Epistemic democracy in classical Athens: sophistication, diversity, and innovation
Josiah Ober argues that the social context of knowledge aggregation processes explains how Athenian institutional design promoted growth in individual sophistication while preserving diversity of perspectives. This paper is part of an issue on Collective wisdom.
1. Introduction: A successful epistemic democracy
A successful participatory epistemic democracy employs collective wisdom to make good policy.1 On epistemic democracy, see E. Anderson 2006; Ober 2008, chapter 1; Estlund 2008, esp. 232: “it is very natural and plausible to think that if democracy has any epistemic value it is partly to do with the sharing of diverse perspectives.” Page 2007 emphasizes both the epistemic potential and the problems associated with socially diverse groups of decision-makers. Of course, even successful democracies experience epistemic failures. If it is to survive in a competitive environment, an epistemic democracy must learn from its failures and design institutions that make similar failures less likely in the future; see below. Sections 2-4 of this chapter are adapted from Ober 2008, especially chapter 4. Scott Page offers a formal model of collective wisdom, in the sense of accurately predicting or characterizing an outcome. In Page’s model, collective wisdom benefits from individually sophisticated participants and a diversity of perspectives. The city-state of Athens, from the late sixth through the late fourth century B.C. is a case study of a participatory epistemic democracy: an intensively-studied historical example of a community whose remarkable success is, at least in part, explained by Page’s two factors of sophistication and diversity.
Democratic Athens depended directly and self-consciously on actively deploying the epistemic resources of its citizenry to hold its place in a highly competitive multi-state environment. While the Athenian case cannot, in and of itself, prove the general validity of Page’s model, it may offer some insight into how increased sophistication and sustained diversity of participants produces positive results over time. To be successful, real world epistemic democracies (like other governments) must indeed accurately predict and characterize outcomes. But they must also (inter alia) create institutions for setting agendas and implementing policy. The Athenian case suggests that that, along with outcome prediction and characterization, an enhanced capacity for institutional innovation in the face of environmental change is a central feature of successful epistemic democracies. The capacity for institutional innovation is promoted by growing sophistication and sustained diversity of participants, while sophistication and diversity are, in turn, promoted by well-designed institutions.
In Athens, collective wisdom produced useful knowledge – a matrix of experience, expertise, and information that in turn reliably (not invariably) yielded good (if imperfect) solutions to complex problems. Knowledge that is useful to collectivities like Athens is possessed by individuals, but it is also located in social networks, and reproduced by institutionalized processes.2 The terms “data,” “information,” and “knowledge” are variously defined by organizational theorists. Davenport and Prusak (1998: 1-6) suggest that data are facts about events, information is data that have been given relevance and purpose, and knowledge is a matrix of experience, values, insight, and contextual information which allows for the incorporation of new experiences and information. See also Dixon 2000: 13; Brown and Duguid 2000: 119-202. Expertise, as an unusually high level of mastery of a particular domain of endeavor: Ericsson 1999. Athens outperformed its city-state rivals at least in part because of its citizens’ superior capacity to produce new solutions to the ever-changing menu of challenges confronted by the Greek city-states. Athens beat its rivals by more effectively aggregating, aligning, and codifying the vast store of social and technical knowledge distributed across its large, diverse, and increasingly sophisticated population.3 For a detailed description of Athenian democracy, its history and institutions, see Hansen 1999. Athens is a good case study because its documented history includes pre- and post-democratic eras, as well as a long (185 year) period of democratic self-government. Athenian history can readily be subdivided into multiple phases, allowing us to assess democracy’s origins, recovery, persistence, and demise. The evidence base is rich: Substantial numbers of documents enable us to trace institutional changes. A large corpus of public speeches allows analysis of democratic ideology. Athenian democratic government was subjected to probing critical-theoretical scrutiny by prominent contemporary intellectuals (e.g. Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle).
Based on a variety of statistical measures of comparative city-state performance across the classical era (ca. 500-325 B.C.), Athens was preeminent among the 1000+ Greek city-states. Moreover, Athenian state capacity (measured as a composite of military activity, public building, and domestic programs) was strongly and positively correlated with the development of Athenian democracy (measured as a composite of the percentage of adult males holding full participation rights, the power of the demos to effect policy, and the authority of law). Athenian state capacity was considerably lower both before and after the democratic era.4 Comparative Athenian performance: Ober 2008 chapter 2; the statistical measures of Athenian success confirm the communis opinio of specialists in ancient Greek history.
With the exception of two brief oligarchic interludes, arising at least in part from the democracy’s epistemic failures (411/10 and 404 B.C.), classical Athens was governed directly “by the people” – participation was widespread across a relatively large (ca. 30,000 adult native males) citizen body. Levels of active participation became more egalitarian over time: higher percentages of poorer and non-urban citizens took part in state governance in the fourth century B.C. than in the fifth. Participation promoted social learning (mastery of institutions and political culture) across a citizenship that was socially diverse in terms of wealth, geography, and occupation (if not in religion, ethnicity, or gender). Yet Athens avoided the ossification and institutional stagnation that can accompany deep social learning. The democracy learned from its epistemic failures; new institutions were designed and implemented in the aftermath of the late fifth-century crises. Athens’ rate of institutional innovation remained high throughout the democratic era, as attested by ancient opinion and the historical record.5 More egalitarian participation in fourth than in fifth century: Taylor 2007, 2008 and below. Danger of ossification: Levitt and March 1988. Athenian diversity: Ober 2005, chapter 4. Institutional innnovation over time: Ober 2008, chapter 2.
