After a bitter two year siege, Cimon’s ships forced Thasos to surrender. Athens demanded a heavy tribute to compensate for them for the cost of the siege and helpless Thasos submitted to the tyrannous terms. Ironically, the terms of settlement were significantly worse than the Persian had offered to Thasos a generation before. Athens, once the greatest defender of Greek freedoms, was now its greatest oppressor. For, in reality, Athenian freedoms and commerce thrived on the subjection of fellow Greeks. Athens violation of the sovereignty of other Greek city-states earned Athens the contemptible title, “enslaver of Hellas.” In hindsight, it was this contradiction between liberty and empire that ended Athens Golden Age and ultimately destroyed Greek society.