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Democracy and Knowledge:
Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens
Josiah Ober

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Chapter 1


HOW SHOULD a democratic community make public policy? The citizens of classical Athens used a simple rule: both policy and the practice of policy making must be good for the community and good for democracy. A time-traveling Athenian democrat would condemn contemporary American practice, on the grounds that it willfully ignores popular sources of useful knowledge.1

Willful ignorance is practiced by the parties of the right and left alike. The recipe followed by the conservative George W. Bush administration when planning for war in Iraq in 2002 was quite similar to the liberal William J. Clinton administration’s formula for devising a national health care policy a decade earlier: Gather the experts. Close the door. Design a policy. Roll it out. Reject criticism. Well-known policy failures like these do not prove that the cloistered-expert formula inevitably falls short. But the formula can succeed only if the chosen experts really do know enough. Our Athenian observer would point out that the cloistered-experts approach to policy making—insofar as it ignores vital information held by those not recognized as experts—is both worse for democracy and less likely to benefit the community. Contemporary political practice often treats free citizens as passive subjects by discounting the value of what they know. Democratic Athenian practice was very different.

The world of the ancient Greek city-states is a natural experimental laboratory for studying the relationship between democracy and knowledge: By the standards of pre-modernity, the Greek world experienced remarkable growth (Morris 2004). Growth is stimulated by innovation, and key innovations in the area of public knowledge management emerged, I will argue, from democratic institutions developed in classical Athens—the most successful and influential of all the thousand-plus Greek city-states. The distinctive Athenian approach to the aggregation, alignment, and codification of useful knowledge allowed Athenians to employ resources deftly by exploiting opportunities and learning from mistakes. The Athenians’ capacity to make effective use of knowledge dispersed across a large and diverse population enabled democratic Athens to compete well against non-democratic rivals. Athens did not always employ its knowledge-based democratic advantage wisely or justly. Its misuse of state power caused great harm, at home and abroad. Yet, over time, the Greek city-state culture benefited from the diffusion of innovative Athenian political institutions.

Athens offers alternatives to the cloistered-experts approach to policy making, alternatives that are consistent with some of the best modern thinking on democracy and knowledge. This book suggests that John Adams (2000 [1765]) and Friedrich Hayek (1945) were right: liberty does demand “a general knowledge among the people,” and the use of knowledge “dispersed among many people” is “the central theoretical problem of all social science.” The second president of the United States and the 1974 Nobel laureate in economics each called attention to useful knowledge that is—and ought to be—distributed across all levels of society. Making good policy for a democratic community dedicated to liberty and social justice, whether in antiquity or today, requires a system for organizing what is known by many disparate people. By demonstrating the truth of Adams’ startling claim that “the preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country,” this book argues that democracy once was, and might again become, such a system.

A willingness, with Adams, to “let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing,” matched with an ability to organize useful knowledge for learning and innovation, builds democracy’s core capacity. When policy makers rely too heavily on like-minded experts, they blunt democracy’s competitive edge. Hayek realized, as had Pericles before him, that access to social and technical knowledge, widely distributed among a diverse population, gives free societies a unique advantage against authoritarian rivals. The history of Athenian popular government shows that making good use of dispersed knowledge is the original source of democracy’s strength. It remains our best hope for sustained democratic flourishing in a world in which adherents of fundamentalist systems of belief express violent hostility to diversity of thought and behavior and in which new political hybrids, “managed democracy” and “authoritarian capitalism,” pose economic and military challenges.

Democratic societies, faced with rising authoritarian powers and non-state networks of true believers, may be tempted to imitate their challengers. Elected officials seek to counter emerging threats by centralizing executive power, establishing stricter lines of command, increasing government secrecy, and controlling public information. They mimic their enemies’ fervor by deploying the rhetoric of fear and fundamentalism. Citizens who allow their leaders to give in to these temptations risk losing their liberties along with the wellspring of their material flourishing. A liberal democracy can never match the command-and-control apparatus of authoritarians, nor can it equal the zeal of fanatics. The bad news offered here is that it is only by mobilizing knowledge that is widely dispersed across a genuinely diverse community that a free society can hope to outperform its rivals while remaining true to its values. The good news is that by putting knowledge to work, democracy can fulfill that hope.2


Since the time of Aristotle, democracy, as a field of study, has invited the integration of value-centered political theory with the scientific analysis of political practices. Yet the project of uniting democratic theory and practice remains incomplete, and Adams’ urgent plea that we attend to the vital public role of knowledge has too often been ignored. Much academic work on democracy still tacitly accepts some version of Tocqueville’s early nineteenth century claim that “the absolute sovereignty of the will of the majority is the essence of democratic government.” While impressed by the vibrancy of American civil society, Tocqueville argued that the “tyranny of the majority” promotes mediocrity (especially in military endeavors), legislative and administrative instability, and a general atmosphere of unpredictability.3

Working within the framework of democracy as majoritarianism, mid-twentieth-century social choice theorists updated Tocqueville’s concerns about democratic instability by identifying what appeared to be fatal flaws in the structure of democratic voting. Kenneth Arrow (1963, [1951]) demonstrated that the potential for voting cycles among factions rendered the stable aggregation of diverse preferences mathematically impossible. Anthony Downs (1957) showed that ignorance about political issues was a rational response among voters. The scientific rigor with which these findings were established seemed a devastating rebuttal to anyone offering more than “two cheers for democracy” (Forster 1951). In the last half-century, much of the best work on democratic politics has taken knowledge as a burdensome cost of participation, and has emphasized strategic bargaining among elites within the framework of an imperfect voting rule. While acknowledging that there is no better alternative, political scientists offered little reason to regard democracy as anything better than a least-bad, in Churchill’s famous dictum, “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”4

Meanwhile, contemporary political philosophers often regard democracy as a normative ideal. Democracy, they suggest, ought to be valued insofar as it furthers values of freedom, equality, and dignity along with practices of liberty as non-interference and non-domination, procedural fairness, and fair distribution of power and resources. Participatory forms of democracy ought to expand the scope for human flourishing through the exercise of individuals’ political capacity to associate with others in public decision making. Democratic commitment to deliberation requires decisions to be made by persuasive discourse and reciprocal reason-giving, while democratic tolerance for political dissent allows critics to expose inconsistencies between core values and current practices. Democratic culture encourages civic virtue in the form of consistent and voluntary social cooperation, yet democratic government does not demand that its citizens or leaders be moral saints. Churchill was right to say that democracies are inherently imperfect, but a participatory and deliberative democracy is in principle self-correcting, and ought to become better over time. These desirable attributes should emerge from the logic of collective decision making, follow-through, and rule setting in a socially diverse community if its members treat one another as moral equals.5

Looking at democracy through a classical Athenian lens suggests how the normative “ought” can be more closely conjoined with the descriptive “is.” Participatory and deliberative government, dedicated to and constrained by moral values, can be grounded in choices made by interdependent and rational individuals—people who are concerned (although not uniquely) with their own welfare and aware that it depends (although not entirely) on others’ behavior. Bringing normative political theory together with the philosophy of joint action and the political science of rational choice creates space for conceptual advances in democratic theory and social epistemology: it leads to defining democracy as the capacity of a public to do things (rather than simply as majority rule), to focusing on the relationship between innovation and learning (not just bargaining and voting), and to designing institutions to aggregate useful knowledge (not merely preferences or interests).

