The Athens Story: The Benefits of a Well-Designed Democracy

New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad.

The timely new book, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press) by Josiah Ober, is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power and security.


“The Athens story: original democracy is all about aggregating, coordinating, and codifying knowledge. As my new book shows, Athens was successful because of democracy, and democracy is successful because it organizes useful knowledge, driving both innovation and learning”, says Ober.


Whether Athenian-style approach to finding innovative solutions would help improve American governmentʼs performance if implemented would only be revealed in time, “But for those who have hopes for both the recovery of the economy and the potential and future of democracy, this is a remarkable moment”.


Taking time out from his research of the Greek poleis as a multi-state dispersed-authority system and writing his new book, Choice, Information, and Action in Greek Political Thought, Professor Ober took some questions from the GreekNews.


GN: What is the very first point regarding the governance of this country that you would advise President Obama to pay attention to?


JO: The danger of becoming captive to the “Washington bubble” – the tendency to lose touch with sources of information outside a narrow circle of trusted experts. On the day after his Inauguration President Obama issued a Memorandum that shows that he is aware of that danger. If he is sincere in his stated determination to have his administration learn from the dispersed knowledge possessed by citizens, he can take inspiration, and get some practical advice on institutional design from the ancient Athenians – their democracy was, as I argue in my new book, specifically designed to organize and make use of knowledge from very diverse sources. That is what allowed Athens to bounce back from crises and to remain the center of Greek trade and intellectual life.


GN: The previous administration seemed bent on imposing the democratic system on other non-democratic countries. To what degree do you think this should or should not be pursued?


JO: The previous administration had a deformed idea of democracy, which is one reason their attempt to spread democracy worked so badly. They also thought that democracy was simply a matter of “getting rid of a tyrant” and “getting a capitalistic market economy going.” That is an absurdly over simplistic and misguided conception. Democracy is actually very hard to get right – it requires a lot of work at institutional design and the capacity to make adjustments as circumstances change. It requires a balance between innovation and social learning. If democracy is to last, it must feature a system of civic education that can build and sustain democratic culture. The bottom line is that it would be a very expensive and time-consuming job to bring democracy to another state – even if the people of that state welcomed the prospect. Imposing democracy, in any shape or form, simply will not work: democracy must be embraced and built by citizens, not thrust upon unwilling subjects.


GN: What is the most basic difference between the democracy of the US today and the original concept of Greek democracy?


JO: The biggest single difference is that Americans today think of democracy as a system to aggregate preferences and decide between competing special interests by means of periodic votes. In ancient Athens, democracy was about aggregating, aligning and codifying useful knowledge. The goal of a vote was not to decide which special interests could muster the most votes, it was about how to bring together the information and know-how of the citizens to solve public problems. Today we think of democracy as “majority rule.” In ancient Athens it meant “the capacity of the people to do things.”


GN: What aspect of Athenian democracy was the most successful?


JO: Knowledge-management. Athens was, over the 185 years of the democracy, the wealthiest and most influential of the Greek city-states. Athens was hands down the intellectual and cultural center of the Greek world. It was the center of Aegean trade. These successes were driven, at least in part by the democracy’s success as a system of knowledge management: Athens did so well because the Athenians were able to innovate constantly, and yet were still able to reap the benefits of established and familiar ways of doing things.


GN: What did the Athenians attempt to do that brought great damage to themselves, and learning from that, what is the first thing the US should not do?


JO: Over-reach. The problem with the growth in wealth and power that their democratic system brought to the Athenians led them to over-estimate their reach, and to under-estimate the risks. During the period of the Athenian empire, there was a lot of arrogance among Athenians – they thought that because they had solved some difficult problems of participatory government, that they could do whatever they pleased with impunity. This led to disasters.


GN: What is the most impressive part of the Athenian story?


The most impressive part of the Athenian story is, I believe, the way that they bounced back from the disaster of the Peloponnesian War. They learned that brutality toward their fellow Greeks (and others) was not the right way to create a sustainable prosperity for themselves. I n the age of Plato and Aristotle Athens reinvented itself as a democratic center of trade and culture. The US must learn the lesson of modesty and moderation that the Athenians learned only at great cost. The hardest thing for a vibrant, successful, expansive democratic state to learn is self-restraint. But that is an absolutely essential lesson.


GN: What stands out to you as being the most important aspect of ancient society?


JO: That it is a kind of real world “experimental laboratory” of networks of cooperation and competition. Think about it: in classical antiquity there were over 1000 Greek city-states, varying widely in their forms of political organization, size, relative success, and so on. They cooperated and competed with one another, freely forming and reforming leagues and alliances as they developed new forms of cooperation. New ideas flowed easily across the network; states could learn from one another, borrowing institutional designs and best practice. The Greek city-states were a sort of extensive network – very different from the great empires that surrounded them. And this is, I think, a key to why the ancient Greek world was so spectacularly productive of ideas and cultural artifacts – it is why the Greek world continues to dazzle us with its originality and boldness and innovative potential. I think we need to think hard and long about how that network of Greek states worked – it is the best analogy I know of to our modern post-imperial world.


Professor Ober had already “fallen in love with Greek mythology as a kid”, but was “immediately hooked” when he took a Greek history course in his first term in college, at the University of Minnesota, taught by a “very old-school professor, passionate about Greek history and culture and adamant that we must learn it deeply and right”.


Among the six books Ober has written since 1985 are Athenian Legacies: Essays on the Politics of Going on Together, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People (winner of the Goodwin Award: American Philological Association), as well as co-authoring and editing several others ,and writing countless chapters and articles.

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