David Runciman

  • Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens by Josiah Ober
    Princeton, 342 pp, £17.95, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 691 13347 8

The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few. We-think: the power of mass creativity. Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge. Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything. These are the titles of just a few of the books published in recent years on one of the hot topics of the moment: knowledge aggregation, or how lots of different people knowing many small things can result in a very big deal for everyone. The obvious impetus behind this publishing trend is the internet, which has generated astonishing new ways of finding out all the different things that people know and bringing that knowledge together. If you look for these books in bookshops (itself rather a quaint idea given that you’re supposed to be buying them online), you’ll discover them in the business or management sections, where their lessons about openness, flexibility, innovation and the importance of listening to what your customers are telling you have their most immediate applications. But the authors are usually more ambitious than this and want to apply their notions beyond the confines of management studies – and in social policy. If businesses can use the wisdom of crowds to predict what people really want, to innovate new ways of providing it, and to test whether it actually works, why can’t politicians?

The pooling of knowledge is an idea that many fashionable writers think could be applied to politics in new and interesting ways. But what’s odd about this is that almost no one wants to admit that the pooling of knowledge is also one of the oldest political ideas of all: it’s the basic idea of democracy, where you ask as many people as possible what they think, then use that information to decide what to do. Why won’t anyone acknowledge that the new new thing is really an old, old story? I think there are three reasons. First, people are still embarrassed by some of the ridiculous claims made on behalf of e-democracy in the early days of the internet. In the first innocent bloom of the new technology it seemed that politics was destined to become much more democratic, and that politicians were going to be put directly in touch with the preferences of voters, and required to hold online referendums on all sorts of issues. But of course it didn’t, and they weren’t. Second, this isn’t what we mean by democracy anyway. Our democracies are not direct but representative, which makes them top-down, leader-oriented popularity contests, not exercises in knowledge aggregation. Third, even if we are aware that there was once another way of doing democracy – the direct way, with citizens pooling their resources, sharing out offices and trying to act together – it happened so long ago as to seem absurdly distant from our present-day concerns. Take ancient Athens, routinely described as the birthplace of democracy, but hardly an obvious model for information-sharing in the age of the internet. Athens had many things going for it – philosophy, oratory, drama, magnificent buildings – but it was also a violent, faction-ridden, capricious, war-mongering, slave-owning society, clinging precariously to its privileged position, and regularly picking fights it couldn’t win. It doesn’t exactly sound like the Google (company motto: ‘Don’t be evil’) of the ancient world.

However, Josiah Ober is here to tell us that we have this last point completely wrong. We think of Athens like this only because we have been misled by the best-known ancient sources (from Plato on), which tended to talk up the failings of Athenian democracy and either overlooked or deliberately downplayed its strengths, including its adaptability and its durability. Modern-day ancient historians like Ober now believe they have enough direct evidence of how Athens worked in practice to bypass these prejudicial accounts and see Athenian democracy as it really was: an open, flexible, dynamic and remarkably successful political society, able to marshal its resources and hence outperform its rivals. In significant ways, Ober believes, Athens was the Google of the ancient world. And if this is true, then we may need to reconsider our other reservations about the democratic nature of the wisdom of crowds as well. Perhaps we are wrong to assume that democracy in the modern world can’t be much more than a popularity contest. And if so, perhaps we should also stop being embarrassed about the radical democratic potential of the internet.

So a lot depends on whether Ober is right about Athens. Essentially, his argument has two parts. First, he needs to show that Athens did indeed outperform all its rivals to become the most successful polity of the age. Second, he needs to show that this advantage was a direct result of its being a democracy, because as a democracy it was able to acquire, aggregate and codify knowledge in ways that its non-democratic rivals couldn’t match. To prove that Athens was top polis, Ober has drawn on a vast database of evidence that compares hundreds of Greek city-states and ranks them according to various criteria, including size, fame, international activity and public building, as well as the prevalence of their currencies in the coin hoards of the time (on the reasonable assumption that if people wanted to hold its coins, your state must have had a pretty solid reputation).

On all counts, democratic Athens comes out top, and by some distance. It significantly outperforms its two main rivals, the intermittently autocratic Syracuse and the austerely oligarchic Sparta. The chapter in which Ober spells this out sometimes reads like a parody of modern social science research: Athens’ fame is determined in part by what he calls a ‘citation ranking’, meaning a measure of the number of times it crops up in surviving literary texts. It turns out that Athens crops up an awful lot, though as Ober concedes, the reason may be that a great deal of the surviving literature was produced in Athens by Athenian citizens (Thucydides, Plato, Demosthenes) or long-term residents (Aristotle, Lysias). But what does the fact that so many of the best-known authors came from Athens tell us? That it was a thriving cultural centre able to dominate in this field as well. Chalk up another victory for those clever Athenians.