The potential payoff is great. Insofar as it promotes better values and better outcomes, a participatory and deliberative democracy is rightly favored over all other forms of political organization. Yet before embracing participation and deliberation, we must answer a practical question: Do good values cost too much in fiercely competitive environments? Given that participation and deliberation are inherently costly processes, can government by the people (as well as of and for them) compete militarily and economically with managed democracy, authoritarian capitalism, statelike networks, and other modern hybrids? Is democracy equal to the challenges of the future—climate change, natural resource depletion, demographic shifts, and epidemic disease?

Few democratic citizens, ancient or modern, would willingly tolerate the elimination of democracy as such. But by the same token, they expect their states to compete effectively with rivals and to address urgent issues of the day.6 Do the imperatives to seek competitive advantage and to solve global-scale problems mean that democratic states will best preserve their values by turning over government to a managerial elite of experts? That question was engaged in the mid-twentieth century, when democracy’s rivals were fascist and communist regimes: Joseph Schumpeter (1947) and Walter Lippmann (1956), among others, advocated a managed system of “democratic elitism,” while John Dewey (1954), whose commitment to knowledge mirrored Adams’, argued that an experimental and fallible democratic public could overcome its own problems.7 The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 reanimated scholarly interest in the deeper roots of the “democratic advantage”; in the early twenty-first century the relationship of democracy to outcomes remains an issue for policy makers and a problem in democratic theory.8 The question of the relationship between democracy and performance becomes even more trenchant when we look beyond the nation-state, to local governments and to non-governmental organizations. While democracy may have become a universal value (Sen 1999), it remains a rarity, even as an aspiration, within the organizations in which most of us spend most of our working lives (Manville and Ober 2003).

By assessing the relationship between economic and military performance, public institutions, knowledge, and choice, this book argues that democracy can best compete with authoritarian rivals and meet the challenges of the future by strengthening government by the people. If, in practice as in theory, democracy best aligns rational political choices with moral choices, and if that alignment promotes outstanding performance, then democracy could fairly claim to be the best possible form of government. In that case, choosing democracy would mean much more than settling for a least-bad—it would express an informed and justifiable preference for a political system that promotes valued ends, including (but not only) liberty, justice, and sustainable material prosperity, and is rightly desired as a valuable end-in-itself.9


My thesis, that democracy can align political choices with moral choices to produce outstanding results, rests on a set of arguments about knowledge, institutions, and state performance. The following chapters offer a historical case study of democratic practice, grounded in an extensive body of empirical evidence and informed by both normative (value-centered) and positive (causal explanation-centered) political theory. It describes how, in ancient Athens, government by the people enabled a large and socially diverse citizenship to find surprisingly good solutions to seemingly intractable social problems involving joint action and requiring shared value commitments. These problems arise whenever groups of self-interested and interdependent individuals seek to develop and carry out cooperative plans. Joint action problems confront all states—and indeed all other purposeful organizations, ancient and modern.10

Cooperation would be politically unproblematic if a group actually possessed a unitary general will of the sort Rousseau postulates in his Social Contract (2002 [1762]). But as Michael Bratman (1999: 93–161) argues, intentions are held by individuals: saying that “we intend” to do something means that our intentions are shared, but shared intention, unlike a general will, allows for substantial disagreement and competition. Bratman argues that joint action can be explained philosophically as a shared cooperative activity among individuals. In order to act jointly, individuals must not only share certain intentions, they must mesh certain of their subplans, manifest at least minimal cooperative stability, and possess relevant common knowledge. Philip Pettit and Christian List (in progress), drawing on Bratman’s reductively individualistic argument, suggest that joint action requires four basic steps:

  1. The members of a group each intend that they together promote a certain goal.
  2. They each intend to do their assigned part in a salient plan for achieving that goal.
  3. They each form these intentions at least partly on the basis of believing that the others have formed similar intentions.
  4. This is all a matter of common knowledge, with each believing that the first three conditions are met, each believing that others believe this, and so on.

In a democracy lacking both command-and-control governmental apparatus and an “all the way down” political ideology, it is initially difficult to see how free and equal individuals would be able to form such compatible intentions, would come to share beliefs about others’ intentions, or could gain common knowledge. Yet the Athenians must have done so. As we will see, democratic Athens featured highly participatory and deliberative institutions, formulated and carried out complex plans, and was, by various measures, a leading Greek city-state for most of its 180-year history as an independent democracy. Explaining democratic joint action in classical Athens will require conjoining cultural, historical, and social-scientific approaches to explaining why and how people come to act in certain ways under certain conditions.11

Institutions, understood as action-guiding rules, are an important part of the story. Institutional rules might, under some imaginable circumstances, become so strongly action-guiding as to determine people’s choices. At this point, social structure overwhelms individual agency; autonomy (understood as free choice) disappears along with the possibility of endogenous change. Yet even in the most rule-bound situations of the real world, agency persists; in a democracy, autonomy is positively valued and individual choices remain fundamental. Choices are always affected, but never fully determined, by the rules governing formal institutions (notably, for our purposes, legislative, judicial, and executive bodies), as well as by ideology, and by cultural norms. Meanwhile, institutions are recursively brought into being, sustained, revised, or discarded by the choices made by individuals.12

Joint action in the real world is easier to understand when it is predicated on hierarchy, in which the rules are strong and unambiguous. When an authoritative command is issued by an empowered individual, each of the multiple recipients of that command has certain ends set for him or her. If all have, and believe that others have, a prior intention to obey commands issued by the empowered individual, and if the order is publicly communicated and so a matter of common knowledge, each of Pettit and List’s conditions may be adequately met. Yet the problem of joint action does not disappear because individual agency is never reduced to zero. Those who are under orders ought not be regarded simply as passive instruments of another’s will, as they are, for example, in Taylorist management theory.13

To move from an order to a shared intention among its multiple recipients, and to shared belief about others’ intentions, the command must be taken by each of those commanded as having effective force. In the terms of J. L. Austin’s (1975 [1962]) theory of speech acts, it must be performed felicitously: it must be “taken up” such that a new social fact (people under orders) is brought into being. If that felicity condition is met, at least some of the group-agency difficulties regarding intention, belief, and commonality that come to the fore when thinking about democratic joint action drop away. Some version of this line of thought undergirds the claim by twentieth-century social theorists (e.g., Michels 1962 [1911]; Williamson 1975, 1985: see below) that large-scale participatory democratic organizations must inevitably be defeated by more hierarchical rivals. Yet even the most authoritative speech acts are liable to subversive misperformance; like other sorts of rules, the social rules governing felicity in speech are liable to interpretation and emendation.14

Three problems involving public goods and joint action will recur in our investigation of Athenian democratic institutions: collective action, coordination, and common pool resources.15 Although, as we will see, these three problems overlap in actual social practice, each has somewhat different formal properties and different implications for politics. Each concerns certain difficulties that social groups experience in fully reaping the benefits of cooperation. Difficulties arise for two reasons: First, individuals rationally interested in their own welfare do not necessarily answer “yes” when they ask themselves, “Is it reasonable for me to cooperate with others?” Second, even when the answer would be “yes, so long as they cooperate with me,” people may lack the relevant knowledge of others’ intentions (i.e., the answer to the question, “Is it reasonable for them to cooperate with me?”), and so the chance for productive cooperation is lost. Contemporary theories of rational choice making assume that we ordinarily answer self-queries about cooperation by reference to incentives (“Given our goals, has each of us been given an adequate reason to cooperate?”) rather than from motives of altruism (“Do we have reason to believe that our cooperation would enable others to achieve their goals?”).16