The conjunction of a highly participatory democracy with outstanding competitive success is surprising, in light of claims by social and organizational theorists (e.g. R. Michels 1962 and O. Williamson 1975, 1985) that no truly participatory democratic organization can survive in a competitive environment. Athenian success cannot be explained by positing the existence of a cryptic ruling elite. Individual orators and generals certainly played important leadership roles – Pericles provides a paradigm case, although he was hardly unique. Leaders were drawn from elites of education and wealth, but individual elites gained precarious leadership positions based on their proven ability to secure public goods; there was no entrenched “elite ruling class.” Athens’ distributed authority structure and lack of formal patronage structures denied organized groups of elites the usual mechanisms of political domination. It was the reality of the demos’ control of public affairs that drew the critical attention of Greek political theorists. Democratic ideology, promoted by public discourse, and the emergence of a vibrant culture of political dissent (subjects of my earlier work on Athens) were essential to the system’s functioning, but these factors, in and of themselves, are inadequate to explain why or how Athens did so well in such an intensely competitive environment.6 The Athenian political elite: Hansen 1983, 1984; not a ruling elite: Ober 1989. Lack of formal patronage: Millett 1989; democratic ideology: Ober 1989; dissent: Ober 1998.
Aristotle points to an epistemic explanation for “unexpected” democratic success in an important passage in the Politics, in which he discusses conditions under which the “wisdom of the many” may outdo individual expertise. His point is that a “multitude [plêthos] is like a single person, yet many-footed and many-handed and possessing many sense-capacities [aisthêseis].” With its diverse perspectives, such a multitude may, under the right conditions, judge better than any individual: “for some judge a particular aspect [of the matter], while all of them judge the whole.”7 3.11 = 1281a40-b10. Trans. C. Lord, adapted. Waldron 1995 underlines the importance of this passage and emphasizes its deliberative character. See Ober 1998: 319-24, 2008: 110-114, for discussion and bibliography. Estlund, 2008, chapter 12 contrasts Condorcet’s theorem (and variations thereof) to Aristotle’s diverse-perspectives approach. But if we are to understand the basis of Athens’ success, we need to go beyond Aristotle’s compressed account of collective wisdom, to focus on how institutional design promoted the aggregation of the useful knowledge possessed by many diverse individuals, the alignment of people’s effort based on their common knowledge, and the codification of rules that expanded access to institutions and increased the reliability and procedural fairness of legal judgments.8 Ober 2008 devotes individual chapters to the epistemic processes of knowledge aggregation (4), alignment (5), and codification (6), arguing that it is the integration of these three processes, over time, that produced the result of superior Athenian performance.
This chapter focuses on the aggregation of knowledge, which is distinct from the aggregation of preferences, interests, opinions, or data. Knowledge aggregation, in the sense in which I am using it here, means bringing together, in a single “solution space,” a diverse array of useful information and expertise. Suppose, for example, that a state confronts an enemy attack by sea. Organizing an appropriate defense requires mobilizing expertise and accurate information in the domains of (inter alia) military strategy, ship-building, public finance, and manpower availability. The totality of the relevant knowledge necessary to address a complex problem (e.g. naval defense policy) is unlikely to be possessed by any one individual. Of course, only certain kinds of social and technical knowledge will be useful for solving a given problem. Much of the knowledge possessed by residents of the state is strictly irrelevant to naval defense; Plato’s Socrates (Protagoras 319b-c) claims that when the subject before the citizen Assembly was ship building, the “wise Athenians” refused to listen to anyone lacking expertise in naval architecture.
No two problems faced by a state will be exactly alike (next year, the big problem may be a flood), and so there is a constant demand for innovative solutions: last year’s armada is not the answer if this year we need to rebuild levies. Yet each problem is likely to present certain features that are relevantly similar to the features of other problems (some of the manpower and finance issues will cross over from naval defense to flood relief), and so there is a constant demand for social learning and the cross-appropriation of expertise between domains (Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus 1997).
If the premises laid out above are correct, then (1) A better solution will emerge if (a) the specialized knowledge possessed by multiple sophisticated individuals is brought into the solution space, (b) irrelevant information and expertise is excluded from that space, and (c) each relevant knowledge input is given its appropriate weight in the final policy. (2) No fixed and limited set of experts will possess the range of knowledge necessary for addressing the multiplicity of problems that will confront a state (or other organizations) over time. (3) Adapting the aggregated knowledge relevant in one solution space to different but relevantly similar problems in another space will speed the process of innovating new solutions. Yet in order for these results to be achieved, certain conditions must pertain (section 2).
This chapter argues that the constitutional reform that inaugurated democracy at Athens (in or shortly after 508/7 B.C.) incorporated design features that led to a growth in individual sophistication and retained diverse perspectives (section 3). It focuses on two institutions that were key parts of the new regime: the Council of 500 (section 4) and ostracism (section 5). Ostracism may be understood as a non-deliberative “preclusive prediction market,” designed to aggregate equally-weighted guesses by many citizens about “worst case” possible futures. The institution of ostracism created a mechanism whereby a plurality of guesses could preclude a possible future that was regarded by most Athenians, at a given moment, as particularly dangerous. The deliberative Council of 500 played a prominent role in agenda-setting, day-to-day administration, policy implementation, and certain legal matters. The Council employed techniques of lottery, rotation, and representative sampling to bring together groups of geographically and socially diverse decision-makers – persons with very different life experiences and knowledge-sets. The experience of service on the Council increased the political sophistication of individual citizens: they became more expert in the conduct of public affairs. The institutional rules by which the Council was selected and governed gave each individual Councilor good reasons (in the form of strong social incentives) to share his knowledge with his fellows, and to attend in turn to what they knew, when deliberating in advance of making consequential public decisions. The non-deliberative institution of ostracism had an effective life about 70 years, whereas the Council persisted throughout the democratic era and beyond. These two linchpin point to the role of sophistication, diversity, and innovation in Athens’ emergence as the preeminent Greek polis of the classical era (section 6).
