For a time in ancient Greece, citizens could vote once a year on whether they wished to banish a person from Athens for ten years. If a sufficient number of people voted, the person receiving the most votes had to leave the city within ten days and stay away on punishment of death. Being so expelled was referred to as "ostracism."
This was no criminal process, and the individual need have committed no wrong. The practice seems to have been intended as a safety valve to protect Athenian democracy itself. A person who became too powerful, or was too disruptive to society, or whom enough other citizens simply took a deep dislike to for whatever reason, could be preemptively removed from society for a time. After the ten-year period elapsed, they could return without penalty, presumably having learned their lesson.
The Athenians expelled politicians and military leaders who expressed tyrant-like tendencies, as well as individuals who became so wealthy, arrogant, or influential that others resented them.
I simply love the idea of temporary banishment. If you want to preserve harmony in society, while still maintaining democratic values, what better way than periodically reminding people that their behavior has consequences? A person would have to be truly divisive to arouse the ire of a majority of citizens.
We're surrounded by plenty of annoying, arrogant, and divisive people. But the beauty of the annual banishment is the winner would have angered us more than any other person in the country. Sure, Justin Bieber and Mark Zuckerberg are insufferable, as are most of the people who hang about in Hollywood, and virtually all of our politicians. But if we had to pick just one person to expel for a time, whom would you pick?
The idea is purely hypothetical, of course. There is no legal basis to support even temporary banishment for non-crimes. But play along with me and ask yourself who you'd put on your short list and why.
- Half of the citizens in every county would pick their current leader. The other half would pick the leader of the opposition party. This knee-jerk reflex, however, would probably not play out well in practice. If we booted Joe Biden, we'd see Kamala Harris installed as President. As bad as Mr. Biden is perceived to be performing, it's hard to see Ms. Harris representing a step up. (New York's experience in ousting Governor Andrew Cuomo and getting Kathy Hochul in exchange provides a real-world object lesson in the principle.)
- At least as regards politicians, I think we can do better. Much more fun would be to open up the contest to global voting. We could set aside villas on the Isle of Elba for the lucky winners. Kim Jong Il is a tyrant by anyone's definition, but would we waste a vote on him when there are such more impactful candidates to consider? For example, would a majority today vote first for Vladimir Putin? Or would the world express its reflexive disgust at Donald Trump and send him into a Twitterless exile? Surely in terms of concentrated power in the hands of a single ruler, along with the systems and will to carry out his wishes, Xi Jinping is the most dangerous person alive today.
- If we were like the Athenians, I suspect our votes would be less principled. Despite being the greatest philanthropist the world has ever seen, or perhaps exactly because of it, Bill Gates would no doubt receive many votes. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos would be up there just because they have so much money, Elon even more so because of his machinations with Twitter.
- Or you could make a good case for Will Smith, whose slap of Chris Rock at the Acadamy Awards ceremony was seen round the world. Surely that shocking visual now frozen in time symbolizes everything that could go wrong with society if we can't learn to control our destructive impulses. If Mr. Smith's temporary exile helped stop the rot from spreading, let's send him his plane ticket.
The true value in such an annual banishment vote is in the signal it would send to all the others in power. Yes, we'd benefit from each power-mad leader sent to their Tuscan exile. But knowing that they could be judged by the weight of the world's citizens would bring wonderful accountability to the elite. That accountability is almost entirely lacking toady. And how awful to be the one person on the entire planet deemed the most odious. (Although now that I think on it, you know people would try to get on the list just for the infamy. Maybe those villas on Elba shouldn't be too comfortable.)
I say let's bring back the threat of temporary expulsion for people who represent a threat to society. Everyone's criteria for who to choose will differ. The cleansing effect of making people bear some risk for the consequences of their behavior may usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.
This is a week for us to treat with non-traditional ideas. In this week's Moral Letter 091 On The Utility In Catastrophe, we explore another counterintuitive idea. That is, we may gain more from being reminded about the fragility of life than we do in being protected from all harms. We should welcome anything that jolts us out of taking our lives for granted.
We finish with Moral Letter 092 On Life's Necessities, which explores what are the things that are necessary for a happy life. We discuss wealth, health, possessions, and power. You will recognize here many of the things when taken to excess could have led to one's banishment from ancient Athens. Ultimately, we conclude that life's requirements are simpler, and within reach of all.
It is only when you understand how little you need to be happy that you are free to enjoy what you have.... It is rather control over your thoughts that creates the conditions for a happy life. The rest are distractions, as likely to leave you unhappy for lacking them as they are to bring you temporary peace.