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Explaining the Athenian Superpower

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober, 2008.

Classical Athens is famous for being a democracy, or 'democracy' given the status of slaves, women, and metics (resident non-citizens.) It's also been infamous throughout history for its grand mistakes, like trying Socrates, purging its generals, a disastrous attack on Syracuse, various atrocities, with these used to discredit democracy and 'mob rule' as if alternative forms of government never ever made mistakes.

Ober's book, 5th or so in a series of sort, argues that in fact Athens was supremely successful (militarily and economically) in a highly competitive environment for 200 years, a nigh superpower (my word) among city-states (polis in the singular, poleis plural), adapting to and recovering from multiple setbacks (conquest, loss of empire, imposition of oligarchy, plague killing 1/3 of the people, invading Syracuse) until finally squished by the Macedonian juggernaut that conquered Persia, Egypt, and everything up to the Indus. (And then by the Roman juggernaut that conquered that and everything else around. Point is, Athens didn't fail in particular, it was overwhelmed.)

And, he argues, it was so successful because of its democracy, not despite it. The costs were high: the putative cost of not having a central and expert command-and-control system, instead running things by groups of amateurs, and the explicit cost of running the democracy, as citizens were paid in the thousands for attending the Assembly, serving on juries, or acting as magistrates, along with the costs of public buildings and running a prototype welfare state. To be so pre-eminent despite such costs the benefits must have been even higher, particularly the benefits of marshaling public resources for the public good, generating and gathering knowledge for learning and innovation, legitimacy and incentives to align people to act in the public interest, and maintaining security and social stability.

(Addendum: one thing I forgot I think is worth adding: Athens ran a navy. Not just a militia of all the citizens showing up to be armed, but a standing navy with all the complexity that implies. The best navy around, imperial quality. As a strong democracy...)

I've got a long trip tomorrow still to prep for, so this summary won't be as thorough or as double-checked as I'd like.

Pre-eminence: Democratic Athens was among the very largest poleis in area and population. 2500 km2 and an estimated 250,000 people, 10x the mean size of the 160-ish poleis big enough that we have some idea of how big they were (there were 1000-ish poleis, down to large village size I guess). It dominates surviving writings; granted those are largely Athenian, but that may say something itself. It apparently led by far in public buildings, indicating both wealth and the inclination to use it to public purposes. Its coins lead in buried hoards in every way: number of hoards found in, number of coins found, presence across time and space. This complex isn't true of pre or post democratic Athens, and it started being true after Athens started being democratic.

Competitive environment: Of the 1000 poleis, something like a third were destroyed in the period, destroyed encompassing razing of the city (happened to Athens) or a more permanent enslavement or massacre of the population (done a few times by Athens, I think.) So the stakes were high, which may have helped focus the minds of citizens on public survival. The Greek poleis area itself was rather successful, more prosperous than the norm for the time, with colonies being scattered widely, and with an estimated population as high as 7 million -- Greece *today* has 10 million. It's suggested Greece may not have been as prosperous until the 20th century. So Athens is the big fish in a big pond.

Silver and empire: Athens is also famous for its big silver mines; maybe that alone explains things? He doesn't totally refute that, but notes that some other poleis also had ample mineral wealth, that we've learned such windfall wealth is often destabilizing (from modest Dutch Disease to oil states to outright conflicts over wealth extraction) and not contributory to democracy, and that Athens was economically successful in other ways, like pottery export and being a trade center. (Me: perhaps like Dubai or Norway, using initial wealth to bootstrap into being a major port or otherwise healthy economy. But using your windfall like that is non-trivial.) Athens in fact voted to use the initial windfall to build a navy rather than spreading it around the people, and the navy led to a 5th century empire (the Delian League.) But Athens continues to be prominent in the 4th century BC, after losing the empire; its coins become even more prominent in 4th century hoards, based only on their quality and commercial demand, rather than the imperial demand that Athenian allies use Athenian coins.

No central command: Seriously. No equivalent to an elected consul, president, or prime minister. Not even the 7-person executive council of modern Switzerland. The 4th century constitution is complex enough to deserve a post of its own, but the on-call executive authority was a group of 50 people (well, those who were awake; slept in shifts) changing each month, out of the annual Council of 500 [Boule] (selected by lot) that set the agenda for the Assembly but still didn't command. Specific tasks were overseen by selected or elected boards of 10, created by decree of the Assembly and accountable to it. There were elected generals (strategoi) for military operations, but for daily life there was never one person whom one could say was in charge of public affairs.

Amateurs: Apart from the strategoi, and public slaves like the assayers of coins in the markets, you didn't have long term experts. The Assembly was 'everyone' (or all the male citizens who showed up, at least 6000 of them), most other things were citizens selected at random and even not allowed to serve more than once, except for the Boule (twice) or juries. And yet this place was the leading polis, beat the Spartans at times, helped beat the Persians, acquired an empire...