2. Conditions for knowledge aggregation
Knowledge aggregation is grounded in joint action (Bratman 1999) and complicated by political scale and social diversity. The information relevant to a given outcome, along with the social and technical knowledge necessary for processing it, is lodged in the minds of a great many individuals from many walks of life (Hayek 1945). Collecting knowledge in a large (beyond face-to-face) participatory democracy demands communication among people who are, at least in the first instance, strangers to one another. Communication among strangers requires overcoming a basic collective action problem (Olson 1965): Why should a rational individual freely communicate potentially valuable information to a someone who might prove to be free rider? If the problem of knowledge aggregation is to be solved, individuals possessing potentially useful information must have some reason for sharing it. Moreover they must have access to appropriate communications technology — a low-cost means for bringing forward what they know and making it available to the community. The community, for its part must employ a sorting method, a means of discriminating between information that is more and less useful in any given decision-making context.
Because knowledge has exchange value it can profitably be hoarded under conditions of scarcity. Unique information and technical expertise may, for example, take the form of proprietary trade secrets that are valuable only so long as those in the know are few (e.g. the secret formula for Coca Cola). Ancient examples of proprietary knowledge might include sources of raw materials or trading partners, craft techniques, even (given the ready market for mercenaries) military tactics. In other cases, for example open source computer software – or, in antiquity, improved rowing techniques for propelling many-oared warships, information gains in value when it is widely known and used. In either case, incentives for communicating useful information must somehow correspond to the value of what is shared.9 Trade secrets: Davenport and Prusak 1998: 16-17. Incentives as essential for effective knowledge sharing: Sunstein 2006: 69-70, 201, 203-5. Open source software and related forms of non-market productivity: Benkler 2006.
Incentives need not be material. An implied contract between the knowing agent and those who desire access to her knowledge may be built into the common culture. Information sharing may be promoted by established relationships of reciprocity in an “economy of esteem” (Brennan and Pettit 2004). In a competitive culture, like that of ancient Greece, in which the publicly expressed esteem of others was an important part of individual utility, some incentives for knowledge communication could be cast in the form of public honors for winning victories in state-sponsored “knowledge aggregation contests” – that is, competitions that could only be won by those willing to share what they know and capable of persuading others to do likewise. The general point is that public incentives for knowledge sharing must be valuable because knowledge is recognized as having value to individuals and groups, as well as to the community as a whole. The first principle of institutional design for an organization attempting to solve epistemic collective action problems should be providing incentives to knowledgeable individuals such that they will choose to share what they know.10 On the vocabulary of “honor-loving” and Athenian public practices associated with it, see Whitehead 1983, 1993. Non-material incentives for knowledge-sharing: Davenport and Prusak: 22-51 (internal “knowledge markets”); Osterloh and Frey 2000. Walker 2004 discusses modern “word of mouth” marketing techniques, suggesting that for at least some people the experience of sharing some kinds of information (in this case about new products) with others is valued in itself, and that material incentives are relatively less important. Similarly: Dixon 2000: 6-7.
Next, the communication technology – the means available to agents for communicating useful knowledge — should be as nearly costless (i.e. easy to use and ready to hand) as possible because the greater the costs associated with the act of communicating, the higher the incentives must be for doing so. Reducing the cost of public communications means lowering the cost to individuals of communicating what they know by compensating them for the burdens they incur in moving information to the point in an organization at which it will do some good.
Finally, there must be an epistemic sorting device, a means for distinguishing not only truth from falsity, but what sorts of expertise and what information may (in any given context) actually prove useful. If those involved in decision-making are incapable of weeding out false or irrelevant information and disregarding inappropriate expert knowledge, they will be unable to produce good policy. The sorting mechanisms must be context sensitive: Some technical knowledge that is of great value to a national assembly deliberating on matters of foreign policy will be useless to a village assembly discussing lease arrangements for communally-owned land. In the participatory Athenian context, social knowledge served as a sorting device. Experienced citizens learned habits of discrimination, of recognizing who to attend to and whose opinion to trust in what context. Section 4, below, seeks to specify how.
The conjoined imperatives of incentives, low communication costs, and sorting mean that designing an aggregation process is inherently difficult. The difficulty increases with the complexity of what must be decided, the volume and diversity of the information necessary for decision-making, and the multiplication of kinds of expert knowledge that must be brought to bear. Knowledge collection becomes more complicated as organizations grown larger and more diverse. Yet the costs to an organization of failing to collect and attend to the right kind of information before making major policy choices can be extraordinarily high, as the Athenians were reminded, for example, in the course of the catastrophic Sicilian expedition (415-413 B.C.) – a series of events that, according to Thucydides (book 6; with Ober 1998, 104-20), resulted from an epistemic failure, and contributed substantially to the crisis of the late fifth century.
