Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

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Overview

When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. In Democracy and Knowledge, Josiah Ober looks to ancient Athens to explain how and why direct democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security.

Combining history with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice, Ober examines Athenian democracy's remarkable reign. He argues that the key to Athens's success lay in how the city-state managed and organized the aggregation and distribution of knowledge among its citizens. Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks, publicity, and open access, and explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information causes democracy to stumble.

Understanding how democracy can lead to prosperity and security is among the most pressing political challenges of modern times. Democracy and Knowledge reveals how ancient Greek politics can help us transcend the democratic dilemmas that confront the world today.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Republic
Democracy and Knowledge is the final book in an extraordinary trilogy. It follows Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, which appeared in 1989, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, in 1998. This third book incorporates the central conclusions of the first two, and with this volume Ober, by means of a highly original historical argument about Athens, does in fact refute Michel's famous law. . . . Ober's careful historical work and his theoretical framework generate a convincing portrait of a flourishing participatory democracy that overcame real crises, and achieved a stable balancing of the interests of masses and wealthy elites, and responded to collective action problems by developing institutional and cultural solutions that focused on the social distribution and the social valuation of knowledge. . . . Is it too much to ask that members of the Obama administration turn to a dense work of ancient history to help them make good on Obama's vision of an American state that combines the resources of representative and participatory democracy? They would take away from Democracy and Knowledge at least a few important general ideas.
— Danielle Allen
Cambridge Journals
Josiah Ober's book is a remarkable contribution to classical Greek history, social theory, and political philosophy. It advances understandings within each field and shows why these disciplines should be in more conversation with one another.
— Gerald Mara
Political Studies Review
The book is written in a very accessible style and it should be of interest to a wide range of scholars working in the are of ancient history, political science and democratic theory.
— Zsuzsanna Chappell
Perspectives on Politics
[This book is] very much worth reading, if for no other reason than for the extremely rich and interesting historical detail to be found. . . . In this respect, [the] author live[s] up to [his] justly earned reputation as [a] great political historian.
— Frank Lovett
Acta Politica
[T]he book is well worth the read. The attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries is refreshing. Moreover, Obe''s analysis offers a valuable contribution to democratic theory.
— Emma Cohen de Lara
European Legacy
[Ober] makes a detailed and stimulating case. This is a book which has much to offer to both scholars of Athenian democracy and democratic political thought.
— Peter Liddel
Bryn Mawr Classical Review

This book . . . richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of 'public vs. private,' 'weak vs. strong publics,' and 'civic vs. market orientations.'
— Christopher Moore
Times Literary Supplement - Geoffrey Hawthorn
Josiah Ober is a practically minded, get up and go, people's kind of democrat. . . . There is certainly nothing like [Democracy and Knowledge] in the literature on ancient politics.
The New Republic - Danielle Allen
Democracy and Knowledge is the final book in an extraordinary trilogy. It follows Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, which appeared in 1989, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, in 1998. This third book incorporates the central conclusions of the first two, and with this volume Ober, by means of a highly original historical argument about Athens, does in fact refute Michel's famous law. . . . Ober's careful historical work and his theoretical framework generate a convincing portrait of a flourishing participatory democracy that overcame real crises, and achieved a stable balancing of the interests of masses and wealthy elites, and responded to collective action problems by developing institutional and cultural solutions that focused on the social distribution and the social valuation of knowledge. . . . Is it too much to ask that members of the Obama administration turn to a dense work of ancient history to help them make good on Obama's vision of an American state that combines the resources of representative and participatory democracy? They would take away from Democracy and Knowledge at least a few important general ideas.
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews - Christopher Moore
This book . . . richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of 'public vs. private,' 'weak vs. strong publics,' and 'civic vs. market orientations.'
Cambridge Journals - Gerald Mara
Josiah Ober's book is a remarkable contribution to classical Greek history, social theory, and political philosophy. It advances understandings within each field and shows why these disciplines should be in more conversation with one another.
Political Studies Review - Zsuzsanna Chappell
The book is written in a very accessible style and it should be of interest to a wide range of scholars working in the are of ancient history, political science and democratic theory.
Perspectives on Politics - Frank Lovett
[This book is] very much worth reading, if for no other reason than for the extremely rich and interesting historical detail to be found. . . . In this respect, [the] author live[s] up to [his] justly earned reputation as [a] great political historian.
Acta Politica - Emma Cohen de Lara
[T]he book is well worth the read. The attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries is refreshing. Moreover, Obe''s analysis offers a valuable contribution to democratic theory.
European Legacy - Peter Liddel
[Ober] makes a detailed and stimulating case. This is a book which has much to offer to both scholars of Athenian democracy and democratic political thought.
From the Publisher

Shortlisted for the 2010 Hessell-Tiltman Prize, English PEN

Winner of the 2008 PROSE Award in Classics and Ancient History, Association of American Publishers

"Josiah Ober is a practically minded, get up and go, people's kind of democrat. . . . There is certainly nothing like [Democracy and Knowledge] in the literature on ancient politics."--Geoffrey Hawthorn, Times Literary Supplement

