The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

The modern case for studying ancient Athenian democracy


At Prawfsblawg, legal scholar Paul Gowder has an insightful post on some of the reasons why the study of ancient Athenian democracy is relevant to modern debates about law and politics. I would add one more: the modern debate about democracy and political ignorance traces its origins to ancient debates about Athens. And the problem of public ignorance may well be worse today than it was then.

Ancient critics of Athenian democracy, such as Plato and Thucydides, argued that the state was dysfunctional because the citizens who ruled it through direct democracy were often too ignorant and irrational to make good decisions. For example, Thucydides claimed that Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition, which led to the fall of the Athenian Empire, because the ignorant citizens had no idea how large and populous the island of Sicily was, and thus were easily snookered by demagoguery in favor of the ill-advised high-risk venture.

For centuries, critics of democracy pointed to Athens as a prime example of why the ignorant masses should be barred from wielding political power, especially directly. These critiques of Athens had a major impact on the American Founding Fathers. They were a key factor leading them to include a number of anti-democratic features in our Constitution.

The good news is that modern scholarship suggests that Athenian voters were more knowledgeable and did a much better job of making decisions than the longstanding conventional wisdom supposes. The bad news is that ancient Athenian citizens could avoid some of the pitfalls of ignorance in part because they had important advantages that voters in modern democracies mostly lack. Relative to modern counterparts, ancient Athenian voters dealt with a government with a much narrower range of functions, had far stronger incentives to acquire relevant knowledge, and often had direct personal experience with the most important functions of the state, which made it easier for them to assess leaders' performance. I summarized these points in greater detail in this review essay. While ancient Athenian democracy did a better job of surmounting political ignorance than it is often given credit for, some of the reasons for its relative success should lead us to be more rather than less concerned about the enormous extent of political ignorance today. Jonathan Gruber's assessment of the American voter may be more accurate than Thucydides' take on ancient Athens.

It's also worth remembering that, by modern standards, Athens was closer to being a narrow oligarchy than a democracy. Because women, slaves, and the city's large population of resident noncitizens were excluded from the franchise, only a small fraction of the adult population actually got to participate in politics (though still a much larger one than in most other ancient states). Athens' enemies often saw it as a nightmare of democratic egalitarianism run amok. But that was because their own oligarchies were far narrower still.

Virtually no one today would propose reintroducing ancient Athenian sexism and slavery; for good reason. Nor should we try to drastically cut back on the franchise in other ways. But the Athenian system did have the effect of limiting the franchise to people likely to have relatively high political knowledge. Among other things, the main function of the Athenian state was warfare. Most of the male citizens probably had direct personal experience of war, at a time when military strategy was much simpler than today and a low-level soldier or sailor could more easily see the big picture of what was going on. For this reason, among others, Yale historian Donald Kagan argues that Thucydides was probably wrong about the causes of the Sicilian expedition, noting that many of the voters who backed it had probably served on the previous expedition to Sicily a decade earlier, or were personally acquainted with veterans who had.

Though they made their share of ignorant and foolish mistakes, ancient Athenian voters probably knew a lot more about the Sicily and the Peloponnesian War than our voters today know about Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror; or for that matter Obamacare, federal spending, and who controls which house of Congress. In that respect, the dangers of ignorance that concerned critics of ancient democracy are very much still with us today, and possibly much worse than they were 2500 years ago.