One solution to the problem of collecting knowledge is routinization, capturing the organization’s past experience by archiving data, establishing standard protocols, and socializing members into “the ways we do things around here.” Routinization can build expertise and thereby make work processes more efficient, and thus more productive. Yet, over-socialization in established routines becomes counterproductive when circumstances change. Making effective use of archived data is difficult and an over-emphasis on routines can lead to process ossification and a decline of productive capacity. In order for an organization to remain competitive in the long run and under new conditions, it must be able to innovate: must break with established routines and draw upon information sources outside the standard banks of data. Innovation depends on tapping latent knowledge held by people who have not been fully socialized into routine patterns of behavior. This in turn means that organizations in competitive and fast-changing environments will pay a heavy price if they fail to maintain a diversity of experience, expertise, and social knowledge among their membership.11 Difficulty of making effective use of archived data: Brown and Duguid 1991 and 2000. Routinization versus innovation in organization theory: Levitt and March 1988.
Athenian democratic institutions and practices, when viewed in their social context, can be understood as a kind of machine (cf. Elster, this volume) whose design facilitated aggregating useful knowledge and produced benefits of routinization while maintaining a capacity for innovation. The machine of Athenian government was fueled by incentives, oiled by low communication costs and efficient means of information transfer, and regulated by formal and informal sanctions. The machine served to build, over time, special kinds of social knowledge among a large segment of the Athenian population: an increased capacity to discriminate among sources of expertise and information, and to cross-appropriate relevant knowledge from one domain of application (e.g. a deliberative council) to another (e.g. a court of law). Those heightened capacities may be understood as political sophistication, an expertise in the operations of self-government.
This chapter argues that the Athenian machine performed better over time for the reasons specified in Page’s formal model: Individuals became more sophisticated while diversity of perspectives was retained. As a result, learning and innovation were simultaneously supported, and Athens thrived, over time, in its competitive environment. These design features emerged with the constitutional reforms associated with Cleisthenes, enacted, by the Athenian demos in the aftermath of the Athenian Revolution.
3. Cleisthenes’ reforms: Demes and tribes as social networks
Consider a typical village (deme) of Athens, near the end the sixth century B.C., just before the Athenian Revolution of 508 and the institution of the democratic political order.12 The revolution and the constitutional reforms: see note 17, below. Osborne 1990 answers the question “what is a deme and why does it matter?” Prasiai was a settlement on the east-central coast of Attica. Farming, supplemented with some fishing and local trade, formed the economic base. Along with some slaves and perhaps a few resident aliens, the total free population of Prasieis was probably in the range of 700 persons. Of these, perhaps 180-200 were adult native males – citizens of Athens who had enjoyed limited privileges in regard to participation and certain legal immunities since the reforms of Solon in 594 B.C.13 On Prasiai see Vanderpool, McCredie and Steinberg 1962; Whitehead 1986 index s.v.; Camp 2001, 281.
After the democratic revolution of 508 the adult male Athenian residents of Prasiai, as in the other villages and urban neighborhoods of Athens, were full citizens with extensive participation rights in the central institutions of polis government. They had the opportunity to meet periodically in a local village assembly in order to vote on admitting new citizens and to decide on various matters of local concern. By the late sixth century, many of the families of the village had lived there for generations. A century and a half later, by the middle of the fourth century, a number of Prasieis had moved away, to the city or elsewhere in Athenian territory. Yet by Athenian constitutional law they maintained membership in their ancestral deme and many of them still attended deme meetings.14 Deme life and diachronic history of residence patterns in rural Attica: Osborne 1985, 1987; Whitehead 1986; Jones 1999.
As a result of their long history of steady interaction — social, economic, and religious if not yet extensively political — the men of late sixth-century Prasiai knew a lot about each other: By comparative reference to other small and relatively egalitarian pre-modern rural communities, we can assume that many of the ties between adult male citizens of Prasiai were strong, in the sense that the term is used by modern theorists of social networks. That is to say, the local social network by which the Prasieis were connected to one another was based on regular face-to-face interaction and featured a good deal of overlap and redundancy. In a strong-tie network, an individual’s friends are also one another’s friends.
As a result of this strong-tie linked network of social relationships, the level of mutual social knowledge in Prasiai was high: People for the most part knew, for example, who was technically skilled in various domains, who could be counted upon and in what circumstances, whose advice was valuable on what topics. Social norms of reciprocity and propriety were clear and dictated who shared what sort of information with which others and under what circumstances. Since network ties were strong both in the ordinary sense of the word (i.e. dependable), and in the network-theory sense that a person’s friends were friends with one another, social norms were correspondingly strong. Commitments made in this context were credible because people knew a lot about each other’s business and when necessary free-riders were sanctioned. The environment was “safe” in that cooperation was socially mandatory and defection was difficult. The key thing, from the point of view of organizational performance, is that small-scale networks based primarily on strong ties are very good at distributing information internally, but they are poor conduits for importing or disseminating useful knowledge outside the local network itself. As a result of their inherently small scale and lack of diversity, closed strong-tie networks tend to be relatively unproductive. The problem is a lack of weak “bridging ties.” A weak tie is defined as a friendship (which may be close: weak ties need not be superficial relationships) between two individuals whose friends are not one another’s friends.
