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Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Lessons for Jersey from Athens, Sparta & Soviet Union

The two great city states of Ancient Greece embody a philosophical battle which is waged in all modern constitutions. The battle between state control and personal freedom.
Spartan warriors were soon outclassed.
The system collapsed unable to adapt to the new reality
For a brief period in time these two city states were the 'super-powers' of the world. Today Sparta is a rural village which is home to goat herds and little else whilst Athens, birthplace of everything we consider to be civilisation, flourishes still.

The battle between these two constitutional philosophies is the Libertarian/Authoritarian political cleavage, one of the cleavages which divides all societies, the Individual against the State.

Like Sparta all states which are overly restrictive of individual freedoms, which are unable to adapt to new situations, which seek to prevent inevitable change are doomed to fail, despite a brief period of glory.

Sparta was unique in Ancient Greece in that it held fellow Greeks, the helots, as slaves who provided all that was needed to have a standing army of citizens. Sparta rose to dominate the peninsula and even sacked Athens, but Athenian flexibility and ingenuity meant that Athens was simply abandoned for a while until the Spartans left.

Sparta's constitution was so full of unique checks and balances, such as having two kings, neither of whom could rule even if they agreed between themselves without the blessings of the 'ephors', the elders. It was easy to lose the right of citizenship in Sparta for any number of acts. The system was rigid and brutal and over time the numbers of citizens waned.

The problem lay in the inability of Sparta to adapt. So as other states around them developed; Thebes and Corinth matched them militarily and soon after the dangerous idea of liberty reached the Helots from the other Greeks, they rebelled, the system collapsed in on itself as the army could not contain the rebellion and was unable to provide the basic necessities for life.

Athens by comparison operated a system of direct democracy, decisions were made by public ballot and at every crisis the right leader arose at the right time and by embracing new ideas, by remaining adaptable it is Athens that has the pre-eminent place in history, that is recognised as the birthplace of Western civilisation.

A modern comparison can be drawn between Sparta and the Soviet Union; a centrally planned economy, over bureaucratised and very expensive featuring duplication of government by civil servant and their equivalent within the party meant that eventually the basic necessities of life could not be supplied to the people. The government spent itself out of existence. As soon as the system tried to make the necessary reforms it collapsed.

Jersey has a very Spartan constitution, it also has a very high level of government spending compared to other European nations once the debt interest, defence, foreign affairs and other expenditure which do not apply to the crown dependency are removed from the calculation. For the United Kingdom the net expenditure amounts to around £14,000 per household, in Jersey the figure is around £22,000 per household.

I reject the argument that we can effectively compare our economy to any actual country, we are not the same and we should not try to be. That includes comparisons on government spending which we should be willing to accept. In any case you name a government in Europe that is not in debt and in deficit. Just because they are willing to jump over the cliff, I fail to see why Jersey should follow.

Jersey does not of course depend on 'helots' for its basic necessities but the finance industry. Through a combination of unnecessary over-regulation which increases the cost of doing business and the shaky foundations of most of the world's banks, the basic necessities may no longer be able to be provided. The economic future looks uncertain and perhaps with enough of the inevitable tax rises that will follow the 'helots' in Jersey will revolt.

However at the recent election the vote was strictly for business as usual. Sir Phillip Bailhache is a noted opponent of any change to the institutions of Jersey. Looking at the lessons of history the choice is either to resist change and fail (as per Sparta) or to try to initiate limited change only to have the decision taken out of the hands of the government (as per the Soviet Union). Either way it would seem likely that the next three years will see Jersey dragged unwillingly into the new world.

The best course, the course of Athens, is the one that will not be taken. To embrace the inevitable change, to look for fresh ideas from the people, to adapt to the new reality and stake a place in the new order as early as possible.