Political theory begins with the ancient Greeks. And with it turns up the hiatus between political ideals and political reality. Entirely neglected by libertarians, there is a spontaneous order of politics and the state. It is this spontaneous order that produces theoretical efforts and the attempts at political attainment in reality that often deviate substantially from one another. Freedom grows in complicated ways.
Freedom in Ancient Greece
The political picture of ancient Greece is confusing.
The city states are formations of astounding compromise. They are the result of associations between formerly separate tribes, clans, kinship groups. In ancient Greece, the element of deliberative democracy appears to stem from the need to arrive at negotiated arrangements among tribes with varying creeds and values.
For the free member, i.e. the citizen of the city state, the most supreme attainment, duty, and privilege is to participate in the common handling of public affairs - (originally to make sure that one's clan or tribe is strongly represented). Bear in mind, this understanding of freedom does not stress the individual's rights, but the need and bliss of finding a station in the community, being part of the community and contributing to it in a way that makes for a strong, like-minded, even harmonious union of the members.
From the point of view of the individual, this creates an awkward tension between empowerment and submission - the participation of the individual is paramount, but not for his own sake in the modern sense of personal freedom, rather in order to create a well-cemented social whole capable of extraordinary martial prowess. Property and family are secondary concerns. Freedom is serving the community, freedom is assuming a role, fitting into the community, so as to preserve its capacity for military strength and concordance.
Mind you, a faint echo of this resonates in the basic idea of liberal consequentialism, where personal freedom is considered instrumental in achieving "the good society." According to consequentialism, we approve of certain liberal precepts because ultimately they ensure the most beneficial consequences for all, i.e. the best we can achieve in terms of an approximately ideal social whole.
Political Reality in Ancient Greece
Be this as it may, the political reality in ancient Greece is very different from the ideal of social harmony.
The desire to implement a democratic system with meaningful grass-roots participation creates democratic processes capable of mind-boggling interference and arbitrariness. Time and again, the tyrannical character of Athenian democracy is so unbearable as to upgrade in the eyes of many even the option of a tyrant in person.
The ancient Greek understands the dangers of the tyranny, and he understands the protective role of democracy, but he has difficulties in fine-tuning the democratic institutions -- perhaps owing to the legacy of unifying large numbers of tribes, all of whom are to be given a voice in the public choir.
"The spirit of the amateur, both for good and ill, is written large upon Athenian political practice." (Sabine, p.15)
The miraculous capabilities that the modern libertarian ascribes to the individual left to his own devices without a political framework are confidently expected by the ancient Greek of the individual once he is part of the political debate, adding his bit to the crowd's "happy versatility."
In Athens, politics and the state are insufficiently integrated in the general division of labour, a drawback painfully felt in the area of law. In the absence of a legal profession and its attendant independent institutions, the law is as fluid and fickle as the fads and strands of a discussion carried out by a changing group of discussants.
It is at this point that I would feel inclined to argue that ancient Greece did not know freedom, certainly not in our contemporary sense. Greece lacked at least one of the robust conditions of freedom - the rule of law.
The Epistemic Revolution of Ancient Greece - Birth of a Critical Demos
At any rate, with everyone given a voice, the genie is out of the bottle. For the most significant ancient Greek contribution to the growth of thoughts and institutions relating to freedom is the indelible
belief in discussion as the best means to frame public measures and to carry them into effect - this faith that a wise measure or a good institution could bear the examination of many minds - that made the Athenian the creator of political philosophy.
never believed that the customary code was binding merely because it was ancient. He preferred to see in custom the presumption of an underlying principle that would bear rational criticism and be the clearer and more intelligible for it.
[Of the greatest import for Europe's future history is the passionate] Greek faith that government rests in the last resort upon conviction and not on force, and that its institutions exist to convince and not to coerce. Government is no mystery reserved for the Zeus-born noble. The citizen`s freedom depends upon the fact that he has a rational capacity to convince and to be convinced in free and untrammelled intercourse with his fellows.
(A History of Political Theory, G.H. Sabine, 1961, pp 17-18)
Thus, in ancient Greece, an indispensable element of freedom as method is born, only to be preserved in the tradition of the critical method which prevails precariously through darker ages and finally reappears and converges in the relentless doubt characteristic of modern science.
What lends to political reality in ancient Greece an unbalanced quality is that one element of freedom - the ability to challenge everything - is insufficiently channelled by another one - the stability of law and the restraint of governmental interference and arbitrariness.
However, we record a moment in the evolution of freedom when a political experiment gives rise to a new concept of the public, one that will take a long time to mature - a public that consists of all citizens empowered to apply their critical faculties to the task of defining the subject matters of public affairs and how to handle them.
This is one decisive condition in the emancipation of the individual, which is precluded if you bar some of us from political participation. Gradually, when further conditions of liberty come to fruition, the emancipated individual lifts man's natural talents to a new level, where everyone is allowed to become a resource provider for himself and for others to the fullest possible extent.
For more on this last aspect see my Summing Up the Universe - Sir Karl Popper's Three Worlds.