Athenian Democracy

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2009 · 4 comments

in Political Theory

Paul Glastris’ editorial for the Washington Monthly this month is about Josh Ober’s recent book (which I’m reading at the moment) on the cognitive benefits of Athenian democracy.

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. …

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.

Paul goes on to make an argument about how new technologies can replicate some of these benefits (which I’m a little skeptical about). But Ober’s account does make for an interesting thought experiment, given current policy debates. What if the US Senate was suddenly replaced by 100 randomly chosen American citizens on the Athenian model? Would this increase diversity in experience, and hence improve the ability to make good decisions ? It might well – while one could argue that Senators are more likely to be intelligent than the average American (your call as to whether this argument is actually true), Scott Page’s theoretical results suggest that diversity will typically trump smarts in improving decision making. One plausible outcome would be that the Senators would be considerably more sensitive than they are at the moment to the interests of poor people. I don’t have figures for the number of millionaires in the current Senate, but it used to be around 40% – this may help explain, for example, Bartel’s findings that senators are unresponsive to the interests of the lower third of the income distribution. But that’s not all. How would the cognitive aspects of lawmaking differ if a majority of senators weren’t trained lawyers? Or men? Or if the racial make-up of the Senate were roughly proportional to the US as a whole? NB that Ober and Page’s approach implies that we can’t answer these questions with standard survey data (their argument is that the benefits of intellectual exchange between people with different perspectives are heuristic and cumulative).

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