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.