The self-interest-centered rational choice model discounts other-regarding benevolence as an independent motivation. Yet it is essential to keep in mind that the perfectly rational actor is a convenient methodological fiction: an over-simplification of human psychology that gains analytic power by reduction—by stripping away, as analytically irrelevant, many complexities of real-world human motivation. Moreover, to the extent that she empathetically experiences others’ pleasures and pains as her own, the good of others may be a positive incentive even for a perfectly rational individual. Here, I adopt a fairly parsimonious (nonaltruistic) approach to rationality in order to sharpen the analytic problem presented by democratic joint action. I do not, however, assume that robust egoism is or ought to be an adequate basis for anyone’s moral psychology.17

The first of our three problems involving joint action concerns collective action. The problem arises because, although a substantially better collective outcome would emerge from mutual cooperation, it is rational for each individual to defect (i.e., act in narrow self-interest) rather than to cooperate. Collective action is modeled in game theory by the “Prisoners’ Dilemma,” in which two prisoners end up serving long sentences as a result of their rational unwillingness to cooperate with each other in a course of action (refusing to reveal information to the authorities) that would gain short sentences for each. Neither prisoner is willing to risk the “sucker’s payoff”—that is, the cooperator receives a very long sentence while the defector goes free—that he would receive by cooperating while his partner defected.

The second problem is one of coordination. It differs from the first type in that there is no sucker’s payoff: people have good reason to want to cooperate, but they may have difficulty in doing so. In the coordination problem, there is no payoff to anyone without general cooperation in a course of action. The choice is between two (or more) different cooperative equilibria. If either equilibrium is equally good (for example, if we all drive on either the left or the right side of the road), no deep political problem emerges. The problem arises when many prefer a cooperative equilibrium different from the current one but remain ignorant of others’ preferences and intentions. This can be exemplified by the “despised but stable dictatorship.” Most of the dictator’s subjects would be willing to assume some personal risk to get rid of the dictator, but the action threshold for each remains too high until and unless each potential actor has good reason to believe that others will act in concert with her. Because each lacks that good reason, due to an absence of common knowledge regarding preferences and intentions, all stay quiet and the dictator remains in power.

The third problem, which returns to reasons people have for not cooperating, concerns common pool resources. Here the problem arises because it is rational for each individual in a group to cheat on agreements regulating use of shared resources by taking more than his or her share. The eventual result, a general degradation of the resource, is often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons.” It is modeled by a pasture commonly owned by a group of shepherds. They know how many sheep can be sustainably grazed on the pasture, so by mutual agreement each is permitted to graze only a certain number of sheep. Yet each shepherd has a high incentive to cheat by grazing an extra sheep. It is rational for him to do so because, in the short run, he receives a much higher return for his extra sheep than he loses from the marginal bad effects of introducing one sheep more than the grazing ground can sustainably support. But since all have the same incentive, the pasture is soon badly overgrazed and therefore the commonly owned resource is ruined. Readers unfamiliar with these sorts of “rational choosing and acting” problems will find further discussion of them in chapters 3–6.

In the following pages I refer to the joint action problems of collective action, coordination, and common pool resources as public action problems, because my concern is with democracy. In its original Greek form (de¯mokratia), democracy meant that “the capacity to act in order to effect change” (kratos) lay with a public (de¯mos) composed of many choice-making individuals (Ober 2006a). While problems involving joint action are endemic to organized human communities, political solutions to those problems, that is, ways of generating and sustaining cooperation, are various. Solutions may be better or worse when judged in moral terms and economically more or less efficient. I seek to show how distinctively democratic solutions to public action problems can be economically efficient while remaining morally preferable to despotic or oligarchic alternatives. Here, the emphasis is on efficiency—on the argument that robust forms of participatory democracy need not be traded off for competitiveness. The ultimate reason for preferring democracy is, however, because it is morally preferable: more liberal in the sense of better promoting individual liberty, dignity, and social justice, and, by offering people a richer opportunity to associate in public decisions, more supportive of the expression of constitutive human capacities (Ober 2007b).


The following paragraphs set out the book’s major premises regarding human nature, competition, culture, and power, along with the hypothesis that my argument seeks to test.

Humans are highly sociable (group-forming and interdependent), fairly rational (expected utility optimizing and strategic), and extremely communicative (language-using and symbol-interpreting) animals. As such, we live in communities in which we create meaning for ourselves and others through social interaction; in which we pursue interests based in part on our expectations of others’ actions; and in which we exchange goods of various kinds, including ideas and information.18 The sum of the choices made by individuals living in (and otherwise involved with) a viable community defines a self-reinforcing social-economic equilibrium. A given equilibrium may be relatively more or less cooperative, relatively adaptive or relatively inflexible. Because social cooperation produces economic value (as well as being valuable in non-material ways), more cooperative and (in changing environments) more dynamically adaptive equilibria perform relatively well in economic terms. Less cooperative and inflexible equilibria perform poorly. An equilibrium may be judged robust if it is capable of maintaining coherence in the face of substantial environmental changes.19

Communities (including states) exist in multicommunity ecologies in which they compete with one another for scarce resources, even as they cooperate by exchanging goods and services and in other ways. In more competitive environments, a given community must gain greater economic benefits from social cooperation or suffer the consequences of its failure. Because of persistent intercommunity competition there is constant, more or less intense, pressure for each community to achieve a higher-performing equilibrium. Competitive pressure rewards strong forms of state organization and drives out weaker ones (Waltz 1979). We might, therefore, expect states that gain and hold leading positions in highly competitive ecologies like the ancient Greek world (chapter 3), to be better than their less successful rivals at coordination, at avoiding deadly commons tragedies, and at addressing collective-action problems in effective ways—for example by increasing the credibility of commitments, lowering transaction costs, and reducing the incidence of free-riding. Historically, more successful Greek poleis ought, in short, to have been better organized.

