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Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens - Why Ancient Athenian Voters Were Not as Ignorant as We Have Been Taught to Think:

Josiah Ober's excellent recent book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens challenges one of the oldest bits of conventional wisdom in political theory: the idea that the direct democracy of ancient Athens was dominated by ignorant voters whose misguided decisions often led the city to disaster. Modern representative democracy, the conventional wisdom claims, is a great improvement in limiting the impact of ignorance. This critique of Athenian democracy certainly isn't new; it dates back to ancient Athenian writers such as Plato and Thucydides. And it influenced scholars and political theorists for thousands of years, including the American Founding Fathers. Even today, most undegraduates get their picture of Athenian democracy from such works as Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, which blames Athens' catastrophic defeat on poor decisions adopted because of voter ignorance.

Ober doesn't completely demolish the conventional wisdom of 2500 years. But he certainly calls it into serious question. I was asked to review the book for the philosophy journal Ethics because of my own work on political ignorance (e.g. here and here). Here is the abstract for my review:

In his excellent book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober argues that ancient Athenian democracy surmounted the dangers of political ignorance and made effective use of dispersed citizen knowledge to forge good public policy. He effectively demonstrates that Athenian democracy was more successful than the oligarchic and tyrannical governments of rival Greek city-states. He also shows how Athenian institutions worked to reduce the dangers of political ignorance.

On the other hand, Ober is less successful in showing that the relatively impressive performance of Athenian democracy should lead us to be optimistic about today's democratic states. Indeed, his account suggests that Athens' success in overcoming political ignorance was in large part the result of two important ways in which it differed from modern democracies: the small size of its electorate and the very narrow range of functions performed by its government.

Ober shows that ancient Athens was relatively successful in dealing with the problem of political ignorance in large part because of the ways in which it differed from modern representative democracy. In today's democracies, voters have strong incentives to remain "rationally ignorant" because there is very little chance that their votes will actually affect the outcome of an election. In ancient Athens, by contrast, there were only a few thousand voters, and, at any given time, some 30 percent of them (according to data I calculated from information in Ober's book) were serving in public office under Athens' system of allocating many government positions by lot (most of these offices were not full-time jobs). This ensured that individual voters had a much greater chance of affecting the outcomes of key decisions, and also that a large number could have an impact on policy in ways that go beyond voting, which further increased the incentive to become well-informed.

In addition, ancient Athenian government had far fewer and less complex functions than the modern state, which reduced the amount of knowledge voters needed to make informed decisions. In striking contrast to the modern world, most Athenian voters actually had direct personal experience with the main functions of government, which put them in a better position to assess its performance. By far the most important activity of Athenian government was the waging of war. Many, if not most, members of the Athenian electorate (which was, of course, limited to adult male citizens) probably had themselves served in the army or navy. Ancient military strategy and tactics were simple enough that common soldiers and sailors could assess the performance of generals more easily than today.

Ober argues that the relative success of ancient Athens should make us more optimistic about the ability of democracy to overcome the problem of voter ignorance today. In my view, such optimism is probably unjustified. To the contrary, Athenian democracy was successful in large part because of advantages that we do not enjoy. However, we might be able to learn from Athens' example. While we should not imitate Athens' policy of strictly limiting the franchise (the majority of the City's population was excluded because they were women, slaves, or resident foreigners) or it selection of key officials by lot, we should consider the possibility that we can reduce the impact of political ignorance by limiting the size, scope, and complexity of government.

In any event, anyone interested in democratic theory, political knowledge, or ancient Athens should read Ober's impressive book.

UPDATE: For a good history of the conventional wisdom on ancient Athenian democracy, see Jennifer Tolbert Roberts' book, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, which traces it from the ancient world to modern times.

UPDATE #2: I should mention that Ober is not, of course, the first writer to defend ancient Athenian democracy against the political ignorance critique. For example, historian Donald Kagan has effectively criticized Thucydides' famous claim that Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War was caused by voter ignorance. However, Ober's book is more through and systematic than previous defenses, and draws on much more extensive evidence.

Careless:

Josiah Ober's excellent recent book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens challenges one of the oldest bits of conventional wisdom in political theory: the idea that the direct democracy of ancient Athens was dominated by an ignorant mob of voters whose misguided decisions ultimately led the city to disaster.

Ok, I've got a minor in history and focused on ancient history in college... This stereotype exists? Where?
7.6.2009 2:32am
Ilya Somin:
This stereotype exists? Where?

In a vast literature going back to Plato and Thucydides. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts' book Athens on Trial provides an extensive summary, if you are interested.
7.6.2009 2:38am
Bob Sykes (mail):
The point is, the so-called Athenian democracy was an oligarchy of rich, well-educated men. If we want the same benefits to our democracy that Athens had, we will have to radically reduce the electorate. In colonial Massachusetts, you had to be a mature white man who owned real estate and was an active member of the church. That might be a good place to start.

