David Brooks has long championed the “great books” in his role as a public intellectual. To be sure, in an era in which some have dismissed this tradition as old-fashioned, outdated, irrelevant, or even dangerous to the politics of the moment, I want, as a scholar largely of these “great books,” to praise him for his frequent attention, in particular, to the wisdom to be found in the Ancient world of, for example, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch. To publicly celebrate these authors of enormous philosophical, literary, and historical interest takes, perhaps, some courage these days, and I have long been grateful to him for using his platform to remind his broad audience of what can be learned from taking them seriously.
Yet in his column published in the New York Times on January 16, entitled “The Bernie Sanders Fallacy,” echoing similar pieces in the past, I had hoped that he would have consulted them for wisdom again. In it he argues that despite the rapid growth of economic inequality in the United States, this inequality is not the problem that Bernie Sanders and others suggest it is. For Brooks,
Today’s successful bosses are doing what they should be doing: increasing productivity, growing their businesses and offering great service. A side effect of their efficiency is they spend a smaller share of their revenue on labor even while raising their workers’ wages. In a global information-age economy, the rewards for being best are huge.
On his understanding the rapid accumulation of wealth at the top of the American economic spectrum is to be counted as affirmation of what works well in this country. If there is an inequality to be lamented here, he acknowledges, it is an inequality of productivity — that some companies are more productive than others, which provides greater benefits to the former. But his most emphatic conclusion is to deny that the larger economic inequality between American citizens is not fundamentally problematic. As he argues, “Democrats are doing this [drawing attention to the growing economic divide] even though the Sanders class-war story is wrong.”
In thinking through the issues Brooks raises in this recent column, I find it useful to probe the thought of some of the very authors he uses to think through other problems so thoughtfully. I have elsewhere addressed what Plato has said about economic inequality, so I will draw attention to two others here of more recent interest in his columns, books, and speeches: Thucydides and Plutarch. Indeed, of the former, Brooks cites his History of the Peloponnesian War as one of the “really good books,” and he even chides H. R. McMaster for not knowing it better. Indeed, it is a really good book, maybe even great, but it is also one that might complicate Brooks’ own thinking about inequality and class war.
While in his published thoughts on Thucydides Brooks draws attention to how “Thucydides shows us how to live a life of civilized ambition, in which individual achievement is fused with patriotic service,” he might also profitably consider what Thucydides has to say about economic inequality and class war. The Athenian is not concerned, we might say, with the “productivity gap.” Rather, in describing Athens’s near-disaster in the Mytilenean affair, he presents the influential speech of Diodotus, in which the obscure Athenian pleads that the very source of the civil disturbances in Mytilene is economic inequality and the class warfare it breeds: “Poverty compels the poor to be daring, while the powerful are led by pride and arrogance into taking more than their share.” The poor steal because they must; the rich steal because they can. And it is the underlying inequality, for Diodotus, that makes crime, pride, and arrogance happen.
Thucydides revisits the same theme shortly thereafter in his description of the remarkably violent civil war in Corcyra. The merciless war takes place between the city’s rich and the poor — the oligarchs and the democrats. As the celebrated Athenian historian recounts, “the Corcyrean democrats killed all the opposing faction [the oligarchs] they could lay hands on.” And Thucydides reminds us, the gap between the rich and poor was expressly on their minds: “some were killed by their debtors for the money they had lent them.” As the accomplished scholar of classical political thought, Ryan K. Balot has established, Thucydides was actually drawing attention in his history to some of the ancient world’s biggest problems: “greed, mistrust, narrow self-interest, and vicious leadership.” This was very much a class war in Corcyra, as anyone in the Ancient Greek world would have confirmed. Class war was a regular problem in this world, and it would ultimately consume Athens in a series of class-based civil wars in the final years of the Peloponnesian War, sealing its fate as the loser of its long war with Sparta.
Thucydides was a historian, however, and not expressly a moralist. Indeed, many of his readers note his own reservations about democratic institutions, vulnerable as they can be to what Alexander Hamilton would subsequently call the “wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.” So in raising the specters of inequality and class warfare, Thucydides does not prescribe a solution.
The first readers of Thucydides would know about the dangers of economic inequality from the turmoil of the war’s final years — but not only from Thucydides. Indeed, if another of David Brooks’s favorite books, Plutarch’s Lives, is to be trusted as a source, the dangers of economic inequality were central to the very founding of Athenian democracy itself, generations before Thucydides. Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” recounts the life of the great founder of Athenian democracy, Solon, whose services were required at a precarious moment of Athenian history. According to Plutarch,
The Athenians . . . [had fallen] into their old quarrels about the government. . . . The Hill quarter favored democracy, the Plain, oligarchy, and those that lived by the Seaside stood for a mixed sort of government, and so hindered either of the other parties from prevailing. And the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor, at that time, also reached its height; so that the city seemed to be in a truly dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances and settling it to be possible but a despotic power.
Indeed, as Plutarch goes on to describe, there was an enormous debt crisis, in which wealthy Athenian creditors were confiscating the poor’s very freedom as collateral, and even the freedom of their children, happily converting their debtors into their slaves. This is what happens, Plutarch suggests, when inequality gets out of hand. And to be sure, another of Brooks’ other cited classical repositories of wisdom, Aristotle, would observe in drawing from Greek history, not only does economic inequality lead to destabilizing factions, but so also does “disproportionate [economic] growth” between the classes: “for when the wealthy become more numerous or their properties increase, the governments change to oligarchies and dynasties.”
In Brooks’s speech a few years ago to Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs while a scholar in residence, he asked, “Who would Plutarch Write about Today?” But maybe the more pressing question is, “What would Plutarch write about today?” Given Plutarch’s highlighting of economic inequality in Athens, not to mention a remarkably similar inequality crisis he vividly describes in Sparta, there’s very good reason to believe, in light of the rapid expansion of inequality today, that he would write about the same things today that consumed him in the ancient world. Namely, the dangers inequality poses to peace, stability, and norms of mutual trust.
“I think if Plutarch were alive, he’d want exemplars of things we’d need to recover,” Brooks emphasizes in this speech. Given that Plutarch holds up Solon as an exemplar to the Romans in his times, the natural question for readers today is, “What is Solon’s example to us in our context of extreme inequality?” Solon’s solution, it turns out, was to issue something he called the Seisacthea, or remittance of debts. He freed every Athenian from the crippling debt that threatened to bring the whole city down in a violent civil war. He didn’t dismiss the poor’s concerns as “politicizing” the economic divide, or as fomenting class war. The class war was already there. But the grand gesture of forgiving debt was a way of acknowledging the reality of that condition and addressing it in a way that would secure Athens’s long-term civic health. And what followed were generations of the most celebrated democracy of the Ancient Western world. Perhaps to Brooks’ great surprise, thus, it seems that the plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to eliminate college debt are far closer to engaging the wisdom of the past than would be attention to the “productivity gap.” And that’s a lesson from the past worth pondering.
David Lay Williams is Professor of Political Science at DePaul University and author of Rousseau’s Platonic Enlightenment and Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’: An Introduction. He is presently writing a book on economic inequality in the history of political thought for Princeton University Press.