Competition under changing environmental conditions rewards innovation and punishes rigid path dependency, that is, collectively sticking to a given way of doing things over time, despite its declining efficiency. On the other hand, competition among states can lead to imitation of valuable innovations and enhanced potential for interstate cooperation. Because stronger states may dominate weaker states, coerced cooperation and cultural convergence can be produced by power inequalities. Interstate cooperation and emulation may also, however, be voluntary and based on a recognition of compatible interests and advantages. In either case, shared cultural norms and interstate institutions can extend across an ecology of states, potentially enabling a culture as a whole to better compete against—and in turn to cooperate with, to emulate, and to be emulated by—other cultures. The era of the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century and the pre-and postwar history of Aegean/western Asian interaction exemplifies this interactive process.20

If carried to its logical end, imitation and convergence might eliminate cultural diversity altogether. Yet no state or culture has yet achieved a performance advantage great enough to drive all rivals into extinction or slavish emulation. Public action problems have been addressed in quite different ways in different communities over the course of human history; the historical record offers a rich and still largely unexplored repository of more and less successful experiments in public action.21

Within a given community, culture and ideology serve (inter alia) as instruments by which individuals are persuaded to make more cooperative choices than they would make in a game-theoretic “state of nature.”22 Cultural persuasion may take a hard form by making a given set of choices appear inevitable, or a soft form by making certain choices appear more desirable or morally preferable than known alternatives. Because of the ideological work done by culture, neither utility nor the social information on which expectations about utility are developed can simply be taken for granted. One important effect of culture is to help to shape individuals’ conceptions of utility and to filter social information regarding how utility is best achieved.23

Power, in this intracommunity context, should be understood as including (although not as limited to) direct or indirect control over how the additional outputs of goods and services that are generated through social cooperation are managed (e.g., through democratic choice or authoritarian command), how those outputs are distributed, and how they are deployed in ongoing competitions with rival communities and to address other problems. States, like firms and other purposeful organizations, are integrated systems in which control of cooperation-derived surplus is organized, held (or lost), and wielded by certain individual and institutional actors.24

Democracy, then, is a sociopolitical system featuring relatively soft forms of cultural persuasion, thereby offering individuals a broad range of choices and relatively full social information. Power in a democracy is not monopolized by an individual or a small elite nor is it exercised uniquely within formal institutions. The question of how the benefits of social cooperation are to be managed, distributed, and deployed must be negotiated (e.g., through deliberative decision making or voting) among relatively large and diverse groups of citizens, rather than being mandated by a small and exclusive leadership elite. In a competitive ecology, a state organized as a democracy must find ways to compete with more hierarchical and hard-ideology rivals. Hierarchical rivals appear to enjoy substantial advantages in respect to the employment of culture for addressing incentive problems. Democracies seem, on the face of it, particularly vulnerable to free riders, hard-put to make their commitments credible, confused about the relationship between decision-making principals and the agents assigned to carrying out orders, and insufficiently attentive to expert judgment.25


Based on the premises sketched out in the preceding paragraphs, one might suppose that, all other things being equal, democracies would perform relatively poorly in competitive environments. And yet, while some contemporary democratic states do underperform, others do very well indeed. As we shall see, there is good reason to believe that some ancient Greek democracies fared less well than some of their more hierarchical rivals. Yet in antiquity, as in modernity, certain democracies performed extremely well; classical Athens is a case in point—it was the preeminent Greek city-state on a variety of measures (chapter 2). The problem this book seeks to answer is why and how democratic Athens came to perform so comparatively well.

Because democracy is morally preferable to its alternatives, specifying the conditions under which democracies do well is a matter of great importance. The problem of democratic flourishing has attracted substantial attention from economists and political scientists, but there is as yet no clear consensus about why high-performing democracies do extraordinarily well. Comparative historical cases of high-performing democracies are valuable in that they enable us to test theories about the relationship between social choice, culture, and power by analyzing specific institutions under different conditions. The competitive world of the ancient Greek city-states is a particularly good laboratory in that it allows us to hold constant a variety of exogenous environmental and cultural factors that complicate attempts to gauge democracy’s role in the flourishing of modern nations.26

This book contributes to the literature on democracy and performance in two ways. First, it analyzes the working of the institutions of an ancient state that has received sustained attention from historians since the mid-nineteenth century, but remains understudied by contemporary social scientists.27 Next, it seeks to show how certain institutions that promoted the state’s economic success also fostered a vibrant civic culture and (in certain spheres) admirable social arrangements. There are, of course, limits to our admiration for any society that exploited the labor of slaves, excluded women from political participation, and used violence and the threat of violence to extract resources from unwilling subjects—as did classical Athens. But those fundamental moral failings, which were common to other Greek city-states, should not foreclose attempts to understand aspects of Athenian social life that promoted procedural and distributive justice and expanded the scope of individual liberty and human flourishing.

My hypothesis (which is stated more formally at the end of this chapter) is that in classical Athens, superior economic and military performance was, at least in part, a product of democratic institutions and civic culture. Democracy, ancient and modern, is associated with an array of economically beneficial institutions, notably those committing governments to protecting rights in respect to property, citizenship, and legal processes. These commitment features have been the primary focus of recent social-scientific studies attempting to explain the “democratic advantage.” Commitment features of various kinds were common to a number of Greek republics, oligarchies and democracies alike, and can certainly help to explain both Athenian flourishing and the overall flourishing of the Greek city-state ecology. But our special concern here is with Athenian exceptionalism within the city-state ecology. I therefore focus primarily on the epistemic function of democratic institutions, positing that exceptional Athenian performance is best explained by what Friedrich A. Hayek (1945) called “the use of knowledge in society.”

In arguing against centralized economic planning by a small body of experts, Hayek pointed out that “the practical problem [of promoting economic rationality] arises precisely because [the relevant] facts are never so given to a single mind, and because, in consequence, it is necessary that in the solution of the problem knowledge should be used that is dispersed among many people” (1945: 530). Hayek emphasized that the knowledge with which he is concerned is not reducible to scientific knowledge (in which expertise is the key issue); he pointedly included unique information about particular circumstances in his definition. Useful knowledge in Hayek’s sense is possessed not only by experts, but by “practically every individual” (1945: 521). Hayek focused on microeconomics, and thus on price, as immediately communicated social information about changes in supply and demand. He argued, however, that “the problem [of dispersed knowledge] which we meet here is by no means peculiar to economics but arises in connection with nearly all truly social phenomena . . . and constitutes really the central theoretical problem of all social science” (1945: 528).28

Politics differs from economics in that there is no neat analog to the price mechanism for seamlessly converting a mass of dispersed information into a single instantly communicable solution.29 But Hayek’s insistence that widely dispersed social knowledge inevitably escapes and defeats the best attempts at central planning by small groups of experts is germane to the question of why a democracy might compete well against hierarchical governments. I will argue that participatory democracy has the potential to behave more like a market and less like a central planning board in respect to useful knowledge. Democracies in the Athenian style can gain competitive advantage by devising institutions that respond to change through knowledge in action.

By knowledge in action I mean making information available for socially productive purposes through individual choices made in the context of institutional processes, and involving both innovation and learning.30 The key to successful democratic decision making is the integration of dispersed and latent technical knowledge with social knowledge and shared values. Athens achieved higher than otherwise-expected performance through better-than-usual information processing—by transforming raw data and unprocessed information into politically valuable knowledge.31 That transformation was carried out through processes that aggregated, aligned, and codified knowledge while balancing the potentially contradictory drives for innovation as generation of new solutions and learning as socialization in routines of proven value.