Knowledge: Of course, 'amateur' bears examining. An engaged citizen was steeped in the politics and procedures of his day. He would have frequently attended the Assembly (meeting monthly to weekly), after 30 he would have served in juries; a generation after the start of democracy he would have been raised among people who had also done those things. When selected for the first time to the Boule or a magistracy he was likely serving with more experienced people to learn from; while he couldn't hold the same post again, the experience might carry over to other posts. To be selected he would have had to put his name in; no drafting of the unwilling as with US juries. He would have been paid decently for his time, and as a magistrate was likely subject to rewards and punishments established by the decree of the Assembly creating his board, as well as a public scrutiny of his performance at the end of the year. They were amateurs with regard to any one position, but possibly semi-professional at democratic governance in general through repeated experience, and thanks to good pay this could be true even of the poorest citizens. Just being an active citizen (and not an 'idiot', someone not involved in politics) was a training course in itself.

Knowledge is the main point of the book, and despite that I'm not sure I have a coherent picture of his argument there, and don't have time to re-read to get one. I do remember various points, though. Ober is why I wrote about the Condorcet Jury Theorem a couple of weeks ago: 500 voters with a slightly better than random chance of being right can add up to a very good chance of being right. Helps if they *don't* talk, which was true of juries and ostracism. Jurors could take an active role in trials, but once the speeches were over they voted straight away by secret ballot. Ostracism -- a discarded practice by this time -- also had a quiet secret ballot, on "is there anyone so dangerous to democracy that we should kick them out for 10 years" and "if so, who?"

OTOH, following Aristotle, Ober discusses the case where individuals are unlikely to be right. They can still vote well if they're likely to know who experts are, and to take their cues from those experts. Here you obviously need enough collaboration for cue-following, though you can think of it as an indirect application of the jury theorem: "p<0.5 for deciding matters of quantum mechanics, but p>0.5 for deciding who to listen to about quantum mechanics." Ober applies this to votes in the Assembly, i.e. looking around and following people's leads. You could also use that as a justification for elected officials, though one could also ask if you really need all the formality of an elected official, or if the people good at answering expert questions should also be given power.

Speaking in generalities, and somewhat following Hayek on Hayek's best points, Ober notes that there's a lot of tacit or implicit knowledge in the population: people who know how to do various things or what they need. A central problem of good governance is gathering and acting on such knowledge. People with it need to think it's worth their time to speak up, and the people in charge need to act on it. Hayek and Mises used that as an argument against central planning: people have knowledge of their own affairs and can best act in their interests, in isolation or in markets. But if we're not an Austrian libertarian and thus believe that we need some government and public action, there's still the problem of collecting tacit knowledge, and we can ask of any government how well it does at that. Any system based on "electing experts" or "electing a few representatives" is likely to be limited in that. Soliciting public comments can help, but that still leaves "is it worth my time and do they have to listen to what I say?" Elective government works better than autocracy and hereditary oligarchy, but direct voting is more powerful than getting to make suggestions.

Federalism and locality also help; I'm not clear on the details, but Ober mentions tribal assemblies, so there may have been a recursive nature to the democracy, as with Switzerland or the US.

Tribes and knowledge: 'Tribe' is the standard term but misleading: this was an entirely artificial grouping of people, not an extended family. People were members of demes -- a village or neighborhood -- and tribes contained various demes; in particular each of the ten tribes contained coastal, inland rural, and urban demes. Tribes had their own rituals, so people from different sections of society were thrown together rather than remaining in isolation. Ober talks about this in network terms: strong ties of neighbors, relatives and daily colleagues being supplemented by weak ties of tribal ritual and joint public service, and increasing the chance that someone would know someone who would know X. One can intuitively feel that jostling people together is good for creating a sense of being 'Athenians' and cutting down on polarization. The Swiss have mass conscription: everyone serves, and a civilian worker might end up commanding his boss in the army.

Common knowledge: Ober makes a big deal of this. Not just everyone knowing something but everyone knowing that everyone knows something. If I tell something to A and B separately, they have shared knowledge; if I tell it to them at the same time in the same room, it's common knowledge, as they each know the others knows it, that the other knows they know it, etc. Lots of social coordination problems are easier to solve with common knowledge; everyone might hate a dictator, but without common knowledge or commitment to resistance, no one will take the risk. More prosaically, common knowledge is the basis of communication: we can talk because we know that we largely put the same meanings to the same words, and share cultural references. I know you probably know Shakespeare, I can invoke him, and you know I'm probably doing that to communicate and not to lord it over you.

