|The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
foster greater economic choice and
Histories of ideas
Several current history books indicate how yesterday's radical notions become today's mainstream ones
LIBERTY BEFORE LIBERALISM. By Quentin Skinner. Cambridge University Press; 152 pages; $34.95 and L 19.95
THIS expanded version of Quentin Skinner's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University tells the story of the idea of liberty before the rise of the modern belief, most eloquently expressed by Isaiah Berlin, that liberty essentially means that "I am not prevented by other persons from doing what I want."
The older theory of liberty, which Mr Skinner dubs "the neo-Roman theory" on the grounds that it was based on classical texts and Roman law, took as its theme the relationship between the freedom of subjects and the powers of the state. Neo-Romanists, who gained prominence in the course of the English revolution of the mid-17th century, saw the state as an artificial person, which derives its authority from the will of the people rather than the person of the monarch.
Mr Skinner is engaged in an intervention in contemporary political debate, not just an exercise in antiquarianism. "The state has a duty not merely to liberate its citizens from . . . personal exploitation", he argues, "but to prevent its own agents . . . from behaving arbitrarily in the course of imposing the rules that govern our common life."
THE ATHENIAN REVOLUTION. By Josiah Ober. Princeton University Press; 224 pages; $29.95. John Wiley; L 23.95
IN THIS collection of seminal essays written over the past decade and now conveniently gathered together, Josiah Ober, a professor of ancient history at Princeton University, traces the origins of the idea of "people power" to a revolutionary uprising by the ordinary citizens of Athens in 508-507 BC.
The extraordinary thing about Athenian democracy, Mr Ober argues, is that it was the "real thing". Power was exercised by ordinary male Athenians, acting through the Assembly, which routinely attracted 6,000-8,000 participants, and by the people's courts, which met on most days of the year.The majority of government officials were chosen by lot; a fewóincluding the generalsówere elected to renewable annual terms of office.
Mr Ober examines the consequences of direct democracy for both upper- and lower-class citizens, for dissident Athenian intellectuals, and for those who were denied citizenship under the new regime: women, slaves and resident foreigners. He traces the impact of the democratic revolution not just on political life, but on international relations and military affairs, too. And he reminds his readers that Greek thinking on democracy was at once strikingly modern and wholly alien.
The democratic revolution generated a new conception of justice that has parallels to contemporary theories of rights. But the Athenians cheerfully excluded whole categories of people from the "demos". Ancient Athens may be the fountainhead of modern democratic thinking, but Mr Ober shows it is a much stranger fountainhead than most of its modern admirers imagine.
AMERICA IN BLACK AND WHITE. ONE NATION, INDIVISIBLE. By Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. Simon & Schuster; 704 pages; $32.50
IN 1944 Gunnar Myrdal argued that the problem of race is the defining "American dilemma". In this courageous book, a husband and wife, Stephan Thernstrom of Harvard University and Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute, return to the American dilemma more than half a century later and find the landscape utterly transformed.
The Thernstroms set the scene with a horrific portrait of apartheid in America before the second world war. But they argue that racial segregation, with its separate drinking fountains and restricted franchises, began to crumble long before the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s and the affirmative-action policies of the 1980s. Indeed, they claim that the pace of integration was faster in the period from 1945 to 1970 than it has been since, and was brought about by economic and demographic shifts, and a slow but relentless revolution in whites' racial attitudes.
Their message is a fundamentally libertarian one: opportunities are created and barriers removed by free choice rather than bureaucratic dictat. But they introduce a note of warning: current policies of "positive discrimination" threaten to reverse decades of progress. Such policies, they contend, do not just imply that blacks can succeed only if they are given preferential treatment; they have also restored racial classifications into the heart of American government. Forty-four years after Gunnar Myrdal's book, one of the first things that bleary-eyed new parents have to do is fill out a form classifying their offspring by race.
RUSSIA: PEOPLE AND EMPIRE. By Geoffrey Hosking. Harvard University Press; 368 pages; $29.95. HarperCollins; L 9.99
THE rebirth of Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Empire has left the country's citizens with a perplexing question: what does it mean to be a Russian? Mr Hosking, a professor of Russian history at the University of London, argues that they will have huge problems in coming up with an answer because their sense of national identity has always been bound up with their imperial pretensions.
Russia was born in the 16th century with the creation of one of the most extensive and diverse empires in history. But the sheer effort of subduing, defending and administering such a huge mixture of territories and peoples exhausted the country's productive powers and enfeebled its civic institutions. The demands of empire distracted attention from policies that could have narrowed the growing divisions between the social classes. And both the church and the state repeatedly failed to summon up an image of "Russianness" that could have united the elites and masses together in a common sense of nationhood.
The idea of "rebranding" nations has become fashionable of late. Mr Hosking's shows that the country that is in most need of such an exercise has, thanks to its stunted history, the least chance of concocting a successful formula.
© 1994 The Economist
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