Despite the air of pedantry that surrounds this attempt to show that ancient Athens is famous for a reason, rather than simply for being famous, it’s hard to dispute that Athens had something special going for it. The question is: what? To make his case that the what is democracy, Ober moves from a statistical to a chronological account. He needs to do this because he knows (thanks mainly to Thucydides) that it is easy to associate the story of Athenian democracy with failure and crisis rather than innovation and success. What people tend to remember is the one moment when the Athenians really screwed up: the catastrophic Sicilian expedition of 413 BC that was recklessly approved by the Athenian assembly, and ended up costing Athens its navy, its prospects in the Peloponnesian War, and before long its democracy as well. But Ober wants us to see the bigger picture, which includes the long period of growth and expansion in the fifth century BC that left Athens in a position to make a mistake on the scale of the Sicilian expedition, and the long period of revival and renewal in the fourth century BC that allowed it to recover. What these two periods have in common, Ober insists, is that they were the times when Athenian democracy was flourishing. Democracy arrived in Athens around 500 BC, saw the Athenians through the Persian wars and their aftermath, built them a navy and the astonishing collection of buildings on the Acropolis, gave them a thriving economy and an empire, and allowed them to compete with the might of Sparta, before a moment of imperial overstretch brought the whole thing crashing down. But it came back. After a brief oligarchic interlude, democracy was restored to Athens in 403 BC, and though the Athenians never managed to restore their empire, they did rebuild their economy, recover their reputation for commercial dynamism, modernise the city with a vast programme of public works, and engage in semi-permanent warfare with many powerful rivals. It was only at the end of the fourth century BC, with the rise of Macedon and then, more decisively, Rome, that Athenian democracy was finally finished off, along with all the other Greek city-states it had so consistently outshone.

‘If we ignore short term rises and dips,’ Ober writes, ‘both “Athenian democracy” (as defined by native male franchise, majority rule and authority of law) and “Athenian capacity” (as defined by the ability to undertake projects in the areas of foreign policy, domestic policy and public building) describe similar bell curves … Other poleis, with different constitutional histories, would manifest very different “capacity curves” over the same period.’ This is the essence of Ober’s case: Athens did well when democracy did well, and democracy doing well was the cause of Athens’ doing well. But how can he be sure that the second proposition follows from the first: that a successful democracy made for a successful Athens, rather than the other way around? Maybe democratic institutions flourished because the conditions that all political institutions need to prosper (a good economy, a good war, some good luck) were in place. Ober considers this possibility, but he dismisses it, on the grounds that democracy can explain Athenian success in a way that nothing else can. In the history of Athens, democracy tends to come before capacity growth: it arrived when Athens was at a relatively low ebb, and was restored when Athens was at another relatively low ebb, so it is only once democracy is in place that Athens begins to prosper. Moreover, Athenian democracy didn’t just trigger prosperity once, it did so repeatedly; and in the later part of the story it manages this in the absence of an extensive empire, which suggests that imperial power is at best a symptom and not a cause of its success. Ober doesn’t think that democracy explains everything, but he thinks it explains a lot more than anything else does.

However, there is something else that might explain quite a lot. Around 500 BC Athens got democracy, but less than twenty years later it also got lucky, and rich, with the opening up of a new group of silver mines in southern Attica, which produced a substantial windfall profit for the state and provided the basis for its long-term growth. A large part of this good fortune derived from the fact that the mines were relatively easy to exploit (though it required an army of slave labourers, working in hideous conditions), so that Athens was the only city-state that could literally dig its wealth straight out of the ground. Ober weaves this big slice of natural advantage into his story of democratic achievement, by pointing out that when the assembly had to decide what to do with the first influx of extra wealth, it chose to spend it on building the navy that went on to defeat the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC, instead of distributing it among individual citizens. Compare and contrast, say, with Sarah Palin’s Alaska (admittedly one of the least plausible candidates ever for that hotly disputed title ‘Athens of the North’). With oil prices high early last year, Palin decided to use the extra state income to fund $1000 credits to every Alaskan to help with their fuel bills. Ancient democracies use their good fortune to take tough decisions in the common interest; modern democracies use it to bribe the voters with handouts.

