Democracy Reinterpreted

Athenian model: non-electoral representative democracy

This essay is available in Journal of Public Deliberation:

We learn in school that the Athenian system was a form of “direct” democracy, where citizens made decisions in face-to-face assemblies, without representatives. We learn that although this kind of system could work on a small scale, such as a New England town meeting (Bryan 2003), it would be unworkable for a large city, let alone a nation. We are led to the conclusion that some advocates of direct democracy cling to the referendum as the closest analog (though this lacks the face-to-face deliberation essential to the Athenian model). Some propose innovative ways to utilize telecommunications and the Internet to overcome this problem of scale. But as Robert Dahl pointed out in his concise book After the Revolution?, as the number of participants grows large, so too does the amount of time required to allow even a tiny percentage of them to speak (or if writing instead, for others to read what has been written), until there is hardly any time left for any other human activity (Dahl 1970). Bouricius: Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition there is essentially nothing of Athenian democracy that we can use today beyond its inspirational value. However, a careful review of the facts of Athenian democracy, and how the Athenians improved it over nearly 200 years,2 reveals a very different story.

Athenian democracy – especially the mature democracy after 403 B.C.E., as described in Morgens H. Hansen’s The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Hansen 1999) was fundamentally representative rather than direct. At no time did more than a small fraction of the male citizenry of Athens gather to vote. The meeting place of the People’s Assembly could hold only 6,000 and later perhaps 8,000, out of an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 eligible citizens. Thus, the People’s Assembly was a sample of the demos. But the decisions made there were treated as if the entire demos had voted.

What is more, most governmental decisions were not made by the People’s Assembly, but by smaller representative groups of citizens. These representatives were not elected. They were chosen by lot.

The People’s Assembly did not generally debate a matter until it had been considered by the randomly selected Council of 500 (boule). Classics scholar Josiah Ober has noted evidence that a council selected by lot was the key institution in Greek democracy, and may even have been more central to the Greeks’ concept of democracy than the People’s Assembly (Ober 2007). Nondemocracies, such as Sparta, had assemblies, but the agenda was controlled by the aristocracy. In Athens, the allotted Council of 500 set the agenda, and prepared decrees and resolutions. Randomly selected Legislative Panels (nomothetai) of 1,001 citizens over age 30, had to approve new laws. The People’s Courts (dikasteria), usually 501, 1,001 or 1,501 citizens chosen by lot, could over-rule the People’s Assembly. Nearly all of the magistrates who carried out governmental business were also chosen by lot, usually in panels of 10 citizens.

Only a few specialized executive positions, such as generals and financial officers, were filled by election at the People’s Assembly. The Athenians regarded elections as inherently aristocratic, since only those with money and  It is common to imagine Athenian democracy as it existed at the time of Pericles and his famous funeral oration. However, the Athenians continued to make changes. Paul Woodruff writes in First Democracy: the Challenge of an Ancient Idea, “After civil war or a great military failure, the Athenians would adjust their system to conform better with the goals of democracy. A striking example of this was taking the full power of legislation away from the Assembly in the fourth century, and dividing it with a representative body” (Woodruff 2005).  The Greek biographer and historian Plutarch suggested the randomly selected People’s Court was thus the ultimate sovereign authority, rather than the People’s Assembly. There were, of course exceptions. Taking the concept of “public servant” to the extreme, some government officials, such as the Approvers who ruled on the authenticity of silver coinage used in the public market (Agora) and at the port (Piraeus) were required to be actual slaves (Ober 2008).  Journal of Public Deliberation, Vol. 9 [2013], Iss. 1, Art. 11 status could win. To the Athenians, selection by lot was an essential feature of democracy. In fact, this was the general view among political theorists from Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau (Manin 1997).

Athenian democracy was not based on the principle that all citizens should participate in all decisions. That would have been as impractical in Classical Athens as it is today. However, there are important principles and practices of Athenian democracy that can be applied today.

The first principle is isonomia – the equal right of all citizens to exercise their political rights. Through sortition, all citizens who wished had an equal chance and high likelihood of serving in public office. This is fundamentally different from the extremely unequal chance of being elected to political office through election.

The second principle is isegoria – every citizen had the right to speak at the People’s Assembly and make proposals. Few citizens ever actually spoke at the Assembly, but the right of any citizen to add new information or arguments was considered fundamental.

This is not the same as an individual right to have one’s vote counted. A single individual’s vote in the People’s Assembly in Athens, as in elections today, had little significance. For an individual’s vote to make any difference there would need to be a tie that the individual’s vote broke (or created). Indeed, votes on most matters before the People’s Assembly were never actually counted.5 Instead, nine randomly selected citizens simply estimated the show of hands.

