Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

On Athens and America, Knowledge and Decisions

Not a small subject, but Danielle Allen grapples with it in a review of Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens . An interesting, complicated, and useful essay. I wonder if the book is as good.   

Discussions - 4 Comments

It is a worthwhile essay because it is primarily conveying the work of a fine historical scholar, Josiah Ober. Several key argments are apparently made by Ober's book:

1.) The Founders were wrong to reject Athenian democracy as a model. No blame in this, because a.) they didn't know what Ober's magisterial original research and synthesizing of other modern research has revealed about Athens, and because b.) they (unavoidably, given the literature that survived), "took their view of Athenian democracy primarily from its critics: Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch."

2.) It is not true that participatory democracy either degenerates into a) anarchy/tyranny, or b) becomes shaped by by Robert Michels's "iron law of oligarchy," which holds that "any collectivity larger than a face-to-face soceity of a few hundred souls must develop formal organization if it is to suceed" which "inevitably drives" such societies "toward oligarchies ruled by a small elite corps of expert managers." This is because, as the Athenian example Ober has "unearthed" proves, institutions and practices can be devised that allow amatuers continue to make the crucial policy decisions, and with basic success. Basically, these practices amount to a more effective gathering of knowledge from a wider swath of citizenry. Hence the title of Ober's book, "Democracy and Knowledge."

3.) Athenian democracy is best thought of as an exceptional instance, as a unique regime, and not as a merely jumbo-sized instance of the politeia known as "democracy." Most ancient democracies did fail and did deserve the negative judgment of our founders, but Athens "suceeded," by any number of comparative measures.

4.) This depends on showing that the Athenian empire, and hence its size and its wealth, were not the shaper of its democracy and the provider of its quantifiable successes, but rather, that the ability to run the Delian league and then to make it into an empire were RESULTS of the good and unique Athenian participatory practices/institutions. Ober thinks he can show this.

5.) Ober must also argue that the institution of slavery was not, as Rousseau so memorably argued, that which permitted the vigorous assembly participation, but a minor factor politically, and actually a drag on Athens' growth, etc. Here, Allen admits that the scanty evidence could go either way on the economic importance of slavery.

As the world's foremost unknown expert on Plato's critique of democracy given in the Republic,(I've got a dissertation comparing Tocqueville's and Plato's critiques) I'm skeptical about but interested in the overall argument, but am especially skeptical about the last two. That is, in the spirit of Carey Wilson McWilliams, I'm ready to welcome whatever discoveries Ober really has made about Athenian practices that show that participatory democracy works better than is often thought. Well and good.

But just why is it that the writings critical of Athenian democracy have survived and thrived, but none forthrightly defending it have? Vast conspiracy? Hostile suppression or neglect by Plato-loving, then Roman Imperial, and then Christian/Islamic scribes? Isn't it far more plausible that those writers who forthrightly acknowledged and documented the failures of democratic Athenian politics, and/or who considered the general defects of democracy by way of the conceptual politeia-thought, were universally recognized as wise, as measured, as worthy of being preserved? Doesn't the likely possibility that ALL the antique writers who had hesitations about democracy were the ones regarded as thoughtful cause Ober to hesitate?

And again, much of this is beyond bias, as Demosthenes and Thucydides report what they report, and are not in the main contradicted. Despite their aggregated successes, the Athenians actually did make bad/appalling decisions a,b,c,...all the way to z and beyond! Athens did little to prevent the Greeks from exhausting themselves, and then falling prey to Macedon. To the contrary.

And the question of Athens and foreign policy is really key. Jefferson and other founders were ready to promote participatory democracy at the local level, which was already robust in America, but they knew that such a democracy in command of foreign policy was a real problem. And truth to tell, the more they had invesitigated Athens in this regard, the more troubled they might have been, for the relation between imperialism, adventurism, and the passions of direct democracy are pretty clear. As are, when the state is weaker, the relation between direct democracy and a irresponsible passivity (see Demosthenes). The responsibility of the American executive branch, with its secrey, dispatch, energy, etc., is preferable to the "democracy of knowledge" Allen is excited about.

All that said, I'm sure the Ober book is great, and kudos to Allen for summarizing it for us. The iffy point of Allen's essay, however, connects to my last point. Here she is in an "application" moment, reflecting on the (true enough) finding of Ober that the "spontaneous noises of assembly audience members" were not evidence of mob-like behavior, but "actually contribted to collective learning": "I was sitting in the audience at a speech by Michelle Obama early in the campaign in which she remarked that here husband would help resotre a commitment to the rule of law. I started clapping, alone. But very quickly the room joined me. I had started to clap because I wanted to people to recognize that the issue of the "rule of law" was an important one...Even in non-verbal ways such as this, citizens engage with and learn from one another. This is what an 'epistemic process' looks like."

Well. Methinks Madison would have something to say about the attitude revealed there, pregnant with several ironies unflattering to Allen's partisan allegiances, and to her often naive promotion of 'Democratic Knowledge.' She has the sense to recognize that direct referendums have been bad, and to say a few warm things about vigorous local government, but by and large one has to hesitate to endorse what she thinks we ought to learn from Ober's showing us that "Athens knew what the Athenians knew, because ...it had devised institutions that made sure that useful knowledge of the widest possible range of individuals flowed to where it was needed."

This is a very thoughtful response, Carl Scott. I would like to read your dissertation. Is it published?

Thank you, Julie. It was defended in September and I'm told by the folks at Fordham U. that the publication date will be around mid-April. The title: "The Inconstant Democratic Character: A Comparison of Plato's Republic and Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Eventually it will be some sort of book, lest my claimed "foremost" expertise remain unknown!

Please keep us posted!

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