Ober suggests that the ability of the Athenians to exploit their natural advantages in order to drive economic growth and political expansion is a testament to their democratic strengths. ‘Students of development economics,’ he writes, ‘have posited a “resource curse”: by lowering incentives for innovative forms of social co-operation, an exceptionally rich resource endowment may actually depress economic growth.’ If the Athenians managed to overcome this curse, Ober argues, they did so because they had other things going for them besides the silver mines, notably democratic institutions that helped them select the best way to use what came out of the ground to their overall advantage. They also managed to overcome another aspect of the resource curse, which is that easily exploited natural endowments often promote autocracy not democracy, because when states don’t have to worry about securing the consent of their citizens to raise taxes, they don’t really have to worry about securing the consent of their citizens at all. Thomas Friedman in Foreign Policy called this ‘the first law of petropolitics’: ‘The price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions.’ Silver is not oil, but in the ancient world it might as well have been. Yet in Athens, an easy source of income went along with enhanced democratic freedoms, not the reverse.

So what is driving what in the story of Athenian success? Ober accepts that the extra income helped, but insists that what really matters when it comes to the politics of natural resources is not what you have but what you choose to do with it. Still, we should be careful about reading too much into the fact that the Athenians decided to spend their windfall on a public good (the navy) rather than dividing it up into a series of private goods (individual handouts). After all, they had another advantage when it came to making this decision: a million Persians were camped on their borders, which must have helped to focus their minds. It’s not clear what the Alaskan equivalent of this would be. No doubt Palin would point to Russia, but she would probably draw some very different lessons: first, that if the Russians wanted to invade, an extra $1200 per head spent on an Alaskan navy wouldn’t make much difference; and second, that it is Putin’s increasingly autocratic Russian state that chooses to spend its oil revenues on military hardware and imperial adventures. Democracies, Palin might say (assuming she had got her sense of humour back), spread the wealth; autocracies hoard and then squander it. Russia looks like the classic contemporary illustration of Friedman’s law. If so, perhaps ancient Athens is all the more remarkable for managing to combine Russian levels of resource-fuelled paranoia and aggression with democratic institutions.

But again, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions here. An important new book by Thad Dunning called Crude Democracy: Natural Resource Wealth and Political Regimes shows that Friedman’s law is almost certainly overstated.[*] Natural resources sometimes promote autocracy, but they can promote democracy as well. What matters, as always in politics, are the incentives, especially for those with most to lose. An easily exploited source of natural wealth can help to promote democracy when it becomes more costly for wealthy elites to stage a coup than simply go along with democratic institutions. This is especially true under conditions of high inequality between rich and poor, where a sudden influx of new income can help to moderate redistributive conflict by making everyone better off. In other words, resource endowments can sometimes help to take the heat out of class conflict in ways that leave the rich willing to take a chance on democracy. Athens may have been just such a case. It seems at least as likely that silver allowed the Athenians to make good use of their democracy as that democracy allowed them to make good use of their silver.

Where democracies do seem to have the advantage, then as now, is in their ability to innovate and adapt in testing circumstances. The salient fact about the money that Russia channels from oil into its armed forces is that the institution that gets to spend it is still a lumbering, inefficient, autocratic mess that can beat up little Georgia but would have great difficulty taking on anyone its own size. The salient fact about the navy the Athenians built in the 480s was that it was technically advanced and imaginatively led, enabling them to defeat an enemy against whom they had appeared horribly overmatched. This is the strongest part of Ober’s case: democracy tends to go along with a restless desire for innovation, and it was the can-do spirit of the Athenians that gave them much of their competitive advantage.

Interestingly, most of the evidence that Ober provides for this comes from much later on in the story of Athenian democracy, during the fourth century BC, well after the heroic period of imperial adventure had ended in disaster. What that later phase of democracy displayed in spades was what English football managers like to call ‘bouncebackability’. This doesn’t just mean that democracy bounced back in Athens whenever foreign invaders or disaffected elites tried to snuff it out. It also means that democratic institutions showed verve and drive in trying to find practical solutions to technical problems that threatened to overwhelm the state. Like the most durable football teams, Athenian democracy did everything it could to prevent a run of bad results from turning into an inescapable downward spiral. As a consequence it managed to avoid relegation from the premier league of city-states for far longer than might otherwise have been expected.

