Back to Oedipus

01/12/2011 § 2 Comments

Brad DeLong channels the Ancient Greeks for Matthew Yglesias:

Matthew Yglesias:

Read my colleague Ian Milhiser for a rebuttal of Paul’s constitutional arguments. For my part, when I hear this stuff I think of my former professor, the late great libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick who developed the notion (“demoktesis”) that democratic governance is a form of slavery. Nozick is a very smart guy and the position is rigorously argued. That said, regulated welfare state capitalism is clearly not actually the same as slavery. The fact that one can reach the conclusion that it is shows that there’s something deeply unsound with the Nozick-style view of property rights and highlights the extent to which libertarian ideology represents a departure from the values of classical liberals in whose work one finds no support for such a conclusion.

We get our concepts of “freedom” and “slavery” from–surprise, surprise–the Classical Greeks. They saw full citizenship in a city-state–what we see as the powers, rights, and obligations of democratic governance–as the essence of freedom. It was the elimination of all of those pieces of citizenship that defined the state of slavery.

You can see this pretty much everywhere in the sources–my favorite place is in Herodotus’s Histories, where Demaratus tells Xerxes that Persia will have a difficult time conquering Greece. Why? Because the Greeks are not slaves but free men, and will not easily submit and will fight hard. Why will they fight hard? Because they value being free and not being slaves very much. How will they be able to fight hard and so keep their freedom? Because free men are slaves to a particular master: the laws that the boulos and demos prescribe. Indeed, men who do not willingly become slaves to the law don’t stay free men for long.

This is the Oedipal bargain described by Freud in Totem and Taboo. The free Greeks have agreed to place the power elsewhere — in the law — and to renounce enjoying that power. In return, they avoid becoming enslaved or eaten by some powerful male/father.

Another way to think of it is that the Greeks are maximising their expected utility in a Rawlsian framework. They don’t know beforehand where in the pecking order they will end up. The low probablity of successfully becoming the father-king means that they have collectively decided that they are singly and collectively better off being brothers.

Nozick and Paul seem to be trying to re-establish the pre-Oedipal situation. They think they can create a world in which each ego reigns supreme. Perhaps they don’t see the chaos that would result. Or perhaps, the expected value of winning the tournament for father-king has increased. This second interpretation would square with the recent research on income distribution in the US, for example.

Juliet Flower MacCannell wrote 20 years ago about the Regime of the Brother. I haven’t fully understood her argument, but the last two decades have seemed more about the re-emergence of a much older regime. The fact that DeLong has to re-explain why law is good for civilisation is a symptom of that re-emergence.

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§ 2 Responses to Back to Oedipus

  • Seamus Hogan says:

    Bill. You refer to “maximising their expected utility in a Rawlsian framework.”

    Hmmm. I have to leap to the defence of our profession here and suggest you meant to say “maximising expected utility in a “Harsanyi-Vickrey framework”? After all:
    1. Harsanyi and Vickrey came up with the veil-of-ignorance idea before Rawls;
    2. their papers explicitly evoked expected utility theory whereas Rawls refused to acknowledge that his maximin principle was a limiting case of expected utility theory; and
    3. the Harsanyi-Vickrey EU models make sense, whereas the discontinuity of maximin is a nonsense.

    • Bill says:

      You give me too much credit — I’m displaying my ignorance. It sounds like I need to add a few things to the reading pile. Thanks for pointing this out.

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