Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Athenian Democracy

The Classics major in me (after all these decades!) can't help pointing out an interesting post by Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens - Why Ancient Athenian Voters Were Not as Ignorant as We Have Been Taught to Think, which in turn discusses what looks like a fascinating book, Josiah Ober's Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.

Here's a taste of Prof. Somin's post on the book:
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.

I would add only this. In Athens, if you voted for war, you were going to war. Nothing serves better to focus the mind.

The reference to Donald Kagan at the end of Prof. Somin's post reminds me to remind you, once again, to view or listen to Prof. Kagan's wonderful Introduction to Ancient Greek History course. Superb.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. Multiple thumbs up for Kagan's course on Academic Earth. Excellent!


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