In a classic article the sociologist Mark Granovetter (1973) demonstrated that small-scale networks based on strong ties between individuals promote intensive interaction but do not allow for extensive “bridging” from one network to another. In the limit case, in which each of my friends is also each other’s friend, there may be no space for bridging at all — every new tie I form must necessarily be a tie shared by all of my existing friends. Thus there, consequently, no feasible way for me to bridge to another strong-tie network of persons. Strong-tie networks tend to operate as small and closed cliques. Lacking bridges to other networks, these cliques are resistant to the free flow of information outside the local network. Cliques render large-scale cooperation more difficult and impede coordination across an extended social network. As a result, it is harder to aggregate knowledge or align action at larger scales. The gains potentially reaped from extensive cooperation remain limited – and the problem of scale looms as unsolvable.15 Granovetter 1973. See, further, Granovetter 1983, 1985; Krackhardt 1992; Gargulio and Benassi 2000; Diani and McAdam 2003. Padgett and Ansell 1993 and Gould 1995 are a notable examples of how social network theory can be used to explain an actual historical situation (the rise of the Medici in 15th century Florence and social movements in Paris in the later 19th century). M.T. Hansen 2002 explores knowledge networks in multiunit firms, an organizational situation with striking analogies to Athens and its constituent demes. Chang and Harrington 2005 emphasize the need for persistent diversity within networks and quality of ties for effective network performance based on both innovation and learning.
If we imagine late sixth-century Prasiai as characterized primarily by strong ties (either as a single strong-tie network or as a collection of such networks), the residents of Prasiai would have had relatively few bridging ties outside their local community; relatively few men from Prasai (and fewer women) would have had reason to make connections with men from other towns or neighborhoods in Attica. Of course the hypothetical limit case in which everyone’s friends were one another’s friends is unlikely ever to have existed in practice. But to the extent that strong-tie networks were a general social norm in the many villages scattered across Athenian territory, overall Athenian capacity for effective joint action was likewise limited. Relatively low Athenian state capacity in the areas of military, building, and domestic policy in the pre-democratic period is consistent with the hypothesis that sixth-century Prasiai (and other Athenian villages and neighborhoods) were characterized, in the first instance, by strong-tie networks.16 Purcell 1990 rightly warns against overstating the insularity of archaic Greek villages. The point is that, in comparison with later Athenian history, Prasiai of the late sixth-century is likely to be relatively lacking in bridging ties.
It seems very likely that, with a degree of local variation, this hypothetical “Prasiai situation” was replicated many times over in the predemocratic era, and throughout much of the territory of Athens. It certainly cannot be true that all sixth-century Athenians were living out their lives entirely within local strong-tie networks; we know, for example, that some Athenians were involved in regional and overseas trade so we can assume the existence of some weak ties. But it seems safe to say that something like the Prasiai model sketched out above was the seventh- and sixth-century Athenian norm – just as it was the norm throughout most of Greece. That social norm was the central problem faced by Cleisthenes in the months after the Athenian Revolution of 508 B.C.
At the moment of the revolution, the people of Athens demonstrated a capacity for at least short-term collective action at a moment of extreme national danger: Confronted by the double specter of foreign domination and a return to the pre-tyrannical oligarchic rule of a handful of “big men,” many of the ordinary people of Athens gathered in the city and forced the surrender of a Spartan-led army after a three day siege of the Acropolis. They recalled Cleisthenes, who had been exiled by the would-be oligarchic rulers of the city after having “taken the people as his comrades” and proposing popular institutional changes. Back in Athens and with expectations running high, Cleisthenes took on the task of rapidly creating a new government. Whatever else it accomplished, Cleisthenes’ new order had to be able to put a large and highly motivated military force into the field – and had to do so very quickly. This was no mean feat, given that in all probability Athens had never had an organized “national army.” Earlier Athenian military actions had depended on ad hoc cooperation among the relevant local big men, but after the revolution, their authority was thrown into doubt.17 Athenian revolution: Ober 1996 chapter 5; Forsdyke 2005; Pritchard 2005; Raaflaub, Ober, and Wallace 2007. No Athenian regular army before 508: Frost 1984; Siewert 1982.
Cleisthenes’ comrade-constituents, the demos that had recalled him from exile, expected a system of government suited to their newly-expressed identity as participating members of a political community. Oligarchy and tyranny, the familiar modes of archaic Greek political organization, had been discredited by the events leading up to the uprising. Although other Greek poleis experienced political upheavals in the sixth century and there was much experimentation with institutional forms (Robinson 1997), there was no “off the shelf” organizational model for Cleisthenes to follow. The “Prasiai situation,” the cliquish strong-tie local networks that characterized ordinary Athenian social life rendered it difficult to achieve the large-scale joint action necessary to defeat the expected Spartan attack – and then to sustain a flourishing community so that Athens’ great potential (relative to its rivals) in terms of human and natural resources would be realized in fact.
If “Prasiai” was the problem, the revolutionary uprising itself pointed to the solution. Cleisthenes had been recalled to Athens after the demos had demonstrated its potential for large-scale joint action in the three-day siege of the Acropolis. Athenians clearly now thought of themselves as sharing an Athenian identity, which could potentially come to mean belonging to an extended network that included the entire polis. The design opportunity for Cleisthenes was building on a capacity revealed in a moment of crisis and based on a shared Athenian identity. The challenge was creating institutional conditions for a productive equilibrium that would enable the Athenians to reap the individual and collective benefits of social cooperation. Although Cleisthenes lacked the theoretical apparatus of modern social science, the solution he devised makes sense when it is described in terms of social network theory. Cleisthenes created institutions that employed the principles of incentives for knowledge-sharing, lowering communication costs, and context-sensitive information sorting. A key to the new system (although probably an unintended consequence of institutional design) was the emergence of many bridging weak ties between members of local strong-tie networks.