The organizational theorist James March and his collaborators have shown (through studies of how business firms are organized) that innovation and learning are potentially contradictory drives: social learning is valuable in that learning allows routinization and routinization increases returns to effort. But the capacity for innovation, which is essential for success in changing competitive environments, depends on people’s socialization in established routines remaining incomplete. In volatile environments, too much learning can compromise competitive advantage, as can too little learning when conditions are more predictable.32

When the innovation/learning balance, whether in a firm or a state, is right, its productive capacity will be high, and robustly so. We may describe such a system as exhibiting good organizational design.It isimportant to note that “design,” as I use the term, need not imply a designer. A political system may be the product of unguided processes of experimental adaptation over time (on the analogy of the British “constitution”), or the product of formal planning (like the postwar West German or Japanese constitutions). Or it may be some combination of experimentation and formality (like the U.S. Constitution). In later chapters I will touch on, but not try to solve, the question of how much of the organizational design evidenced by the Athenian political system arose from a series of adaptive experiments, and how much can be attributed to an intelligently chosen top-down blueprint.33

Figure 1.1 presents a schematic and intentionally static model of the factors of knowledge at play in an ideal-type democracy. The burden of the following chapters will be to put these various factors into a dynamic relationship with one another—to bring the system to life by explaining its endogenous capacity for change. This will entail showing, first, why rational individuals would choose to share and exchange useful knowledge within particular institutional contexts. Next I must show how action-guiding institutions both promoted the development of social learning and stimulated innovation. Finally, I will need to explain how Athenian institutions avoided ossification while remaining predictable enough that ordinary people—concerned with the everyday business of devising, refining, and pursuing their individual and collective life-plans— would choose to invest substantial time in learning how those institutions worked and in “working the machine” of Athenian self-governance.

In Athens, with its effective democratic institutions and vibrant civic culture, superior organization of knowledge became a key differentiator that allowed the community to compete effectively against its rivals. There is no reason to believe that Athens’ democratic productivity was a unique result of an irreproducible set of historically contingent circumstances. Although scale differences between Athens and any modern nation-state render direct comparisons inappropriate, some Athenian democratic institutions are structurally similar enough, in relevant ways, to those found in modern organizations to allow certain conclusions about the Athenian case to be extrapolated to contemporary circumstances. Among this book’s ambitions is to demonstrate the value for democratic theory of a focus on public action. I also hope to show the value of ancient history for social science and vice versa. Finally, I hope to help persuade political scientists and historians alike that there is much to be gained from closer attention to dispersed knowledge, innovation, and learning.

Classical Athens offers a particularly good case for studying democracy and economic performance. It is historically complete, featuring long and reasonably well documented predemocratic, democratic, and postdemocratic periods (chapter 2). The relatively well-integrated, Mediterranean-centered world of the ancient Greek poleis (Horden and Purcell 2000; Morris 2003) allows us to hold cultural and environmental variables constant, strengthening the argument for the endogeneity of democratic productivity—which is to say that increased state capacity is produced by democracy rather than by some external cause. The world of the poleis was characterized by intense interstate competition (as well as cooperation) and was not a “small pond.” Greece manifested remarkably strong overall demographic and economic growth over the course of the period in question (ca. 600–300 B.C.). Classical Greek standards of living and population densities are unusually high for premodern societies, and, in at least some geographic regions of the Greek world, appear to have approached modern levels (see, further, chapters 2, 3, and 7).

The need for effective public solutions to the problems of public action was acute in democratic Athens because of its relatively great size, the social diversity of its citizenry, and its culture of personal freedom and individual choice. As a society, Athens was sufficiently complex to make it interesting to students of the contemporary world—indeed, it is possible to speak without whimsy or paradox of ancient Athens as, in certain ways, “modern.”34 Of course, one need not be a political theorist, ancient historian, or social scientist to regard the success of democratic Athens as an interesting puzzle. How could a system of policy making by open discussions in public assemblies attended by hundreds, or thousands, of non-expert decision makers have contributed so much to “the glory that was Greece”?35


No case study is perfect, and there are limits to what the Athenian case can tell us. I will attempt to demonstrate that innovative solutions to public-action problems helped the Greek city-state culture to flourish and enabled democratic Athens to become richer and more powerful (on the whole and over time) than its city-state rivals. Ian Morris, Geoffrey Kron, and others have collected evidence showing that in comparison with other premodern cultures, classical (ca. 500–320 B.C.) Greeks in general and classical Athenians in particular were remarkably well off on a per capita basis (notably in terms of nutrition and house size), and much better off than they had been in the preceding “dark age” (ca. 1150–750) and the archaic era (ca. 750–500).36 It is not possible, however, given the state of our evidence, to track short-term changes in well-being or wealth or to measure differences in per capita wealth or income between poleis. I focus here on the comparative overall performance of communities, as an admittedly imperfect proxy for their general economic welfare. The terms “flourishing” and “capacity” will be employed as shorthand for a given polis’ actual and potential economic and military performance when compared to rival poleis and its ability to accumulate resources, ensure security, and influence other states in a competitive environment.37

Material well-being matters a lot, but it is far from the whole story. Prevailing in competition with rivals through superior economic and military performance was only one of the Athenians’ goals in the era of democracy. Honoring the gods through appropriate rituals and preserving the freedom, equality, and dignity of citizens were regarded as vitally important ends. Economic and military performance may be regarded as a “satisficing condition,” in that the necessity of achieving at least a minimum level of deployable wealth and power was a constraint on the resources and social energy that the Athenians—or the citizens of any other state in a competitive ecology—could afford to devote to achieving their other ends. There were some trade-offs, but pursuing the goals of higher performance and promoting other valued ends should not be regarded as zero-sum. The economic success of the state enabled temple building, numerous and splendid festivals, and other communal expressions of civic identity and religious feeling. Moreover, as I suggested above, social choices that promoted state performance were compatible with moral choices that preserved the goods of individual freedom, equality, and dignity for many (although certainly not all) Athenians.38

I will attempt to demonstrate, in the chapters that follow, that Athenian flourishing, especially in the post-imperial fourth century, rested less on rent seeking (that is, using power to extract remuneration beyond what a competitive market would provide) than on the development of Athens as a desirable and accessible center for exchange. Athens differed in important ways from premodern “natural states,” which achieve a stable social, political, and economic equilibrium through strategic agreement by a small group of power holders to share rents with an exclusive body of specialists in violence. Natural states focus their economic activity on extracting rents and narrowly curtail access to legal rights and redress. By contrast, Athens flourished and thereby gained state capacity in part by creating conditions favorable to entry into institutions of exchange and law by diverse categories of persons—to lower-class citizens and ultimately to some non-citizens. The development of Athens as a trade center was thus promoted by the same institutionalized practices that sustained its democratic values of procedural fairness and free access to political institutions. Focusing on knowledge in action clarifies the relationship between democracy, fairness, and access across political, legal, and economic domains.39

There were limits to Athenian fairness and openness in regard to entry. Athenians remained attached to practices that were morally indefensible and economically unproductive. Classical Athens never approached its threshold of optimal performance in part because the Athenians failed to promote political equality beyond the ranks of native males. Much dispersed and potentially useful social and technical knowledge remained publicly inaccessible because the Athenian male citizens refused to accept women as full participants in the participatory political order, were too slow to naturalize long-term residents as citizens, and remained committed to slaveholding. While the rules governing Athenian slaveholding suggest that Athenians recognized the fundamental injustice of slavery, they were unwilling to abandon slavery as a culturally acceptable form of rent seeking.40 These failings must be weighed heavily when judging Athens as a moral community, and they arguably contributed to Athens’ eclipse in the late fourth century by the national empire of Macedon. But, insofar as these failings were common to the Greek city-states, they did not degrade Athens’ performance relative to its polis rivals.

