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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.
|Publisher:||Princeton University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About 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).
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.
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 ) 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, ) 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 ). 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
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
List of Tables xii
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
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
What People are Saying About This
Josiah Ober introduces Athens to students of institutional design and institutional design to students of Athens in an exercise of trailblazing scholarship and analysis. The book will become a standard reference in both areas of investigation.
Philip Pettit, Princeton University
This is a terrific book. Ober applies modern social science to explain and make sense of Athenian institutions, and offers strong and compelling discussions of many issues. The two central lines of argumentthe role and structure of knowledge and the incentive or game structures of the interactions of citizens in politicsare at the core of understanding these issues, and yet they are seldom brought together in this way.
Russell Hardin, New York University
A fresh, intellectually daring proposal by the George Grote of our times: democracy is not just an ethically desirable political form, but potentially unsurpassed as a source of innovation, public learning, and the application of publicly useful knowledge.
John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin
In this pathbreaking work, Josiah Ober draws on the full array of modern social science to explain the amazing success of Athenian democracy. He argues persuasively that the Athenians were able to overcome problems of collective action through the efficient aggregation and use of knowledge, as when Cleisthenes created new tribes that brought together citizens from different parts of Attica. The striking vignettes and episodes from Athenian history conjoined with sophisticated theoretical analyses make for utterly compelling reading. It will enrich social science no less than the writing of ancient history. Since the work of Paul Veyne, there has been nothing like it.
Jon Elster, College de France
Democracy and Knowledge looks at Athenian democracy from a quite new angle by taking on a question that has not previously made the transition from political and social science to ancient world studies. No one has even asked how in practice the Athenians aggregated their knowledge to make sensible decisions. There is no treatment of classical Athens or, to my knowledge, of the working of any democracy, comparable to this.
Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge