Best of a Bad Bunch? Given That It Failed in Both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, Is Democracy Really the Best Available System for the Governance of Modern Societies?

Geographical, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Best of a Bad Bunch? Given That It Failed in Both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, Is Democracy Really the Best Available System for the Governance of Modern Societies?


Democracy was never intended to rule nations. At its first appearance, in the city-state of Athens in 507 BC, the term was often applied pejoratively by aristocratic critics expressing their disdain for the common people--the demos--who had usurped their stranglehold on power.

At that time, Greece wasn't a single political entity, but a collection of cities scattered around the Mediterranean and Black seas "like frogs around a pond", as Plato once put it. The system's success saw it spread widely, and soon there were hundreds of Greek democracies. But following a series of wars, its influence began to wane, and by the end of the fourth century BC, the experiment was all but over.

The Roman Republic was the first democratic superpower. Rome applied the system--which had previously only been used in states small enough to permit a single, central assembly open to all citizens--to a territory that straddled the known world. The republic lasted longer than any modern democracy has existed, but fell, in 44 BC, to its own ruler-turned-tyrant. Democracy then disappeared for 1,000 years.

Can this ancient form of governance, which failed not once, but twice, truly be the best solution for modern societies? "Might not we, like the Romans," asks Yale University professor Robert Dahl in On Democracy, "be insufficiently creative in reshaping our political institutions?"

Democracy and the process of democratisation face serious obstacles in the modern world. Possibly the gravest is the tension between democracy and that second pillar of the 'developed' nation state, market capitalism. As Dahl puts it: "Citizens who are economically unequal are unlikely to be politically equal. Consequently there is a permanent tension between democracy and a market-capitalist economy."

The relationship between democracy and economic performance is currently a hot topic. According to one commonly held assumption, only rich countries can become successful democracies. Fareed Zakaria even proposes an annual income threshold--US$5,000 per capita (World Bank figures show the global average is US$5,500)--below which a state is unlikely to become a functioning democracy.

However, the current development policy of the USA and supranational financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is in conflict with the US government's agenda of promoting global democracy. Speaking at the Open Society Institute in New York earlier this year, the institute's director, Morton Halperin, said that, as a condition of receiving aid, some countries are pressured into making changes that are harmful to the development of democratic government. Furthermore, needy countries that are already democratic are less likely to receive aid--a disincentive to pro-democracy reform in transitional nation-states.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, long-established democracies face a fragmentation of authority, as the march of civil society produces 'too much of a good thing'. Zakaria labels the mushrooming of lobbyists and special-interest groups in US public life as "dysfunctional". Others criticise the increasing use of referendums, arguably the purest modern expression of the democratic ideal. Detractors argue that referendums preclude negotiation, exclude minorities and discourage debate on difficult issues. …

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