The question remains: Did the costs of Athens’ commitment to political participation have a deleterious effect on Athenian economic and military performance? While difficult to quantify, there were certainly substantial financial costs associated with bringing many people with a wide range of specific and general competence into positions of relatively great public responsibility. The majority of Athenians who worked for a living could not afford to engage in public service without pay.41 The cost of individual incompetence was sometimes high. I argue in detail, below, that these participatory costs were controlled by good institutional design, and that, over time, they were overbalanced by the knowledge gains that the Athenians reaped from participatory practices. Yet it is important to keep in mind that participation was in some ways costly, and that those costs did sometimes compromise short-term competitive advantage.42 Along with financial costs and costly mistakes, there were certainly substantial losses of opportunity that resulted from Athens’ open and participatory system of government. The high costs of doing democratic political business could have led to the general failure of the polis had Athens’ social equilibrium not proved robust enough for Athens to be able to survive crises. The fact that there were crises that had to be survived points to the obvious fact that Athens was not consistently successful.

Moreover, although the Athenians liked to think of themselves as uniquely innovative and quick to take advantage of new opportunities, Athens was not in every sense unique in its own historical context. Overestimating their own capacities on the basis of overstating Athenian exceptionalism contributed to arrogance in the fifth century—and thus to bad public decisions. Although the Athenians sometimes spoke and acted as if their system were inimitable, Athens had no monopoly on good institutional design; some of this book’s conclusions should help to explain the relative success of other classical and Hellenistic Greek poleis and nonpolis collectivities— including the Macedonian kingdom that ultimately came to dominate the Greek poleis.

Successful institutional imitation by other states reduced Athens’ performance advantage during the classical age, notably in the later stages of the Peloponnesian War and in the mid-fourth century, the era of the so-called Social War. In the Hellenistic period, public institutions and cultural practices first pioneered by democratic Athens were widely adopted by other poleis, especially in western Asia.43 Imitation contributed to Athens’ failure to retain its preeminence indefinitely. Yet by the same token, imitation of Athens almost certainly had an overall long-term positive effect on the Greek world. Although it is a difficult hypothesis to test, it seems likely that the vitality of the Greek polis as an organizational form, well into the periods of Macedonian and Roman rule, can be attributed in some part to the widespread and successful imitation of institutional solutions for public-action problems that were originally devised in Athens.

The Athenians’ shortcomings—their moral failings, tendency to arrogance, mistakes of judgment, vulnerability to incompetence, and unwillingness to acknowledge their own limitations and imitability—are unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. These issues have been repeatedly rehearsed since antiquity; the history of Athens must be reconstructed in large part from the literature written by its sternest ancient critics. The history of the Greek city-states has long been a matter of interest to political innovators, as a potential repository of valuable institutional forms. Yet many practice-oriented students of Greek history, including the American Founders, have been fearful of adopting Athenian-style participative and deliberative institutions. Their unease arose in part because Athens’ historical record seemingly featured too many mistakes, which were attributed by critics to the ignorance of popular assemblies.44

Popular ignorance is a poor explanation for Athens’ failings; Hayek’s attention to dispersed knowledge suggests that elite ignorance is a more serious problem, because it is less often recognized. I will argue that the positive effect of democratic knowledge in action is what allowed Athens to survive its mistakes. By analyzing the function of democratic knowledge-based processes, this study aims to lower the perceived and actual risk of incorporating practices of participation and deliberation into contemporary systems of organizational governance.45


In arguing that the unusually robust and productive Athenian solution to the problems of public action depended on discovering effective means to organize what was known by a large community’s diverse membership, I focus on three epistemic processes, each involving innovation and learning. First is aggregation, by which I mean the process of collecting the right kinds of dispersed knowledge in a timely manner for purposes of decision making. The second process is alignment, enabling people who prefer similar outcomes to coordinate their actions by reference to shared values and a shared body of common knowledge. Third is codification, the process by which implemented decisions become action-guiding rules capable of influencing future social behavior and interpersonal exchanges.

Each of these epistemic processes has been studied in depth by social scientists, but most often in isolation from the other two. Thus, for example, the literature on knowledge aggregation (often focusing on deliberative practices) typically treats common knowledge and information cascades as decision-making pathologies. Yet, once a decision has been reached, common knowledge and cascading must come into play in order to enable non-hierarchical groups to move from decision to implementation. Likewise, the extensive literature on the role of rules in lowering transaction costs tends to slight the question of how rules come to be made and revised in democratic contexts. Because we are seeking to explain the role of knowledge in the performance of a democratic organization, we must keep in mind the overall epistemic situation and attempt to grasp the dynamic interaction among epistemic processes. The three processes are schematically illustrated in figure 1.2 and explained in greater detail in chapter 3.

Exploring why an ancient democracy can be said to have an active and in some ways even modern approach to the aggregation, alignment, and codification of knowledge helps to explain the historical puzzle of Athenian exceptionalism. The approach taken in the following chapters varies between the synchronic approach of treating “democratic Athens” as a single entity, and a diachronic approach that breaks the long history of Athens from the seventh through the second centuries B.C. into twelve distinct periods (see chapter 2). The question of “why did Athens stand out from its rivals?” is more pointed because democratic Athens did not succeed “once and for all” by mastering a single economic domain: Athens rebounded from a series of shocks by adapting to changed circumstances and succeeding in new domains of collective endeavor. A key part of the answer to the question of how classical Athens flourished over time will be that democratic institutions, originally established to address particular problems at a specific historical moment in the late sixth century B.C., proved highly adaptive over the next six human generations. Institutional innovations served to ensure that Athens’ capacity for solving public-action problems was preserved in the face of a changing environment. The net result was a sustained level of state wealth, power, and cultural influence—an outcome that could not have been fully anticipated by the democratic institutions’ original framers.


The following chapters employ a variety of methods for interpreting social behavior and public action. The deployment of well-tested theories for explaining the operation of social networks, the function of common knowledge, and the role of state institutions in lowering transaction costs can, I believe, help to reveal the wellsprings of Athens’ record of accomplishment. The residents of ancient Greece had no comparable body of social theory to draw upon in explaining how and why democracy worked. Yet prominent ancient writers with direct experience of Athenian democratic practices have something to tell us about the relationship between democracy, knowledge, and action. Ancient Greek authors recognized incentive problems, and shrewdly perceived that democratic flourishing over time and in multiple domains was a product of institutionalized processes promoting cooperation, learning, and innovation. Moreover, because ancient writers tend to view public action and knowledge within a moral framework, they point the way to an integration of history, positive theory, and normative theory.46

This introductory chapter sets out the book’s central hypothesis about democracy, public action, and knowledge organization, and then situates that hypothesis in the broader interpretive framework in which this book came to be written. Chapter 2 treats the history of Athens as a twelve-era “multiperiod case study” and empirically demonstrates two propositions. First is that Athens was highly successful (in terms of its material flourishing over time) when compared with peer polities and rivals—that is to say, with other major Greek poleis. The second proposition is that democracy played a causal role in Athens’ success. Chapter 3 introduces competition, scale, and the organization of knowledge. I argue that knowledge organization, in its relationship to public action, at scale and in a competitive environment, is a critical factor in explaining why Athenian democratic institutions proved to be productive in the ancient Greek context. The chapter defines the relevant kinds and processes of knowledge with which we will be concerned, and confronts the doubts raised by organizational theorists about the very possibility of democratic productivity.