Granovetter (1973) showed that by contrast to strong ties, weak ties (i.e. the case in which my friends are unlikely to be friends with one another) do promote bridging across extended networks. Weak ties break down the claustrophobic environment of cliques by efficiently transferring information across an extended network. Weak ties are therefore an essential complement to strong-tie networks for social mobilization and for overall organizational cohesion. Granovetter’s key conclusion (1973:1376): was that “the more local bridges … in a community and the greater their degree, the more cohesive the community and the more capable of acting in concert.” In the terminology used by ancient commentators on his reforms, Cleisthenes “sought to intermix” ([Aristotle] Ath. Pol. 21.2-3) the residents of Athenian territory.18 The value of social networks in building “communities of practice, and thus to organizational performance is well attested in business literature: Wenger 1998; Davenport and Prusak 1998: 37-39, 65-67; Brown and Duguid 2000: 142-43; 157-59; Benkler 2006.
Cleisthenes accomplished this intermixing by inaugurating ten new and blatantly artificial “tribes.” These new tribes would play important roles in the new political system. They would also become key markers of Athenian identity. Each of the ten new tribes was named after an Athenian mythical hero; according to Athenian memory, the ten heroes were chosen by Apollo’s priestess at Delphi from a much more extensive list. Notably, the new tribes would not be territorially contiguous; each tribe drew about a third of its membership from communities located in coastal, inland, and urbanized regions of Athenian territory.19 G. Anderson 2003 offers detailed review of Cleisthenes’ program, with bibliography.
As a result of Cleisthenes’ tribal reform, Prasiai now became one of the eleven demes – that is, towns, villages or urban neighborhoods –constituting the newly created tribe of Pandionis. Prasiai was designated a coastal deme – as were three other, nearby villages, each located near the eastern coast of Attica. These four coastal demes of the tribe Pandionis made up the coastal “third” (trittys) of the tribe. They were administratively joined to four inland demes to the west (the inland trittys), and to three city demes: neighborhoods in or near the main city of Athens (the city trittys). The citizens of the eleven demes, grouped in these three “thirds,” were now officially the tribe Pandionis. The same organizational principles were used in constituting the other nine tribes. The new system is represented schematically in Figure 1.
Cleisthenes’ organizational design was at once radical and practical. It was predicated on conjoining long-standing, familiar “natural” units – the existing villages and neighborhoods of Athens with new, unfamiliar, and highly artificial units – the ten new tribes. The tribes and their constituent “thirds” were the institutional bridges by which a stable local identity (“resident of Prasiai”) was linked to a desired national identity (“participatory citizen of Athens”).
Tribes would now be the basis for mustering a newly created national army. The core of the army was heavy-armed infantrymen (hoplites). Roughly speaking, these were the wealthiest one-third of the Athenian population. In the aftermath of Cleisthenes’ reforms some 60 or 70 men of Prasiai might be expected periodically to march into battle as hoplites along with hoplite-villagers from nearby towns in the coastal district. This would not be anything new; we can assume that the big men of the central Athenian coast had been mustering their heavy-armed supporters against pirates and other local threats for generations. But now the men of Prasiai would also muster alongside members of tribe Pandionis who hailed from far away inland and city demes (Siewart 1982, Christ 2001).
Likewise, much of Athenian ritual life was now restructured on a tribal basis – the Prasieis would sacrifice and eat ritual meals, march in parades, and dance in ritual contests with their fellow tribesmen, the Pandioneis. As a result, people with very different life-histories and different sets of social and technical knowledge frequently found themselves in close social proximity to people they never would have otherwise known. The system very literally “inter-mixed” Athenians from different geographic/economic zones in a variety of psychologically powerful activities. Over time, the experience of marching, fighting, sacrificing, eating, and dancing, together in this newly “inter-mixed” grouping would, according to Cleisthenes’ plan, lead to a strengthened collective identity at the level of the polis. As we shall see, the system also promoted extensive bridge-building across the existing strong-tie networks and these bridges were essential to the process of knowledge aggregation.20 On the intertwining of ritual, financial, and civic life in the Athenian tribe, see Osborne 1994. Sacrificing and eating: Schmitt-Pantel 1992. Marching: Maurizio 1998. Dancing: Wilson 2000: esp. 56-57, 75-76; contra: Pritchard 2004. Tribal networks were also helpful, especially for nonelite Athenians, in legal disputes: Rubinstein 2000.
4. The Council of 500: Structural holes and bridging ties
Among key political institutions introduced or restructured in conjunction with the new deme/tribe system was a new Council of 500, a linchpin institution that was given control of the vital agenda-setting function. The Council was charged with agenda-setting, deciding what matters should be discussed in the full Assembly of Athenian citizens. The Assembly, which all Athenian citizens in good standing were entitled to attend whenever they pleased, was a potentially chaotic legislative body. In the democratic era thousands of citizens attended its frequent meetings (40 per year in the fourth century). The Assembly was the embodied citizenry – the demos – and as such decided all important matters of state policy, including finance and matters of diplomacy, war, and peace. The Council met very regularly in Athens, eventually in a purpose-built architectural complex. In addition to its vital function of setting the Assembly’s agenda, the Council had responsibility for the day-to-day administration of state affairs, including meeting foreign delegations and reviewing the performance of out-going Athenian magistrates. The Council also played an important executive role in ensuring that policy dictated by the Assembly was properly carried out.21 Rhodes 1985 is the fundamental and indispensable description of the Council of 500, its origins, and its role in Athenian government; see esp. chapter 3 for an analysis of the Council’s main areas of responsibility: finance, army and navy, public works, and religion.
According to Cleisthenes’ plan, the new Council of 500 was to be made up of ten 50-man delegations – one delegation from each of the ten newly-created tribes.22 Rhodes 1985: 17-18, favors a later date (ca. 462 B.C.) for the introduction of the tribal delegations serving in rotation as “presidents” of the Council, but he notes that the scholarly communis opinio is that the tribal teams were a Cleisthenic innovation. The members of each tribal delegation were in turn selected at deme level. Each year every deme sent forward a certain number of Councilors, based on the deme’s citizen population.23 Quotas are based on fourth-century evidence. Here I assume that the system was put into place in the immediate post-revolutionary period, and (with Traill 1975: 101-103) remained essentially unchanged through 322 B.C. The main lines of the argument I develop here would not be much affected by the kinds of changes that have been proposed to date, e.g. by Hansen et al. 1990. Prasiai annually sent three Councilors as part of Pandionis’ 50-man delegation. Meanwhile, the large inland deme of Lower Paiania and the city deme of Kydathenaion each sent 11 men, while tiny Upper Paiania and Konthyle each sent only one. Tribe Pandionis’ annual delegation to the Council of 500 is represented schematically in Figure 2.
What choices, made by an individual member of the Council, might either promote or hinder the Council’s overall capacity for joint action? Lacking any detailed first-person narrative from antiquity, a thought experiment must suffice: So imagine a Councilor (bouleutês) from Prasiai, let us call him Poseidippos (at least one man of that name did later live in Prasiai), embarking upon a year’s service on the Council in the first year after the Council was founded.24 I am assuming here that the Council, along with the deme/tribe system, was put into existence in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 508; an alternative view holds that the system was not fully functional until 501/0: Rhodes 1985; 1, 191-93; Badian 2000. Poseidippos was probably selected by lot for service; this was, in any event, the later selection procedure. He took up temporary quarters in the city, rightly expecting to spend a great deal of time serving on the Council; in later years, at least, the Council met some 300 days each year (Rhodes 1985: 30). Let us stipulate, on the basis of the our description of late sixth-century Prasiai, that among the 49 other members of tribal team, Poseidippos had strong ties with his two fellow Prasieis but no bridging ties to any of his other fellow Councilors. The point is that when the year’s new group of Councilors first took up their office, many of the deme-delegations that made up each tribal delegation of 50 were already likely to be strong-tie networked, but there were relatively few bridging “weak ties” between the strongly-tied local deme networks. This is a microcosm, at the level of 50 men, of the large-scale problem Cleisthenes faced as he embarked upon his reform plan. The hypothetical “starting point” situation of the 50 members of the Pandionis team as they entered upon their year of service on the Council in 507 B.C. is represented in Figure 3.
As he takes up his office, Poseidippos is (ex hypothesi) connected by strong-tie bonds with his two fellow Prasieis. He has no pre-existing connections his other fellow Councilors from tribe Pandionis. Yet he knows that he must work closely with 47 men with whom he has no current ties, weak or strong, and then with the other 450 Councilors from the nine other tribes. According to Cleisthenes’ plan, the 50-man tribal teams were responsible for much of the work of the Council – each tribe would take a leading role in directing the Council’s business for a tenth of the year in rotation with the other nine teams. During the period when a tribe-team was exercising its presidency, a third of its delegate-members were on 24-hour duty. In later generations, in the fifth and fourth centuries, they would eat together (using vessels carefully labeled as “public property”) and sleep in a public building located in the Agora, Athens’ public square.25 Rhodes 1985 16. Cf. Camp 2001 69-70.
If Poseidippos had known the terminology of contemporary network theory, he would have described the Pandionis team as a network riddled with “structural holes.” That is to say there were many substantial gaps, bridged by few or no weak ties, between the eleven deme networks, each of which featured a dense matrix of strong ties. The holes are evident on Figure 3: There are no existing weak-tie bridges, for example, between demes 1 and demes 6 and 9 or between deme 8 and demes 7, 2, and 5. In one sense, these holes are an institutional design problem, in that, as we have seen, they represent the absence of the sort of dense networking via weak ties that Granovetter identified as a prerequisite for effective joint action. And so the holes represent a problem that Cleisthenes needed to solve by his new organizational design. Yet these same structural holes also represent opportunities – both for the individual willing to take the effort to bridge them and for the organization as a whole. The presence of so many structural holes offered a key incentive to an ambitious and entrepreneurial Councilman.
As Ron Burt demonstrated in a series of influential studies (esp. Burt 1992, 1997), in a networked structure, the holes between densely linked sub-networks are points of entrepreneurial opportunity because the individuals who bridge those holes gain social capital. They do so simply by taking up a strategic position in respect to the flow of useful information and social knowledge: They become the conduit through which information passes and they reap rewards accordingly. Burt showed that, in modern business firms, the social capital accumulated by diligent bridgers of structural holes translates into material gain (e.g. higher salaries) – and thus individuals have strong incentives to identify structural holes and to establish bridging ties across them. The social capital that accumulates from bridging holes potentially benefits all members of the network, although the original bridge-builders do especially well. Among Burt’s important general points is that networked organizations with many structural holes also present many opportunities for entrepreneurial gain by individuals willing and capable of occupying bridge positions. There is, therefore, a correlation between being “full of holes” and the development and maintenance of an entrepreneurial, innovation-prone, organizational culture.26 On structural holes, see Burt 1992, 1997, 2004; Gargiulo 2000. Much of Burt’s work builds on insights that are intuitively obvious – one need not have mastered network theory to recognize that advantages accrue to those willing to build bridges between cliquish sub-networks within a larger body that must undertake a common enterprise. The diligently “networking” social entrepreneur is a common feature of institutions of all kinds. The principle is the same whether it is a secondary school, a business firm, a professional association – or a Greek council.