In one of the more unexpected parts of the book, Ober argues that Athens put a lot of effort into generating common knowledge. They had a *lot* of religious rituals, at deme tribe and polis levels, a lot even by Greek standards; those rituals often included civic components, like mutual oaths to uphold the laws and defend the state, commemoration of public martyrs, excoriation of overthrown oligarchs. They had lots of public monuments, down to marketplace carvings of important laws and decrees; where Rome's ultimate public punishment was to try to erase your name from history, Athens would happily record who you were and why you were exiled or killed, as an example for others; this would also add to the common knowledge available for invocation in speeches.

The really unexpected part is when he goes on about all those public buildings mentioned as part of Athenian success. They particularly liked inward-facing buildings, where those seated not only watch something but can watch each other watching it. Like a (semi) circular theatre or many legislative halls, rather than one of linear rows facing a stage. At the very least you get to see who else is there, learning whatever's happening; it also helps talking to each other, of course. Athens had lots of these of all sizes, from 50 for the executives to 500+ for juries to 8000+ for the Assembly to 17,000 for the Theatre of Dionysus. (And Greek theatre was a big deal, not just entertainment.) Large demes had theatres, such that all but one of the tribes is known to have had 1 or 2 theatres, and larger than the deme alone needed, so perhaps used for tribal rituals and assemblies. Inward facing buildings are associated with the spread of democracy to other poleis; under the Roman Empire such building stopped, while the original area of intervisibility -- the Agora -- was filled in with stoas and temples.

Is it really democracy?: The eternal question. Out of 250,000 people, perhaps 30,000 were adult male citizens. Of course, we don't let children or non-citizens vote either. But one thing worth noting is scaling issues: one person can decide easily. 100-150 people -- the natural tribe or 'monkeysphere' -- seems to be the limit of people we can know well, and a group of such size can make decisions via familiarity and common knowledge; cf. the US Senate, before it got polarized (which some say is helped by cheap air travel; Congresspeople can go fly home, rather than mingling together in DC.) A tribe or village can easily be egalitarian; larger populations tend to oligarchy: maybe the males speak for the females, or elders speak for their families, or a handful of nobles lord it over a much larger population, or representatives elected every few years make decisions for all.

Regardless of what proportion of the population was covered, Athens' scale of operation is about 100 times bigger than that oligarchic point. The Assembly is 6000 people and not even the same 6000 people from meeting to meeting. Its agenda was set by a Boule of 500 selected by lot for a year. Juries of similar size proliferated. You didn't have 30,000 people gathering in one place to decide on things, but you did have that many people all with a fair and significant chance of participating in government, not just voting every few years but being part of the legislature, the 'upper' legislature, juries -- which decided laws, not just cases -- and ad hoc executive boards. They may have not included everybody, but they included far more people than most people think is possible or wise for active governance, and they did so as an imperial power and highly successful polis.

Modernity and the welfare state: Ober likes to say Athens seems more like a modern state in many ways, or even that the world of the poleis was more like the post Cold War world -- lots of nations, relatively stable borders, mix of cooperation and competition, lots of trade -- than the empire building of Rome and early modern Europe. Athens had principles of transparency, accountability, and (usual caveats) equality. Laws were published and accessible, officials were subject to examination after and even recall during office. Orphans of citizens were raised by the state, with daughters provided a dowry; the handicapped were given a stipend. The able but indigent could row the galleys for pay, or when older serve in juries and other offices. A public fund subsidized attendance at public festivals; laws tried to ensure a stable grain supply. Though he gives little evidence for this, he says Athens seems to have been relatively low in crime and violence, despite the lack of much public police force. People were relatively secure and able to take risks, and prided themselves on being innovators. (True or not, it's still a cultural thing: not going to find Spartans priding themselves on such a thing as a matter of national character!)

Applicability: This is me more than Ober, but could we apply this to modern countries? They're up to 30,000 times bigger than Athens, especially in voting citizenry. Obviously anything like "everyone in the Assembly gets a chance to speak" can't work (and I'm not sure Athens even had that.) Selecting 500 people a year for the Boule was likely to have every citizen serving at the top of government twice, but over 40 years the US would need 20,000 people, out of an adult population of well over 100 million. So "I can serve well because everyone I know has served" and being steeped in cultural expertise won't work so well. Even states and cities are often larger than Athens, and the states that aren't are too dispersed.

And the modern US is almost optimized for not producing common knowledge: some countries have nationally synchronized curricula, the US has lesson plans varying from teacher to teacher, not to mention school, city, and state variation, with no national coordination, no knowing that some other American knows anything in particular. People seeing newsreels in the 1930s knew other people in the theatre had seen the same news; people in the 1960s shared 3 broadcasters, maybe; in 2013 we share nothing. One large group has Fox News (which might explain a lot about their coordination), elites have the usual New York Times/Washington Post/Wall Street Journal, but otherwise we all get our news from wherever, sharing little and sharing even less in common.