Also, if we regard Socrates as the ideal teacher of idle youth, we should make all our college and university professors drink hemlock.
7.6.2009 8:29am
rick.felt:
The point is, the so-called Athenian democracy was an oligarchy of rich, well-educated men.

That's always the impression I had. I didn't think that Athenian democracy was uninformed rule by the rabble. But apparently I was ignorant of the incorrect stereotype that I was supposed to believe!
7.6.2009 9:04am
corneille1640 (mail):

However, we might be able to learn from Athens' example. While we should not imitate Athens' policy of strictly limiting the franchise (the majority of the City's population was excluded because they were women, slaves, or resident foreigners) or it selection of key officials by lot, we should consider the possibility that we can reduce the impact of political ignorance by limiting the size, scope, and complexity of government.

It may (or may not) be wise to limit the size, scope and complexity of government. But it is unclear to me how doing so is learning from Athens' example.
7.6.2009 9:11am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I have previously argued in favor of distributing political office by lot. Our current crop of politicians self-select for those willing and able to cut deals. We would be far better off with more mule headed legislators. If a group composed of people unlikely to get along believes something is worth doing, it's more likely that it actually is worth doing than our current system which rewards action, even ill-considered action.
7.6.2009 9:17am
Frog Leg (mail):
It is not correct to assert that Thucydides "blames Athens' catastrophic defeat on poor decisions adopted because of voter ignorance." The poor decisions were ones argued for by various demagogues, who appealed to the emotions of the Athenian voters. That the voters made decisions based on emotions is not the same as saying that the voters were ignorant. A lot of people make decisions based on emotions, even if they know better. Much the same can be said of Plato; his problem was not specifically voter ignorance, but instead that they made decisions based on their passions rather than logic.
7.6.2009 9:26am
subpatre (mail):
Ilya Somin wrote, ". . . Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, which blames Athens' catastrophic defeat on poor decisions adopted because of voter ignorance."

It was pretty clear to readers in an ancient (1960) ancient history class that Thucydides blames Athenian hubris, which in turn drove Athens to make 'ignorant' and stupidly self-destructive decisions. Perhaps "conventional" wisdom (ie Cliffs) says otherwise, but rereading still points to voter arrogance and the totally unlimited power of the vote.


Seriously, what is wrong with lots? IIRC the Venetians used it. Their lot system reduced corruption and all-but eliminated money in politics, enabling their military effectiveness. Candidates were voted by the citizens to the Greater Council, establishing a pool of those qualified for the higher offices. Then a series of random drawings selected the officeholder 'winners'. The method allowed a city to remain a major world power for almost 500 years; by removing one method of decline.
7.6.2009 9:48am
Talkosaurus:
When evaluating classical history, the more things change the more they stay the same. Just as we have today a tenuous line that connects liberal/progressive spheres and sometimes out and out elitists mindsets, the ancient Greek world featured an intellectual class from democracies that was often transfixed by the ideal of 'proper, noble family rule' (oligarch Government).

Both ancient direct democracies like Athens and oligarchies like Sparta held high and low water-marks. While it's true that Athens system of government often made it difficult to sustain long-term strategies (in the Peloponnesian War) that involved high human cost (especially after the death of Pericles), it's overly simplistic to lay the defeat at the hands of direct democracy. And it also must be noted that Athens quickly rose again to prominence, if never again the same height of power, while Sparta collapsed under the weight of it's own Oligarchic-infused 'Noble Greek' yoke.

Just as in our modern time the intellectual class's often remains split between the longing for a more Utopian social system and the practical success's of capitalism, the ancient world was no less split between the romance of proto-Utopian Governments like Sparta and nascent democracies. This 'bias' flavors classical commentaries no less than our modern universities.
7.6.2009 9:54am
kdonovan:
Like subptare I also think that Venice offers a good example of how drawing by lot and elections were combined (in a very complicated example for Venice) to select office holders. Venice was able to remain a major and power and prosperous merchant city for hundreds of years.

In our own system we have one residue of the selection by lot - juries. These are often seen as a popular check on the power of the state. My understanding is that besides just indicting and passing verdicts in criminal and civil cases some jurisdictions also use investigative juries to look into public policy and recommend changes.
7.6.2009 10:17am
kdonovan:
Bob Sykes writes of "the so-called Athenian democracy was an oligarchy of rich, well-educated men"

My understanding is that Athenian democracy had huge numbers of very poor voters - the 'rowers' did not own any substantial property and since they could not afford hoplite armor served as rowers in the navy. They consisted of tens of thousands of men.
7.6.2009 10:22am
kdonovan:
To say that as a democracy Athens lacked stamina in war is wrong. They fought the Peloponnesian War for three decades.

