Anti-Trade Ancient Greeks

Can the ancient Greeks teach our present-day, anti-trade politicians anything? According to Cornell historian Barry Strauss, they sure can. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Strauss explains that, at first, “Athens’s free-trade zone fostered prosperity, democracy and the soaring confidence that built the Parthenon and fired the Golden Age of Greece. Athens also had a magnetic appeal to immigrants. They came from far and wide and represented rich and poor. Immigrants competed with natives for jobs but not for political power since they were rarely allowed to become citizens.” But the backlash produced three disheartening developments:

  • Nativism: “Athens’s old landed elite disliked democracy and despised the immigrants. So, when extreme conservatives seized power in a coup d’état after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), they evicted immigrants from the city limits and targeted the wealthiest for murder and property confiscation.”
  • Demagoguery: “In Athens, for the first time in history, demagogues emerged. They were popular leaders of unrestrained vulgarity and crassness. They shouted, used abusive language, and instead of keeping their hands modestly tucked inside their cloaks, they raised their garments and introduced hand gestures into oratory. Although wealthy and well educated, they spoke in populist accents and criticized the establishment.”
  • Endless conflict: “Athenian foreign policy should have built an international order that shared prosperity and encouraged allies to stay loyal. Instead, it chose Athens First.”

In short, “Athens had given people an impossible choice: prosperity or freedom. In the end, all they got was the more than quarter-century-long Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek equivalent of our world wars. The long struggle weakened all of Greece but especially Athens, which by 404 B.C. lost its alliances, its ships and its prosperity.”

Political leaders take note.