OTOH, Ober has a weird business context to part of the book, like comparing magistrates to modern "small teams" of 4-12 people given a specific ad hoc task and broad leeway in fulfilling it. He also said the poleis world was more like the business world than nation-states are, given the risk of total destruction. And few if any businesses are larger than Athens, so what is unthinkable to many, workplace democracy, might be successful in execution and even superior in innovation, if the elites who control the money could release their deathgrip on power.

For government, institutional learning in a Boule could be helped by staggered replacement: instead of selecting all 500 at once, select 250 a year for two-year terms, or some other combination, so incoming members can learn the ropes from their seniors. A Boule could complement an elected legislature rather than being trusted entirely at once, e.g. instead of a bicameral legislature with two elected houses, have one be selected by lot. We could think about whether modern "small team" juries -- 12 people, at random but not really, told to talk until unanimity, unpaid and with little autonomy -- are better than Condorcet juries, large and random and asking questions but then voting by secret ballot. We could think about whether such teams could run departments, and if not, whether they could oversee them, keeping a direct and real-time eye on public servants. We could ask if a few judges appointed for life are a better guardian of our constitution than specific juries. We could ask if hearing everything is worth dragging legislative debates or court cases out for weeks or even years; Athenian trials lasted no longer than a day.

Checks A bit about that last: I'm still hazy on the details, but by the 4th century the Assembly seems limited to decrees, public spending and electing strategoi and trying officials. Large juries -- 1501 -- were involved in writing laws. Decrees could be challenged for violating the laws; if so, whoever proposed the decree could be tried for leading the Assembly into error. Changing the laws required something like a scheduling vote by the Boule (500 by specializing in governance for a year) a vote by the Assembly (the People voting openly) and a jury (1501 selected for this purpose and voting by secret ballot.) If nothing else it suggests ways to get checks and balances compatible with direct majority rule: instead of a single popular vote, such a vote combined with different samples of the population voting in different ways.

Checks work both ways, of course: Athens is famous for being stingy with its (highly valuable) citizenship, but in 404 the Assembly voted for a mass enfranchisement of metics (and slaves?) who'd fought to restore democracy; a jury vetoed it.

Random: I feel like I'll remember something VITAL in 30 minutes, but I have to get going, so a few other things.

There's discussion of tax farming of some islands Athens still held: publicans bid for the right to collect one-twelth of the grain harvest of the islands. I note mostly for the specific detail of what a tax rate was, though he notes how Athens took the tax as grain not cash, specifying weight and volume for quality, and while the Athenians were protected, the islanders weren't necessarily protected from taxmen taking more than 1/12.

Lots of projects were funded by simply assigning them to the richest citizens as 'liturgies'. If you didn't like this you could sue another citizen, challenging them to either take up your obligation or swap property with you. Ober views this as dividing the elite and exploiting their insider knowledge of how wealthy they were, without an intrusive state apparatus. I don't know how applicable it is now but it's cute.

Related in spirit and more applicable is sentencing, which I draw on from other sources: without strict sentencing rules or a judge, what happened was that prosecutor and defendant both proposed punishments, and the jury chose between them.

In general juries were courts of equity, deciding based on justice and fairness, but they also created commercial courts to decide solely based on the written contract, for more predictability.

The public slave who examined coins was told to accept foreign coins that imitated Athenian marks but were properly pure silver; easing trade and keeping the Athenian brand was more important than collecting seignorage on minting. Bad coins, including old Athenian wartime coins, were confiscated on the spot. These slaves got paid; slavery meant not getting to choose their job, and getting whipped if they didn't show up to work. Literal public servants...

Ober gives translations of a couple of decrees, one establishing a naval base/colony, the other setting up a coin-assessor in Piraeus (so all I know is that the slave got paid the same as the one in Athens, not how much that was.) They're relatively short but detailed, indicating how complex governance had gotten: rich people ordered to fund ship building, shipbuilders instructed to build ships, special juries called to be ready to hear suits from rich people saying someone else is richer, prizes for fast performance, heavy fines (like 10,000 days pay) for non-performance, the Boule and executive put in overall charge but a new board created for direct oversight... Instead of a President telling people what to do, the law-writer does, and specific incentives plus the general threat of oversight keep people going. The US is a relatively high-trust low-corruption society where we're used to bureaucrats just doing their job and of course people get fired if they don't, so it's a very interesting alternate way of coordinating.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/382154.html#comments


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2013 01:27 am (UTC)
I stumbled across this and it's amazing. Wow, thank you for posting this!
Dec. 5th, 2013 01:39 am (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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