hen the Founding Fathers were designing the American system of government, they carefully studied previous models, especially the democracies of ancient Greece. They came away determined not to copy a key Greek idea: the direct, participatory democracy that held sway in Athens between roughly 500 and 300 BC. Such democracy, they judged, led to fractiousness and instability, with amateur assemblies making unsound decisions based on the manipulative sophistry of honey-tongued orators. And so instead of Athenian-style participatory democracy, the American Founders crafted a representative one in which the direct role of the citizen in government affairs was minimal.
The Founders, however, may have had their facts wrong. In his new book, Democracy and Knowledge, Stanford classicist Josiah Ober draws on a plethora of recent scholarship to show that ancient Athens was not the chaotic and fragile polity the Founders envisioned. Rather, for 200 years, it outperformed all other Greek city-states, including authoritarian archrival Sparta, by almost every measure archeologists have devised—estimates of household wealth, number of public buildings, mentions of the city in extant Greek literature, distribution of coinage. Even after the fall of its military empire in the Peloponnesian Wars, Athens retained its commercial and cultural supremacy. This most flourishing of city-states was also among the most hyper-democratic. And that, Ober argues, was not a coincidence.
It’s well known that laws in ancient Athens were passed by votes in the public assembly at which any citizen (males only) could participate. But the group that set the agenda for the assembly, called the Council of 500, was itself radically democratic. It consisted of representatives of neighborhoods and villages throughout Attica, chosen for one-year terms not through elections but by lot. Hence its members tended not to be elites or charismatic individuals but normal, random Athenians. It was as if Nancy Pelosi’s job were done by a large focus group.
Ober argues that the democratic nature of the council served not just to transmit the broader public’s preferences, but to aggregate its on-the-ground knowledge. The fisherman brought with him knowledge of wind patterns; the farmer, a sense of coming crop yields; the urban craftsman, familiarity with industrial production. Most citizens wound up serving at least once on the council, and on the smaller administrative boards that carried out the assembly’s decrees. So when they cast votes in the assembly, they did so with personal knowledge of how government worked. Athenian democracy was thus a vast "learning machine," says Ober, capable of flushing out relevant facts and adapting itself quickly to changing circumstances.
The Athenians structured their government for maximum participation in every conceivable way. Instead of just taxing the rich, they set up competitions among the wealthy to see who, for instance, could outfit a warship and deliver it to the docks of Pireaus in the shortest amount of time, with the winner receiving a gold crown and the esteem of fellow Athenians.
The American system of government, by contrast, asks its citizens for consent but very limited participation. We are welcome to get involved in the political process once every four years by voting, sending money, knocking on doors. But when the campaigns are over, very little is asked of us, other than perhaps to follow the news, cooperate with pollsters, and, in the midst of war, go shopping.
Modern information technology, however, has a naturally Athenian bent, and it is beginning to challenge the government-by-elites system devised by the Founders. We’ve seen how the blogosphere draws normal citizens into sophisticated, dynamic conversations about public issues, and affects, at least on the margins, the course of politics and policy. We’ve seen the Twitter revolution in Iran, which is not only confronting the government there but allowing average Americans to have direct electronic connections with protesters on the streets of Tehran—to act, in a way, like micro-diplomats.
Citizen-empowering technologies such as these are evolving organically at the periphery of governing. But efforts are under way to consciously adapt them to engage more directly the public’s energies for public ends. For instance, last year, District of Columbia Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra opened up stores of raw city-government data and, taking a page from the Athenians, challenged enterprising computer programmers to a contest to come up with useful applications for the information—a concept he is now pursuing nationwide as Obama’s tech czar, as Charles Homans reports in the current issue ("The Geekdom of Crowds"). Also in this issue, Phillip Longman explains how government efforts to digitize medical records, if done right, could tap the aggregated wisdom of doctors, nurses, and researchers to achieve the cost savings and quality improvements the president seeks in health care reform ("Code Red").
No one can say what the Founders, were they alive today, would make of blogs or Twitter or recent archeological findings about the ancient Greek democracy. I suspect, though, that in light of these new developments, they would urge us to put more of the Athenian spirit into the government they bequeathed us.