One example of this sort of innovative approach comes from 375 BC. By that time, Athens had restored its reputation as a commercial centre and its currency – the silver ‘owl’ – was the preferred unit of exchange for many traders across the Aegean world. The problem was that the coins were relatively easy to duplicate, and this had produced a crisis of confidence that was drying up trade in Athens itself, as merchants began to refuse to accept payment from each other for fear of being passed counterfeits. The assembly debated and then agreed a complex set of laws to deal with the crisis. The new rules established an office of approver of silver coins (in fact there were two approvers, one in the agora and one at the port in Piraeus) whose job was to decide whether the coins involved in any given transaction were genuine, ‘good’ fakes (of adequate silver content) or crude fakes (painted bronze or lead). If the coins were decreed genuine Athenian ‘owls’, sellers were required by law to accept them; if they were ‘good’ foreign fakes, then the buyer would have the coins returned to him and they could remain in circulation; if they were bronze or lead they would be destroyed. The aim was to restore confidence in the silver coinage circulating in Athens, keeping transaction costs low (by allowing good fakes to remain in circulation), while nonetheless retaining a premium on the official products of the state (the ‘owls’). The new laws also established a range of procedures and punishments to ensure the system worked, including instructions on how the approvers should be chosen, where they should sit (literally ‘between the bankers’ tables’), and what would await traders who refused to acknowledge their authority.

Three things stand out about this set of rules. First, how sophisticated and finely judged they seem, enabling a complicated and not easily reconcilable set of economic objectives to be achieved simultaneously. This is what Ober emphasises: the Athenian assembly arrived at a position that was neither excessively liberal nor excessively punitive, but above all was decisive, so preserving Athens’ reputation as the best place to do business. Second, how contemporary it all is. This was a credit crunch, and the central problem, then as now, was how to restore confidence in the value of assets without driving liquidity out of the market. Traders in Athens stopped doing deals because they didn’t trust what they were getting in exchange. So a means had to be found of forcing them to trust what they were getting without limiting exchange to only the most valuable coins. The success the Athenians had in striking this balance suggests they do indeed have something to teach us.

But the third notable feature of the silver coinage laws is how much they depend on the brutal, violent and highly coercive structures of a slave-owning society. The approvers were required to be slaves. Part of the reason for this was that slaves could become true experts in valuing coins by being required to perform the same mundane task for thousands of hours. But another reason was that the approvers could be whipped (the law specifies 50 lashes) if they did not do their job properly. The law also gave traders an incentive to expose each other for refusing to accept the approvers’ decisions, by offering to transfer half of the culprit’s goods to his accuser (the state kept the other half). There were even laws outlining the punishments magistrates could expect (fines, loss of office) if they did not enforce these other rules properly. This was a subtle and complex set of regulations backed up with a blunt and overt level of threat. How Alistair Darling must wish he could send slaves into the banks to value the assets on their books, knowing he could whip the ones who don’t give him the information he needs, then offer a portion of each bank’s reserves to anyone who informs him of their continuing refusal to make loans, and sack any law officers who refuse to back him up. But he can’t, because we don’t live in that kind of democracy.

Still, the question remains: notwithstanding the fact that this solution needs slavery to work, how did the Athenians arrive at such a solution in the first place? Ober believes that it must be that democracy had taught them how to think problems like this through, and that the longer democracy lasted, the better they got at it. The institutions of Athenian democracy – including the assembly, the council of 500, the smaller jury courts, the various rotating offices chosen by lot, the army and navy, and the multiple institutions of tribal and local governance – were designed to be open to new information, insights, experiences, and became increasingly adept at turning all of this into knowledge. Ober emphasises the importance of ‘bridging’ between these various institutions, so that a wide variety of people and all the different things they knew could move across the space of Athenian public life, leaving their mark. He also describes Athenian democracy, in the hideous modern jargon, as ‘scalable’, meaning that lessons learned on the local level could be generalised across the government system. Athenian democracy fitted people together without erasing the differences between them. This, for Ober, was its greatest achievement, and its most obvious lesson for the modern world (indeed, Ober believes that the achievements of Athenian democracy serve to render much of the distinction between ancient and modern obsolete). The enduring problem of all forms of institutional existence is knowing how to build loyalty without stifling diversity. You need rules to hold institutions together, but when people are too comfortable or familiar with the rules the whole thing becomes rigid and unwieldy. Yet if individuals are too free with their energies and loyalties, the danger is that your institution will fall apart. That Athenian democracy did not fall apart for nearly two hundred years shows that it was neither too rigid nor too flexible, but somewhere in between.