Further their maritime strategy (initially formulated by Pericles) was quite a departure from traditional Greek strategy and nearly brought the victory on several occasions. The expedition to Sicily may have been unwise but nearly brought them victory at first and with a leader actually committed to the plan might have worked. In any case their long term prosecution of the war seems to have as many high and low points as did that of oligarchic Sparta. Sure there were blunders and hubris on occasion - but was their conduct any worse than those of other states involved in a multi-decade total war?
7.6.2009 10:30am
MarkField (mail):
My understanding is the same as kdonovan's.

Roberts' book (update 1) is excellent. One of the things which always struck me in my political theory classes in college was that until about 1800 or so, the "ideal" Greek state was Sparta, not Athens. We can see the last vestiges of this in Samuel Adams' desire to create in America "a Christian Sparta". Few would say that today.

I'm glad you added update 2 as well. Kagan's book (it's actually 4 volumes, though he recently put out a 1 volume short version) is absolutely terrific. Anyone who reads Thucydides (and that should be everybody) should follow that reading with Kagan.
7.6.2009 10:36am
D.R.M.:

[W]e should not imitate Athens' . . . selection of key officials by lot[.]


Why not?
7.6.2009 10:41am
MarkField (mail):
FYI, Mary Dudziak has posted the abstract of your essay here.
7.6.2009 11:01am
Joe T. Guest:
What this illustrates to me is that the tactic of a politician calling the voters stupid and blaming them for whatever happens is really timeless political strategy. See, e.g. the first two years of any new Administration, in which all problems are obviously the fault of the last Administration, which was foisted on the country by stupid voters, who are now much wiser and more educated...
7.6.2009 11:02am
Dave Roth (mail):

My understanding is that Athenian democracy had huge numbers of very poor voters - the 'rowers' did not own any substantial property and since they could not afford hoplite armor served as rowers in the navy. They consisted of tens of thousands of men.


This is correct, there were large numbers of poor voters. However, it was much more difficult for these citizens to vote regularly, since they were dependent on earning a wage from daily work and thus could not spend the day in the assembly. Similarly, rural voters (particularly less wealthy ones) were disproportionately unlikely to vote because of the time involved in traveling to the city and back (for some parts of Attica, the trip would've been more than 25 miles each way).

Thus on important matters, the rural voters and urban poor had pretty high turn out, but on day-to-day issues probably much less so. On those issues, the voters fell into two groups: the wealthy who could afford to spend the day debating in the assembly, and poor citizens who had been paid by their wealthier patrons to go to the assembly and vote in a particular way.

Or at least that's my understanding.
7.6.2009 11:37am
Pro Natura (mail):
In writing his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides chose his dates very carefully so as to construct a narrative that reads like a Greek tragedy. Thucydides was a supporter of the aristocratic faction in Athens and his theme was that democratic excess in Athens was defeated by the traditional aristocratic government of Sparta.

The actuality is more complex. Only by allying with Persia, the traditional enemy of all the Greeks, did Sparta eventually obtain an immediate advantage that was sufficient to impose a pro-Spartan oligarchy on Athens.

But, as always, city-state warfare in Greece remained a see-saw affair. Within a few years the Athenians overthrew and exiled the oligarchs, restored democracy, created new alliances, and won back the major part of their empire in the Corinthian Wars.

Of course, like Thucydides, albeit far less artfully, I've created a narrative to support a different view of events.
7.6.2009 12:16pm
CarLitGuy:
rick.felt at 7.6.2009 9:04am responded to:

The point is, the so-called Athenian democracy was an oligarchy of rich, well-educated men.

with:


That's always the impression I had. I didn't think that Athenian democracy was uninformed rule by the rabble. But apparently I was ignorant of the incorrect stereotype that I was supposed to believe!


Like Rick, I was apparently suffering from holding an incorrect stereotype as well. Perhaps it is my background in Medieval History that disabused me of that particular notion, but I seem to recall pre-college history classes repeatedly making the point that our democracy was "better" than Athenian because we had selected representative mob rule as our form of governance.

I take it from the stereotype that most others of my fellow citizens received an alternative presentation of Greek politics and history in their schooling?
7.6.2009 2:29pm
Pasty Leeker (mail):
I think another reason was that they were more respectful of the elders in there society, unlike the discrimination today
7.6.2009 2:35pm
Studd Beefpile:
The importance of the Rowers vote is not to be under estimated. VDH makes the point that they often voted FOR war so they would be employed.

More important, I see no good reason NOT to limit franchise. After all, we already limit to those who are over 18, don't have felony convictions, etc. Literacy tests seem like a fine idea. They have a bad rap becuase in the south they were only given to black voters, but I fail to see how anyone who isn't literate could possibly be an informed voter. Or how about a tax eater/payer test. Anyone who recives more money from the federal government than they pay in taxes (e.g. welfare recipients, civil servants, the military) in a given year is ineligible to vote that year or make political donations.
7.6.2009 3:03pm
ohwilleke:
FWIW, the Bahai religious denomination in the U.S. selects its key leaders by lot. A Denver woman recently received high office in the religious denomination's governance by that means.