Josiah Ober has argued that Athenian democracy’s institutional ability to harness latent and diffuse knowledge spread throughout the population was a critical factor in allowing it to flourish (Ober 2008). The true significance of isegoria is the opportunity of any citizen to give information, rather than merely a vote. Unlike a single vote, a single piece of information has the serious potential to swing the ultimate decision. Isegoria was not only an individual right, but also a community benefit. The polis would be unlikely to suffer if one individual couldn’t vote, but could lose a lot if a citizen with crucial information or argument was denied the right to contribute it, and the People’s Assembly made a bad decision as a result. Isegoria protects such “speech acts” rather than voting rights.

The issue of scale

Understanding that Athenian democracy was representative – but in a very different form than we know today – leads us to another important insight. Most modern students of democracy dismiss the Athenian system as inapplicable to modern nation states (or even cities) due to the issue of scale. Some argue that 5 Votes by secret ballot using bronze voting disks dropped into urns were counted in the randomly selected People’s Court and Legislative Panels, or in unique cases in the People’s Assembly such as for banishment or when a quorum was required.  Bouricius: Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortitiondemocracy is simply not possible at a large scale, while others simply re-define democracy by substituting modern electoral systems for the original meaning. In fact, the Athenians solved the problem of scale — the core problem that has stymied democratic theorists and practitioners for the last several hundred years.

A population of 30,000 citizens may be small by modern standards, but it is far too large for face-to-face “participatory” democracy as we think of it today. The Athenians invented a system of government that worked at a larger than faceto-face scale, in which the citizens ruled through representative institutions. It was called “democracy.”

Even the People’s Assembly, as noted above, had a representative character. With modern understanding of probability and scientific sampling, we know that a representative sample does not need to keep growing proportional to the growth of the population being sampled. A sample of 6,000 citizens (typical of the People’s Assembly) could accurately represent a population of 300,000,000 as well as 30,000.

Some will dispute my contention that Athenian democracy was representative. Some have argued that sortition was simply an efficient means of achieving the principle of “rule and be ruled in turn” through rotation (Manin 1997) or perhaps leaving the choice to the gods. This argument asserts that office holders were not viewed as representatives of the communities, classes or tribes from which they came (Dowlen 2008). Some evidence to the contrary comes from the fact that each of the 139 geographic units of Attica (surrounding villages and neighborhoods of Athens, known as demes) were entitled to a number of seats on the Council of 500, in proportion to their population (Hansen 1999).

It can also be argued that the Athenians, despite their astonishing advances in mathematics, did not know probability, nor have a “theory of representation” (Pitkin 1967). But these bodies did effectively function as representatives of the citizenry as a whole. As sortition theorist Keith Sutherland has noted, any Athenian cook knew that by giving the soup a good stir and sampling a spoonful, one got a good sense of the soup as a whole (Sutherland 2008). We can also note that the Athenians had no “theory of gravity,” yet went ahead and utilized gravity in daily tasks any way.

There were two design concepts that were central to Athenian democracy, and that can be profoundly useful today. Random selection (sortition) was one. The other was dividing political powers among multiple randomly selected bodies with different characteristics.

Multiple bodies

In Athenian democracy, most decision processes were divided between separate bodies. The Council of 500 set the agenda, and prepared preliminary decrees and resolutions for the Assembly to consider, but could not pass laws. Journal of Public Deliberation, Vol. 9 [2013], Iss. 1, Art. 11 The passage of a decree by the People’s Assembly could be over-ruled by a People’s Court, but these Courts could not pass laws themselves.

Following the codification of 402 BCE, the People’s Assembly could no longer pass laws either. Instead the Assembly could only initiate the process by calling for the creation of randomly selected single purpose Legislative Panels, which had to pass any new laws. As Hansen notes, this was a beneficial reform because “the double consideration of a proposal allowed the possibility of coming to a better decision.” It also gave “breathing-space to overcome the effects of mass psychosis such as a skilled orator could whip up in a highly charged situation” (Hansen 1999).

The Athenian separation of powers between multiple randomly selected bodies and the self-selected attendees of the People’s Assembly achieved three important goals that our modern elected legislatures do not:

1) the legislative bodies were relatively descriptively representative of the citizenry;

2) they were highly resistant to corruption and undue concentration of political power; and

3) the opportunity to participate – and make decisions – was spread broadly throughout the relevant population.

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