Although over two millennia apart, the political tactics of democratic presidential candidate front-runners Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders mirror those of Solon in ancient Greece. In both instances, however, the seemingly beneficial act of debt forgiveness among their people could end up hindering its recipients more than it helps.
In the case of Solon’s rise to power, his appointment to office ended a longstanding monopoly of aristocratic Greek rulers. When ruling in Athens, Solon introduced many unique programs, one of which canceled all public and private debts of the people. While this may have seemed an innovative idea to help the poor, it unintentionally created widespread strife between various social classes. Furthermore, Solon’s deposition also outlawed debt slavery as a form of payment. Rich and poor alike suffered from this declaration because of a decrease in wealthy individuals’ willingness to lend money and help the poor with no form of guarantee for their payments. Where previously the poor were able to bargain their lives to pay off debts, many now found themselves without a way to earn the money they needed. Ancient Greek culture was embedded with the ideas of debt slavery, as Hammurabi stated “If a man has contracted a debt… three years they shall serve in the house of their purchaser or bondmaster” (Hammurabi Code, 117). While the principle of outlawing debt slavery seems empowering, it consequently lead to an inability of the poor to find work. What seemed liberating ended up hurting the people of Greece regardless of their socioeconomic status.
Similarly to Solon’s quick climb to his position of authority, both Warren and Sanders hope to overturn a powerful entity that currently holds the presidency in the United States. While the support from his patrons can be split at times, President Trump represents a stark contrast to the ideas of his opposition. In the same way, Solon was a fresh start for the people of Greece from the previous incumbents. Warren and Sanders both present the idea of student loan debt forgiveness, similar to the debt forgiveness of Solon. In these ways the democratic candidates mirror the ideas present in 600 BC. Both initially sound positive by redistributing wealth and helping the poor, but in the long-run could cause problems with disgruntled patrons on both the wealthy and underprivileged sides of the discussion. Debt forgiveness could cause a lack of efficiency in the economy, as seen in a drop in productivity after Solon’s seisachtheia. Entitled students may become disincentivized to work hard at receiving a quality education and get hired into a substantial job if they know their debt will be forgiven without consequence. Similarly, top universities have less motivation to provide a world-class education to students if they know they may not receive all their money back. This will create a lack of resources and a decreased quality of schooling.
While Solon and the democratic candidates are active in politics at completely different times in history, the lessons learned from Solon can help predict the impact of debt forgiveness. Although the idea of alleviating student debt may seem like a short-term solution to burdened students, the long-lasting effects may cause more damage than help.
3/C Matt Benedettini