"Democracy and Knowledge is the final book in an extraordinary trilogy. It follows Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, which appeared in 1989, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, in 1998. This third book incorporates the central conclusions of the first two, and with this volume Ober, by means of a highly original historical argument about Athens, does in fact refute Michel's famous law. . . . Ober's careful historical work and his theoretical framework generate a convincing portrait of a flourishing participatory democracy that overcame real crises, and achieved a stable balancing of the interests of masses and wealthy elites, and responded to collective action problems by developing institutional and cultural solutions that focused on the social distribution and the social valuation of knowledge. . . . Is it too much to ask that members of the Obama administration turn to a dense work of ancient history to help them make good on Obama's vision of an American state that combines the resources of representative and participatory democracy? They would take away from Democracy and Knowledge at least a few important general ideas."--Danielle Allen, The New Republic

"This book . . . richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of 'public vs. private,' 'weak vs. strong publics,' and 'civic vs. market orientations.'"--Christopher Moore, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Josiah Ober's book is a remarkable contribution to classical Greek history, social theory, and political philosophy. It advances understandings within each field and shows why these disciplines should be in more conversation with one another."--Gerald Mara, Cambridge Journals

"The book is written in a very accessible style and it should be of interest to a wide range of scholars working in the are of ancient history, political science and democratic theory."--Zsuzsanna Chappell, Political Studies Review

"[This book is] very much worth reading, if for no other reason than for the extremely rich and interesting historical detail to be found. . . . In this respect, [the] author live[s] up to [his] justly earned reputation as [a] great political historian."--Frank Lovett, Perspectives on Politics

"[T]he book is well worth the read. The attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries is refreshing. Moreover, Obe''s analysis offers a valuable contribution to democratic theory."--Emma Cohen de Lara, Acta Politica

"[Ober] makes a detailed and stimulating case. This is a book which has much to offer to both scholars of Athenian democracy and democratic political thought."--Peter Liddel, European Legacy

Times Literary Supplement
Josiah Ober is a practically minded, get up and go, people's kind of democrat. . . . There is certainly nothing like [Democracy and Knowledge] in the literature on ancient politics.
— Geoffrey Hawthorn
Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews
This book . . . richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of 'public vs. private,' 'weak vs. strong publics,' and 'civic vs. market orientations.'
— Christopher Moore
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691146249
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 4/4/2010
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Josiah Ober is the Constantine Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include "Athenian Legacies, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens," and "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens" (all Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

Democracy and Knowledge Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens
By Josiah Ober Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13347-8


Chapter One INTRODUCTION: DISPERSED KNOWLEDGE AND PUBLIC ACTION

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.

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 politicalpractice 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.

THEORY AND PRACTICE

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.

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."

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.

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. 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. 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. 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.

RATIONAL CHOICE AND JOINT ACTION

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. 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. (Continues...)



Excerpted from Democracy and Knowledge by Josiah Ober
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

List of Tables xii

Preface xiii

List of Abbreviations xvii

Athenian Money, Taxes, Revenues xviii

Chapter 1 Introduction: Dispersed Knowledge and Public Action 1

Theory and Practice 3

Rational Choice and Joint Action 6

Premises and Problem 12

Caveats and Method 22

The Argument and Its Contexts 28

Experts and Interests 34

Hypothesis 37

Chapter 2 Assessing Athenian Performance 39

Historical Evaluation 40

Aggregate Flourishing 43

Distribution of Coinage 48

Athens versus Syracuse and Sparta 52

Citations in Greek Literature and Other Measures 53

Athens ? 12: A Multiperiod Case Study 55

Democracy as an Explanatory Variable 70

Republics, Democracies, and Athenian Exceptionalism 75

Chapter 3 Competition, Scale, and Varieties of Knowledge 80

Competition and Its Consequences 80

Participation and Scale 84

Social, Technical, and Latent Knowledge 90

Preferences, Parties, and Costly Information 97

Hierarchy, Democracy, and Productivity 102

Knowledge Processes as Public-Action Strategies 106

Chapter 4 Aggregation: Networks, Teams, and Experts 118

Institutional Design: Incentives, Low Cost, Sorting 118

Establishing a Naval Station, 32S/4 B. C. 124

Demes and Tribes as Social Networks 134

The Council of 500: Structural Holes and Bridging Ties 142

Organizational and Individual Learning 151

Boards of Magistrates as Real Teams 156

Ostracism, Assembly, and People's Courts 160

Chapter 5 Alignment: Common Knowledge, Commitment, and Coordination 168

Alignment and Hierarchy 169

Following Leaders, Rules, and Commitments 172

Cascading and Social Equilibrium 179

A Trial for Treason, 330 B.C. 183

Common Knowledge and Publicity 190

Rational Rituals and Public Monuments 194

Architecture and Intervisibility 199

Scaling Common Knowledge 205

Chapter 6 Codification: Access, Impartiality, and Transaction Costs 211

Intention and Interpretation 211

Open Entry, Fair Procedure, and Transaction Costs 214

A Law on Silver Coinage, 375/4 B.C. 220

Silver Owls, Athenian and Imitation 226

Approval, Certification, Confiscation 231

Legal Standing and Social Status 241

Rules and Rents: Historical Survey 245

Expanding Access 249

Democracy and Social Security 254

Horizons of Fairness 258

Chapter 7 Conclusions: Government by the People 264

Knowledge in Action 264

The Democracy/Knowledge Hypothesis Revisited 268

Formality and Experimentation 270

Institutions and Ideology 272

Exceptionalism and Exemplarity 276

Appendix A Aggregate Material Flourishing 281

Appendix B Distribution of Coins in Hoards 285

Appendix C Prominence in Classical Greek Literature 287

Appendix D Impact of Constitution and Historical Experience 289

Appendix E Athenian State Capacity and Democracy, 600–250 B. C. 292

Bibliography 295

Index 333

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