Chapters 4–6 examine in detail the three knowledge processes (aggregation, alignment, and codification) identified in chapter 3 as especially relevant to productivity. Each of these three central chapters describes particular democratic institutions and practices in Athens. We will look closely at the problems that institutions were meant to solve when they were first established, and how they functioned and evolved in the context of the democratic community and its changing competitive environment. Attention to how the Athenians developed and revised institutions in response to environmental challenges will in turn help to explain how the democratic order fostered innovation and learning within and across domains of endeavor, rewarded cooperative behavior, sanctioned misbehavior, and addressed incentive problems. In methodological terms, the theory of knowledge in action laid out in chapter 3 should (and does) predict the kinds of institutions that we find to be prevalent in Athens in chapters 4–6.

The concluding chapter 7 conjoins this book’s findings about institutions and practices with some of my earlier work on the roles played by Athenian democratic ideology and political dissent in building and sustaining a large, diverse, and participatory democratic community. The result is a more fully rounded explanation of “how and why Athens performed as well as it did.”

This book stands on its own, but it also completes a trilogy on the theory and practice of politics in democratic Athens. In the two previous installments (Ober 1989, 1998: outlined below), I deliberately slighted formal institutions of government and exchange in favor of an emphasis on power, rhetoric, ideology, and dissent. This book fills an institutional gap in my account of Athens, but it takes for granted that formal institutions are only one part of the story. I sketch the main arguments of the two previous parts of the trilogy below, but because the focus here is on the role of formal institutions and public practices, this book has relatively little to say about topics that I treated in detail in earlier work. Ideology and critique, and the discursive forms in which they were expressed, were fundamental aspects of Athenian political life and tightly interwoven with the formal institutions of democratic government.47 If we are to comprehend the choices made by Athenians, as individuals and as collectivities, we must keep in mind that formal institutions are both affected by and are platforms for the expression of ideological commitment and critical challenge. If our goal is to sculpt an “in the round” portrait of Athenian political life in order to grasp the potential of participatory and deliberative democracy, we must integrate analysis of ideology and critique with rational calculation and ethical responsibility.48

Athenian state performance is of more than antiquarian interest because Athens was a diverse society governed by a genuine and robust democracy for some six generations (from 508 to 322 B.C.) and periodically thereafter. Athens would be uninteresting as a case study of democratic success if, counterfactually, popular participation were ephemeral, or a fac¸ade masking elite rule. Athens would be equally uninteresting if it were predicated on such a high level of homogeneity of thought and culture that diversity and free choice—hallmarks of modern democracy— were irrelevant. Since Athens offers a sustained example of a state that was indeed governed by the people and was characterized by high levels of epistemic diversity and individual agency, it is invalid to preempt the question “how does participatory democracy work?” by treating it as analytically equivalent to asking “how does a Pegasus fly?”—that is, as applicable only to imaginary entities.49

The most important preemptive claim about democracy is famously set out in Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” (Michels 1962 [1915]). In his influential study of the historical development of European labor parties of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Michels dispensed with the question “how does participatory democracy work?” by analytic fiat: democracy, as a sustainable form of participatory self-government by a mass of ordinary people in a large association, could never exist for long (and certainly not for anything like six human generations) because it predictably and rapidly devolves into the rule of a managerial elite. That devolution is driven by the requirement of large collectivities for organization in order to achieve (or indeed even seek to achieve) their ends. The intensity of that requirement and the apparent impossibility of organization arising from direct forms of mass decision making led Michels to state his sociological hypothesis about elite domination as an “iron law.” Of course, if ever effective organization did arise and was sustained over time in a participatory democracy, such that a mass of people could consistently achieve their collectively chosen ends, the “iron law of oligarchy” would be refuted as such—even if Michels’ general claim about the need for elite leadership remains valid under most conditions.50

In Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Ober 1989) I argued that there is no historical evidence for devolution to elite rule in Athens. In the fifth and fourth centuries alike, the de¯mos as a body (the citizenry as a whole, exemplified by the citizens at a given assembly) and the ordinary citizens, as individuals and working in small groups, actually ruled via direct participation in the primary institutions of governance. This does not mean that there were no leaders, or that there were no elite leaders with special expertise in domains relevant to organized governance.51 It means that democratic leadership was built on a model of the volunteer expert adviser constantly seeking public attention and approval through direct communication with the citizenship, rather than on a model of the authoritative expert class of rulers who occasionally seek legitimation through elections. Socially elite Athenians retained their private wealth; the demos’ political power was not used to impose equality of outcome by systematic violations of established claims to private property. Wealthy citizens could and did achieve political prominence, and thus positions of leadership, by demonstrating, through speech and action, both their expert credentials and their commitment to democratic cultural norms and aspirations. They did not, however, become a Michels-style ruling elite. In the present book I return to the issue of the roles played by elites and masses in democratic organization by specifying in more detail the institutional conditions under which public actions were carried out by a participatory citizenry over time.

I concluded Mass and Elite by stressing the importance of the ideological hegemony of the ordinary citizens— the control of the discursive contexts in which public behavior of individuals was judged and in which abstractions (such as freedom and equality) were evaluated and associated with political practices. That conclusion left open the possibility of another easy answer for Athenian democratic success: that the citizen-centered (and thus adult, native, male-dominated) Athenian political culture was so massively hegemonic as to eliminate diversity of thought or behavior, and with it many of the public action problems we associate with diverse communities of individuals capable of identifying and seeking their own good.

On this potential line of argument (which can be stated positively in Rousseauian terms, or negatively in Orwellian terms), it was not really democracy as it is normally understood that produced the result of successfulness, but rather it was a sort of communal “one-mindedness” that did away with individual agency and obscured intracommunity diversity. Athens might thus be explained in terms of a homogeneity that could be regarded as worthy of praise by strong communitarians or blame by liberals. Yet, as a corollary, it is generally supposed that such homogeneity is (for better or worse) only sustainable under conditions of premodernity. A homogeneous Athens would be of little interest in thinking about democracy as a modern system of organizational governance because all modern democratic systems must accommodate epistemic and social diversity, and must be predicated on the choices of individuals freely seeking to fulfill their own aspirations.52

In Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (Ober 1998) I argued that Athenian democracy cannot be explained in terms of cultural normalization and epistemic homogeneity. I focused on the development of an influential dissident “critical community” among Athenian intellectuals and on the form and content of their written work. The dissidents recognized Athens as a socially diverse political association, made up of individuals willfully pursuing individual aspirations through individual actions. Far from supposing that Athenian cultural norms rendered public action simple, the dissidents worried about how good public decision making was possible in the face of individual self-interest and that ethical norms had too little purchase on members of a community that celebrated individual freedom. They sought to explain how a “bad” (or at least misguided) popular regime could be so apparently successful, and what sort of alternatives to it might be devised, in theory or in practice. Their efforts resulted in much of the literature (including Thucydidean history, Platonic and Aristotelian political philosophy) that we now tend to regard as typical of classical Greece.

