Democracy and Knowledge

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Josiah Ober
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s4b6
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  • Book Info
    Democracy and Knowledge
    Book Description:

    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.Democracy and Knowledgeis the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security.

    Combining a history of Athens with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice developed by economists and political scientists, Josiah Ober examines Athenian democracy's unique contribution to the ancient Greek city-state's remarkable success, and demonstrates the valuable lessons Athenian political practices hold for us today. 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 for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs. He explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information makes democracy stumble. Democratic participation and deliberation consume state resources and social energy. Yet as Ober shows, the benefits of a well-designed democracy far outweigh its costs.

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

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2880-7
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xvii)
  7. ATHENIAN MONEY, TAXES, REVENUES
    (pp. xviii-xx)
  8. Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION: DISPERSED KNOWLEDGE AND PUBLIC ACTION
    (pp. 1-38)

    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...

  9. Chapter 2 ASSESSING ATHENIAN PERFORMANCE
    (pp. 39-79)

    Athens was a polis, a city-state that existed in an interstate milieu defined, in the first instance, by other city-states.¹ Athenian performance should, therefore, be measured in the first instance by reference to the performance of other city-states. This entails defining the standard of performance typical of ordinary city-states and of the city-states that were Athens’ primary rivals, and then setting Athenian performance against those benchmarks. Below, I offer three comparative indices of polis performance: aggregate material flourishing, distribution of minted coins, and prominence in classical Greek literature. The data are “noisy” (containing relatively high levels of random error) in...

  10. Chapter 3 COMPETITION, SCALE, AND VARIETIES OF KNOWLEDGE
    (pp. 80-117)

    Classical Athens, as a Greek polis, is rightly understood as a “state” in the ordinary historical and social-scientific sense of the term.¹ Yet democratic Athens was in certain respects quite different from most other Greek poleis, and all poleis are different in various ways from contemporary nation-states. Most obviously, while it was very large for a polis, Athens, with its territory of 2,500 square kilometers and population of about 250,000, would be a tiny nation-state.² Equally important, if less obvious, is the consideration that Athens, like other Greek poleis, existed in a hypercompetitive environment and was constantly at risk of...

  11. Chapter 4 AGGREGATION: NETWORKS, TEAMS, AND EXPERTS
    (pp. 118-167)

    Aggregating dispersed knowledge posed a steep epistemic challenge for Athens. How could a large community of active citizens arrange to have relevant information consistently brought forward to the right place, at the right time, and have it recognizedasright by those empowered to make decisions? How, in brief, can “Athens know what the Athenians know”? Knowledge aggregation requires complex joint action and is complicated by political scale and social diversity. The relevant information, along with the social and technical knowledge necessary for processing it, is lodged in the minds of many individuals from different walks of life. Collecting knowledge...

  12. Chapter 5 ALIGNMENT: COMMON KNOWLEDGE, COMMITMENT, AND COORDINATION
    (pp. 168-210)

    Once an action has been planned and a decision made, the question is how to carry it out. Implementing group decisions demands that individual efforts be aligned. Like aggregation, alignment is an epistemic process, predicated on the right people having and using the right information in the right context. The fourth and final step in Pettit and List’s account of joint action (chapter 1) is that the beliefs and intentions of the relevant parties in regard to the salient plan are commonly known by them. Common knowledge can degrade decision making if epistemic diversity is suppressed. Yetaftera decision...

  13. Chapter 6 CODIFICATION: ACCESS, IMPARTIALITY, AND TRANSACTION COSTS
    (pp. 211-263)

    A decision made by aggregating dispersed knowledge, and implemented by aligning common knowledge, gains greater purchase on future behavior when it becomes codified knowledge. In the epistemic process of codification, a decision is incorporated into the action-guiding “rules of the game,” with potentially substantial effects on the distribution of social rewards and punishments.¹ When rules are very hard to change and resistant to reinterpretation, they will stifle productive innovation. When rules are very fluid, the returns to social learning will be low. In an ideally productive epistemic equilibrium, rules are significantly action guiding but remain revisable and interpretable. At Athens,...

  14. Chapter 7 CONCLUSIONS: GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE
    (pp. 264-280)

    The previous chapters have sketched a portrait of classical Athens as a participatory and deliberative democracy, as a state that outperformed its rivals in part because of its superior capacity to make use of dispersed knowledge. Of course, no historical account can claim to have captured the past in all of its complexity, “as it really was” (Novick 1988). Some historical portraits, like some artistic portraits, may not be overly concerned with accuracy in the sense of representing past reality; such portraits do not realistically depict particular features of their subjects but may nevertheless be valuable in that they reveal...

  15. Appendix A. Aggregate Material Flourishing
    (pp. 281-284)
  16. Appendix B. Distribution of Coins in Hoards
    (pp. 285-286)
  17. Appendix C: Prominence in Classical Greek Literature
    (pp. 287-288)
  18. Appendix D: Impact of Constitution and Historical Experience
    (pp. 289-291)
  19. Appendix E. Athenian State Capacity and Democracy, 600–250 B.C.
    (pp. 292-294)
  20. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 295-332)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 333-342)