Don’t Destroy America's Best
The best people in our society are the producers, who create material values and offer them to us in voluntary trade, yet throughout history, it is these very men and women who have come under attack.
By Dr. John Lewis, PhD.
In Judge Jackson's recently released "findings of fact," in which he declared Microsoft to be a dangerous monopoly, one fact was undisputed: the defendant is extraordinarily successful. This success is often described in terms of “market share,” which is a measurement of millions of individual judgments by software users that Microsoft is the best choice for them. Given that this success is the very reason why Microsoft was declared to be dangerous, the conclusion is inescapable: Microsoft is being punished for being the best.
Sadly, history offers many examples of the power of the state turned against a culture’s best—including many telling examples from my own field of study: Ancient Greece.
Consider the case of Themistokles, a great Athenian statesman. In 490 BC, Athens repulsed an invasion from Persia. In the next decade, rich deposits of silver were discovered in Greece, and the Athenian Assembly wanted to divide the loot among themselves. Themistokles, however, realized that the return of the Persians was imminent and persuaded the Athenians to use the money to build a navy with which to defend themselves. With this fleet, and with Themistokles as one of its commanders, the Greeks defeated the Persians a second time. Themistokles and his plan saved Athens.
What was his reward, in the next decade? Ostracism: banishment from the city by vote of the assembly. Accused by his enemies of being a threat to Athens and convicted under rigged voting, he fled his home, ending up in Persia and, by some accounts, dying from poisoning.
Themistokles was not an isolated case. Miltiades, a general at the first battle against Persia, was hauled into court—while still unable to stand due to injuries—and given a crushing fine. Cimon, who beat the Persians in battle on their own soil, was ostracized; he was recalled only when his vital services were needed again. Personal attacks on Perikles—the leader of Athens during the height of its achievements—largely targeted his friends, including some of the greatest minds of the time: the philosopher Anaxagoras and the sculptor Phidias. The historian Thucydides was exiled for losing a battle—but winning was no defense: six generals who won a crucial battle were executed after an illegal trial. And the century ended with the death of Socrates, the first great philosopher; condemned, he drank hemlock rather than go into exile.
The danger that accompanied a position of responsibility was so great that a general in Athens’ war with Sparta refused to end a disastrous military campaign because he was afraid of what the Assembly would do to him if they disapproved. The result was Athens’ worst military defeat and the eventual loss of the war.
As Aristotle would later observe, the democratic Assembly, unconstrained by the rule of law, had become a tyrant.
The achievement of great wealth or popularity made the Athenian a target of demands for services to the city, special taxes, prosecutions, fines, or worse. Great men had to think carefully before achieving prominence, and they had to be prepared to use the political arena to defend themselves.
In America today, the situation is similar: to produce great wealth, or to earn the popularity of a large market share, is to become a target of antitrust prosecution, fines, petty lawsuits, irrational jury awards, the forcible destruction of one’s business, or even jail. If a businessman is successful, he is forced to hire teams of lawyers for defense against publicly funded bureaucrats, who may attack at any time without fear of consequences. At least the Greeks held the prosecutors open to counter-suits!
In the Greek city, prominence was achieved by the statesmen, who directed the affairs of government. The best people in our society are the producers, who create material values and offer them to us in voluntary trade. But the method used in Ancient Greece was, in essence, the same as today. The power of the state, given over to struggles for influence, was used to destroy personal enemies by force or by the threat of force. The motivations are also familiar: envy, fear, hope of loot, lust for prestige; in other words, the desire to achieve some short-range advantage at the expense of long-range consequences. The target, too, was the same: those men who were the most prominent and valuable were in the greatest danger, to the extent of their prominence and their value.
The result, in Ancient Greece, was paralysis and destruction. The Athenians paid the final price by losing their freedom some 150 years after men like Themistokles had earned it for them. Such is the inevitable result, when the state becomes the destroyer instead of the protector of its best citizens.
We must learn from the errors of the Ancient Greeks. To use the coercive power of the government to destroy our best is a grave injustice—with equally grave consequences.
John Lewis is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism. Lewis spent 23 years at various technical, engineering and management levels in the fields of industrial controls and digital building systems. He returned to college part time in 1990 and earned his PhD at Cambridge University in England, writing his dissertation on ancient Greek political thought.
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