I concluded Political Dissent in Democratic Athens by arguing that an important component of Athens’ democratic capacity to change over time in response to new challenges was realized within the space democracy left open for the development and voicing of openly dissident opinion. Here I return, briefly and in passing, to Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle as theorists of democracy, focusing on their explanations for how solving public action problems and organizing useful knowledge allowed participatory democracy to exceed expectations, despite what they regarded as its very serious failings as a system of government.53

In sum, we ought not seek preemptively to answer the question of how Athens’ participatory democracy worked by reference either to a cryptic ruling elite of experts, or to a homogeneous premodern mass culture that eliminated potential public action problems by normative fiat. Yet two other obvious answers for explaining democratic flourishing will occur to readers familiar with modern discussions of democracy. First is the free-market economist’s belief that democracy succeeds because it allows for the development of open markets and robust economic growth.54 Next is the classical republican’s claim that democracy benefits from high morale and civic virtue, as well as a sense of patriotism, shared identity, and communal solidarity among the citizenry.

Markets and morale do indeed help to illuminate the Athenian democratic case and help to explain the overall positive correlation between generically republican (non-despotic) constitutional form and success among Greek poleis (see chapter 2). Each will receive a good deal more discussion in the chapters that follow. It is now widely (although not universally) acknowledged that, especially in the fourth century, the Athenian economy was market oriented in some important ways.55 And it is certainly the case that democracy promoted a relatively strong sense of citizen identity, based in part on shared values of liberty, political equality, and security.56 But market economy and citizen-centered morale effects are themselves only two aspects of the organization of knowledge. Athens’ market economy and the morale of its citizens seem to me inadequate, in themselves, to explain Athenian exceptionalism within the city-state ecology. The growth of Athens’ market was stimulated by institutionalized public knowledge processes (see chapter 6). Meanwhile, rival republican Greek states (such as Sparta) featured non-democratic systems of governance specifically designed to maximize morale effects. If morale adequately explains polis flourishing, then democratic Athens should not have competed against its non-democratic republican rivals as well as it demonstrably did.57


The focus on social epistemology, on knowledge as a key to a democratic state’s success, may, on the face of it, seem peculiar, given that success demands expertise and participatory democracy places much responsibility for public affairs in the hands of non-experts. Commentators have rightly pointed out that democratic institutions and culture contribute to citizen morale and to the credibility of a government’s commitment to repay its debts. These democratic features translate into advantages in the vital areas of military mobilization and raising capital. Yet, in light of the expertise issue, it is often assumed that successes enjoyed by a participatory democracy like Athens must be in spite of, rather than because of, its approach to the organization of useful knowledge. Plato’s Republic provides the paradigm case.58

Plato famously argued in the Republic that democracy was systematically flawed as a form of governance because (inter alia) it was based on a bad relationship between knowledge (understood as justified true belief) and political authority. He reasoned that the practice of democracy requires a capacity for good judgment about the basic question “what choices are most conducive to the human good?” on the part of nonexpert ordinary citizens, operating both in groups and individually. Plato denied that ordinary men had the capacity to make judgments about the human good, or could ever gain it. He held that in any given domain (be it shoemaking or ruling), judgment ought to be left to experts with the specialized knowledge that would render their judgments valid. Plato argued that in an ideal state only philosophers would rule. His argument was based on his assumption that the domain of ruling required expert philosophical knowledge of the Form of the Good. Because only a very few people had the capacity ever to develop philosophical expertise, and even then only by dint of long training, rulership must always be left in the hands of a tiny elite of the wise.59

Few subsequent commentators on the theory and practice of government have followed Plato in making philosophical knowledge of the Form of the Good a prerequisite for ruling, and Plato himself offered alternatives in his later political dialogues, Statesman and Laws.60 But Plato’s general argument in the Republic, that ruling is primarily a matter of specialized expertise, and that the capacity to develop the relevant expertise is limited to relatively few people and requires special training, is widespread. Plato drew a sharp divide between opinion and knowledge, holding that those who are not expert in a given domain can have only opinions about it, not actual knowledge of it. His theory of governance is predicated on a strict separation between the spheres of opinion and knowledge. Modern political and social theorists tend to agree with Plato on the knowledge/opinion distinction. Most break with Plato by asserting that in order to be legitimate, a political system must find a way to give non-expert opinions a certain weight. Approached from this direction, democratic government can be understood as a system for accommodating non-expert public opinion within a domain of expert knowledge. Modern democracies achieve that accommodation primarily through the majoritarian voting rule and structures of representation. This leaves considerable room for arguments in favor of limiting popular participation in favor of efficiency.61

In an influential (and explicitly anti-Platonic) model, Robert Dahl (1989) predicates democracy on the widely shared conviction (regarded by Plato as false) that each individual is the best judge of his or her own interests. But that presumption does not entail supposing that the individual is capable of formulating or even deciding among the actual governmental policies that would best facilitate the achievement of her interests. Without that capacity, the opinionated individual cannot be a competent direct legislator of her own interest. This suggests that the role of non-expert opinion in governance is likely to be detrimental, unless it is very carefully controlled—and thus, well-designed structures of representation are required. In Dahl’s theory, like most theories of republican government from James Madison onward, if a government is to be legitimate, the non-expert citizen must be permitted to vote for representatives: that is, to make a choice among various possible rulers based on his opinion of which of them will work most effectively to further his interests. The actual ruling is left to experts. This line of thought eliminates, by definition, directly participatory democracy as a form of governance.62

Democratic theory brings in representation and experts for two reasons: to accommodate the problem of scale, and as a prosthetic institutional mechanism to accommodate the incapacity of non-experts to rule directly in their own interests. The scale problem is a serious one; it is addressed in chapter 3. Because the scale of most modern states is vastly greater than that of the largest Greek polis, the Athenian case cannot be held to offer a participatory alternative to representation for any modern democratic state. But the prosthesis of representation is often clumsy in practice. Athenian deliberative and participatory institutions, with their emphasis on employment of diverse sources of knowledge for problem solving, might offer a valuable supplement to existing forms of representative government, especially at local levels. Of course, the political experience of Athens will be valuable as a supplement to modern representative practice only if Athenian institutions can be shown to have distinctive and valuable features that could potentially be abstracted from their original ancient setting. This conjoined theoretical and descriptive enterprise is undertaken in this book.


The hypothesis explored in the following chapters can now be framed as follows:

Democratic Athens was able to take advantage of its size and resources, and therefore competed successfully over time against hierarchical rivals, because the costs of participatory political practices were overbalanced by superior returns to social cooperation resulting from useful knowledge as it was organized and deployed in the simultaneously innovation-promoting and learning-based context of democratic institutions and culture.

The hypothesis can be tested, and potentially falsified, by reference to Athenian government institutions and history. If the hypothesis is correct, then distinctive and otherwise anomalous design features of Athenian intuitions should be parsimoniously explained by reference to their role in organizing and deploying useful knowledge. Furthermore, it should be possible to show that democratic institutions did in fact organize dispersed useful knowledge, in ways that are plausibly related to general material flourishing. Finally, if the hypothesis is right, Athenian institutions, individually and taken as a system, should demonstrably have served to promote social learning and thus to facilitate productive routinization. They should also have adapted to change over time as a result of steady innovation. The hypothesis would be falsified if Athenian institutions manifested the strong path dependency associated with robust forms of socialization, or if they changed in the whimsical and undisciplined manner that Tocqueville (among others) associated with democracy as majoritarianism. Yet before testing the democracy/knowledge hypothesis, we need to confirm that there really is a substantial problem that it might solve. Was democratic Athens, in fact, an especially successful polis?

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