Athens 2.0

By Glastris, Paul | The Washington Monthly, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Athens 2.0


Glastris, Paul, The Washington Monthly


When the Founding Fathers were designing the American system of government, they carefully studied previous models, especially the democracies of ancient Greece. They came away determined not to copy a key Greek idea: the direct, participatory democracy that held sway in Athens between roughly 500 and 300 BC. Such democracy, they judged, led to fractiousness and instability, with amateur assemblies making unsound decisions based on the manipulative sophistry of honey-tongued orators. And so instead of Athenian-style participatory democracy, the American Founders crafted a representative one in which the direct role of the citizen in government affairs was minimal.

The Founders, however, may have had their facts wrong. In his new book, Democracy and Knowledge, Stanford classicist Josiah Ober draws on a plethora of recent scholarship to show that ancient Athens was not the chaotic and fragile polity the Founders envisioned. Rather, for 200 years, it outperformed all other Greek city-states, including authoritarian archrival Sparta, by almost every measure archeologists have devised--estimates of household wealth, number of public buildings, mentions of the city in extant Greek literature, distribution of coinage. Even after the fall of its military empire in the Peloponnesian Wars, Athens retained its commercial and cultural supremacy. This most flourishing of city-states was also among the most hyper-democratic. And that, Ober argues, was not a coincidence.

It's well known that laws in ancient Athens were passed by votes in the public assembly at which any citizen (males only) could participate. But the group that set the agenda for the assembly, called the Council of 500, was itself radically democratic. It consisted of representatives of neighborhoods and villages throughout Attica, chosen for one-year terms not through elections but by lot. Hence its members tended not to be elites or charismatic individuals but normal, random Athenians. It was as if Nancy Pelosi's job were done by a large focus group.

Ober argues that the democratic nature of the council served not just to transmit the broader public's preferences, but to aggregate its on-the-ground knowledge. The fisherman brought with him knowledge of wind patterns; the farmer, a sense of coming crop yields; the urban craftsman, familiarity with industrial production. Most citizens wound up serving at least once on the council, and on the smaller administrative boards that carried out the assembly's decrees. So when they cast votes in the assembly, they did so with personal knowledge of bow government worked. Athenian democracy was thus a vast "learning machine," says Ober, capable of flushing out relevant facts and adapting itself quickly to changing circumstances. …

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