The United States also remains almost alone in the world in the extent to which is uses juries, drawn from the ranks of citizens who are chosen by lot, in its judicial system. Only Canada uses them to the same extent in civil cases, few countries make juries available in all cases, and the grand jury is not an institution that has been widely adopted.
7.6.2009 3:39pm
Perseus (mail):
The poor decisions were ones argued for by various demagogues, who appealed to the emotions of the Athenian voters. That the voters made decisions based on emotions is not the same as saying that the voters were ignorant

Agreed. As Madison put it, "had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." The very nature of large assemblies is such that demagogic appeals to the passions would tend to prevail even in ones composed of intelligent and informed people.
7.6.2009 4:50pm
Perseus (mail):
One of the things which always struck me in my political theory classes in college was that until about 1800 or so, the "ideal" Greek state was Sparta, not Athens. We can see the last vestiges of this in Samuel Adams' desire to create in America "a Christian Sparta". Few would say that today.

Sparta appears too aristocratic and stern to the modern democrat, who finds Athens more congenial to his egalitarian principles and laid back way of life. Thankfully, the Framers looked more to Sparta than Athens in fashioning the Constitution.
7.6.2009 5:19pm
AJK:

Thankfully, the Framers looked more to Sparta than Athens in fashioning the Constitution.


Defend that claim.
7.6.2009 5:48pm
MarkField (mail):

Thankfully, the Framers looked more to Sparta than Athens in fashioning the Constitution.


I don't see many references to Sparta in the Constitution. Two kings? No. Ephors? No. Common mess? No. Training of youth solely in war? No. Pederasty? No. Ban on currency other than iron? No. Slavery? Ok, but Athens had slaves too.
7.6.2009 7:32pm
Bama 1L:
Despite widespread laconophilia, Sparta ended up not being the model for anything. Their political system--which depending on whom you believe was either the original political organization of the Dorian invaders, the invention of the lawgiver Lycurgus, or (most likely) an adaptation by two neighboring settlements to deal with a very large slave population--was not something you could just impose from scratch anywhere else.

For all intents and purposes, the Spartans themselves were exhausted by the Peloponnesian War and finished off at Leuctra. They just did not have the citizen population to fight the total wars of the fourth century BC. The Romans, who'd read Greek history, ended up maintaining Sparta as a sort of hokey Indian reservation where tourists could see the quaint customs of the ancient savages.

Perhaps, had modernity not intervened, obsession with stopping slave revolts and maintaining racial purity would have caused the South to develop into something like Sparta. Of course this supposes that the slaveholders would have put those goals above absolutely everything else, including material prosperity and individual competition--something that does not seem likely to have occurred.
7.6.2009 8:29pm
Matthew Carberry (mail):

Perhaps, had modernity not intervened, obsession with stopping slave revolts and maintaining racial purity would have caused the South to develop into something like Sparta. Of course this supposes that the slaveholders would have put those goals above absolutely everything else, including material prosperity and individual competition--something that does not seem likely to have occurred.


Stirling's Domination of the Draka series addresses this idea, kinda.
7.6.2009 9:53pm
Perseus (mail):
I don't see many references to Sparta in the Constitution.

I did not mean to suggest that they tried to copy Sparta in detail, but rather that they drew the lesson that Sparta was one of only three long-lived republics in recorded history because it was an aristocratic republic, and thus they sought to add aristocratic features in constructing the Constitution (e.g., senate, president, judiciary) . See, for example, Fed. 63, where Madison contrasts Athenian democracy, which did not have a senate, and Sparta, which did:

In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next...

It adds no small weight to all these considerations, to recollect that history informs us of no long-lived republic which had not a senate. Sparta, Rome, and Carthage are, in fact, the only states to whom that character can be applied.


Like virtually all political philosophers, the Framers held up Athenian democracy as the model of virtually everything wrong with popular governance.
7.6.2009 11:46pm
Randy R. (mail):
That the Greeks worshiped a dysfunctional family of gods would seem to cut against any support from the Judeo-Christian movement in the US for any form of government that the Greeks produced.
7.7.2009 11:14pm
Randy R. (mail):
The ancient Greeks were the ancient Greeks. By that I mean that there were many different systems of government (Athens and Sparta just two), many different cultures, histories and sucessses united by a common language and geography. These histories are unique. Although we can draw some generalized lessons from them, it is useless to argue for adoption of any thing that they believed or did on the basis that it might have been successful at one point in time in one part of the world.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating how the Greeks government themselves, and we should of course delve into it more to understand their culture and history, even if it means little to us today.
7.7.2009 11:18pm

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