Yet, as Ober admits, Athenian democracy was not just a device for producing new kinds of knowledge. It also relied on old kinds of knowledge, particularly what he calls ‘social knowledge’, which is the understanding individuals have of how the system works before they start. Athenians were able to innovate only because they already knew a great deal about what was expected of them. They could read the signals, and decipher the signs, in large public gatherings; above all, they knew how to follow a lead. ‘What is needed,’ Ober writes, ‘is a body of decision makers capable of recognising (through social knowledge) who really is expert, and capable of deciding (by voting) how much weight to give various domains of expertise.’ The Athenians encouraged this by designing their public buildings in a way that promoted ‘inter-visibility’: they made sure that everyone could keep an eye on everyone else and pick up on the moments when some member of the crowd appeared to be taking others with him. If you sat on an Athenian jury you would find yourself sitting in the round, so that you could watch your fellow jurors and take your cues from them. Just think how different that is from a modern jury, who all face forwards to make sure that they hear the evidence rather than following each other’s responses. Many modern parliament buildings (Edinburgh, Berlin, Canberra) also make token concessions to seating representatives in the round, but really prioritise transparency over inter-visibility. The idea behind these glass and air constructions is that the public can see through their democratic institutions to make sure nothing is being hidden from view. Athenian democracy was much more of a surface affair, with everybody trying to read everybody else rather than wanting to look through or past them.

That is why it is very hard to see Athenian democracy working in modern democratic states. We simply lack the social knowledge. The idea that is sometimes floated of an Athenian solution for institutions that need democratic reform – like the proposal in a recently reprinted Demos pamphlet that the House of Lords should be made up of a cross-section of the population chosen from the electoral register – might widen the knowledge pool in one sense, but would greatly reduce it in another, because citizen-politicians thrust into the arena of high-stakes decision-making wouldn’t know what to do, and would be eaten alive by the professionals.[†] It’s true that experiments with citizen juries in places like British Columbia have shown that given time, guidance and plenty of breathing-space, ordinary people can get to grips with tough political questions and reach intelligent decisions. But in real-world politics, where time is short, and the people guiding you are actually trying to run rings round you (think of Peter Mandelson leading a citizen jury through its paces), amateurism starts to lose its appeal. Ober knows how difficult it would be to replicate Athenian conditions in the modern world, but that doesn’t stop him wanting to try. ‘The Athenian case suggests that in order to measure the true potential of deliberating groups, experiments will need to model key aspects of Athenian-style political socialisation, including participatory expertise, potential for long-term social interaction, high stakes and deliberative experience at multiple scales.’ But how exactly do you model these things? And what are the experiments in which people become politically socialised? Really, the Athenian lesson is that if you want to learn how to do politics you have to live it. These days, the best way to acquire participatory expertise, engage in long-term social interaction and play for high stakes is to become a professional politician.

The old story about Athenian democracy is that it wouldn’t work in the modern world because modern states have too many citizens with too little time to do politics that way. Ober’s argument, for all its fascination, doesn’t really alter that picture. Athenian politics was only scalable on a certain scale – tens of thousands rather than tens of millions of citizens. Our politics is too big in one sense – too many voters – and too small in another: not enough people prepared to devote their lives to acquiring political knowledge. Also, the stakes are rarely evenly distributed and almost never scalable: the things that matter a great deal to politicians, such as their careers, hardly matter at all to the voters. But other institutions are a much better fit for the Athenian model. Google, for instance, currently has slightly fewer full-time employees (around 20,000) than ancient Athens had citizens (around 30,000). Share options mean that most people are playing for pretty high stakes, and the rewards are certainly scalable (when Larry Page and Sergey Brin are doing well people much lower down the organisation are doing well too, though nowhere near as well as Page and Brin). Also, working full-time for Google is probably more of a way of life than belonging to a state: you are certainly more likely to be institutionally socialised as a Google employee than as, say, a British citizen. Google has a long way to go to match the achievement of ancient Athens; two hundred years is a long time to stay at the top, and there will be plenty of opportunities for imperial overstretch. But Google also has plenty of space for experiments with inter-visibility and knowledge aggregation. Ober’s remarkable but slightly quixotic book will doubtless find its way onto the politics shelves of bookshops, which is where its author clearly feels it belongs. But its central lessons would probably be better applied to business or management studies.

[*] Cambridge, 352 pp., £16.99, November 2008, 978 0 521 73075 4.

[†] The Athenian Option: Radical Reform for the House of Lords by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty (Imprint Academic, 112 pp., £25, August 2008, 978 1 84540 139 9).