Athenian Democracy

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).

4 Responses to Athenian Democracy

  1. CC August 1, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    I think this post is very interesting, especially this question: If 100 randomly selected people suddenly became the ‘new’ Senate would they behave differently than the ‘old’ Senate? Three issues that numerous scholars in American politics have raised came to my mind in regard to this question. First, the rules of the Senate (particularly the filibuster) have a powerful influence on decision-making and outcomes. To what extent would the rules of the institution turn this ‘new’ Senate into a body that behaves nearly identically to the ‘old’ Senate? Second, the goal of reelection also exerts a powerful influence on the behavior of members of Congress. While it sounds like the members of the Athenian Council of 500 were not elected (and therefore not running for reelection), I imagine there was still some pressure to protect certain interests within their community. Would this kind of pressure not also push the ‘new’ Senate toward outcomes similar to those of the ‘old’ Senate? Third, the various benefits derived from political parties shape the behavior of member of Congress. Would the behavior of members of the ‘new’ Senate not be similarly influenced by political parties as the ‘old’ Senate? I think these three structural forces (rules, reelection, and political parties) would exert a powerful influence on the ‘new’ Senate, and that despite how diverse it would be, the outcomes of the ‘new’ Senate would likely come to closely mirror those of the ‘old’ Senate. As long as the ‘game’ of the Senate remains constituted as it is today, there are only certain outcomes that are possible, regardless of who the players are. But, in order to not end on a totally pessimistic note, one way that the ‘new’ Senate might break from the ‘old’ Senate and engage in different (better?) decision-making/outcomes is that the ‘new’ Senate would be (might be?) free of the norms of the ‘old’ Senate. Whether losing these norms would be beneficial is uncertain, especially since we don’t know what new norms would arise. Anyway, my point is just a elementary one–it is not simply the people that matter. We need not only a more diverse group of people making the decisions, but a new context for their decision-making. We need to look to structure and agency. Unfortunately, there seem to be a number of powerful incentives to maintain the current context.

  2. Alex Birch August 2, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    That’s a pretty lousy idea, considering merits guide good decisions and not diversity of opinion. One of the reasons democracy doesn’t work and why we’re consequently moving toward totalitarian empire rule.

  3. Roger Masters August 3, 2009 at 9:27 pm #

    If one seeks to assess ancient regimes and their relevance to the U.S., it’s important consider the comparison of Athens (which became Hegemon in Greece during the Persian Wars, but lost its dominance after the defeat by Alexander the Great) with Rome (which dominated the Italian peninsula, and then became a Mediterranean Hegemon). The criterion to be used for relevance to the U.S. is HEGEMONY since, like it or not, we are a global hegemon (or if you prefer, ‘Superpower’). Rome succeeded more fully than Athens (witness not only Roman law, but even Roman roads still used in some parts of Southern France and elsewhere). The key: immigration. Athens kept foreign immigrants from becoming citizens. Rome took a different path. When Julius Caesar, as General of the Armies, was given the task of protecting the Northern frontier of Roman power from Goths, Visigoths, and Huns, he realized he didn’t have enough troops for what we today call the “anti-insurgency” warfare. He recommended and the Senate voted a law requiring illegal immigrant males (of which there were thousands in Rome) or legal ones to spend several years in the army. The result was the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. Was this a failure? Consider the longevity of the Empire and its effect, namely the traditions that are the foundation of Western political culture. That is, REPUBLICAN traditions extended beyond the polis. What we call ‘democracy’ is in ancient terms a Republic, as our founders insisted.
    I believe political scientists should reflect on the irony of focusing solely on Athens (which is irreplaceable as the source of what we consider social science, namely Socratic wisdom and the focus on a hypothetical structure theory and its confirmation). Though for social science, Athens did indeed leave the essential tradition, for political life, I would suggest Rome is probably more important (as it was for Machiavelli). In practical terms, I suggest we would do well to imitate the policy Julius Caesar proposed as a response to illegal immigration. Since boats can ferry immigrants (avoiding any defense of the Rio Grande border), even a mile high wall 3 years wide wouldn’t staunch the immigration flow of hispanics.

    Roger Masters, Aug. 3, 2009

  4. Joel August 3, 2009 at 9:48 pm #

    This post is an excellent example of one key benefit of this blog: that being the opportunity to put different (sub)fields into conversation with each other.

    In fact, the possibility of random selection in modern politics is not a new idea, nor is the mention of diversity as being amongst its benefits. There are quite a few very specific proposals akin to Glastris’s out there from reformers and journalists alike in several countries, and the subject has been treated at length by senior scholars (Jon Elster, among several others). It has also been the subject of at least four dissertations in the past decade (mine being the fourth of which I am aware).

    Reactions run the gamut, as the above two comments suggest.