Because a given Athenian Councilor’s term was limited to a year, the value of networking on the Council was likewise limited when it is compared to institutions (e.g. the U.S. Senate) in which continuous membership may span decades. The wealthiest and most socially prominent Councilors might regard network-building under these conditions as unlikely to reward the effort. Let us stipulate, therefore, that Poseidippos is among the poorest and least well-connected Councilors on his tribal team. Like other Athenian fathers, Poseidippos seeks good marriages for his sons and daughters, but he cannot offer large dowries to suitors.27 Dowries were very substantial expenses: Cox 1998. The hope of advancing his family’s position gives Poseidippos a strong incentive to try to build social capital, which might stand in lieu of larger cash settlements. Stipulate further that Poseidippos is the sort of individual who intuitively recognizes the social capital gains (and the associated utility gains over time) available to a bridge-builder. As such he will use opportunities offered by the frequent meetings of Pandionis’ tribal team of 50 to build bridges to men from other demes, starting perhaps on the basis of shared occupational interests, distant kinship relations, or common cult-membership. The personal interactions within the tribal delegation are intense, as its members struggle to accomplish their duties — and thereby, since the assumed context is 507 B.C., to save their polis and themselves from destruction at the hands of the angry Spartans. That intensity facilitates rapid tie-formation, and thus makes it easier for Poseidippos to form friendship ties with strangers. The result is illustrated in Figure 4.
As the year goes on, Poseidippos becomes an increasingly well respected and highly valued member of his tribal team because of his bridging position. He has a handle on more and more useful information – that is, he learns what people in other demes know. He learns something, for example, about pottery manufacture from his city-deme contacts and something about upland olive farming from his inland contacts. He also accumulates more and more social knowledge. He knows who among the members of his Pandionis team is trustworthy and on what topics, who is friends and enemies with whom, and so on. He is therefore in a position to aggregate important items of information and social knowledge: to bring disparate knowledge pieces together for problem-solving. The social capital he stands to gain is a strong incentive to reveal his own latent knowledge – that is, the expertise and experience he has gained in the course of his life — and to share his newly aggregated knowledge with others. The intimate conditions of service on the Council reduce the costs of communication. Meanwhile, Poseidippos’ growing social knowledge promotes greater discrimination in respect to information sorting. As a source and a conduit of useful aggregated knowledge, Poseidippos assumes the role of informed leader in deliberations. He thereby accrues advantages for himself and he enables his tribal team to get its job done.
Of course, Poseidippos is not the only one to see the advantages of building bridging links across local networks. Many, although not all, others on his team imitate his example. As a consequence, the Pandionis delegation is soon densely networked by weak-links, as illustrated in Figure 5. The tribe-team never becomes a strong-tie network – it is not the case that everyone is everyone else’s friend. But the multiple weak-tie bridges ensure that information can flow readily from one strong-tie network to another.
Tribe Pandionis is not special, of course – according to Cleisthenes’ design, each of the ten tribes features similar demographic diversity. Thus, structural hole opportunities exist in each tribal team, and on the Council as a whole. As a result, the bridge-building we have hypothesized for Pandionis went on within each of the ten tribal teams. Moreover, unlike strong-tie networks, weak-tie networks are scalable. The same bridge-building process went on at an extensive network level between tribal teams of the Council. If the social capital for being a tribal team-level bridger of local networks and aggregator of knowledge was considerable, it was that much greater at the level of an inter-tribal bridge-builder. And so, we can postulate that over the course of the year the membership of the Council as a whole becomes linked by weak-ties and came to function as a single, extended network. The upshot is that the 500 members of the Council become more capable of working cooperatively, both at the level of the tribal delegations of 50 and as a committee of the whole.
The networking process I have hypothesized, above, based on the social composition and governmental responsibilities of the Council of 500, directly addressees the public action problems affecting knowledge aggregation. As weak-tie bridges, formed by entrepreneurial individuals, link existing strong-tie local networks across regions, across kinship groups, across occupational groups, and across social classes, useful knowledge flows across the extended network with increasing ease. As the network becomes more dense and social capital grows, social knowledge is exchanged ever more freely. As they witness and experience the social capital gains that come with communication, experts in various technical domains are more willing to share proprietary information about sources of materials, trading partners, weather patterns, and so on. Others realize that their tacit knowledge of people and processes, formerly simply taken for granted as a sort of obvious “common sense” among the members of a strong-tie network, is valuable when brought to the surface and made explicit within a diverse group of people possessing very different sorts of tacit knowledge.
As the year goes on, both the latent specialized technical knowledge and the generalized tacit knowledge necessary to making good decisions, which had formerly been isolated inside individual minds and in closed networks, becomes increasingly accessible to the deliberations of the group as a whole. As Councilors become clearer about who is good at what, and who to go to for what sort of information, they can be more discriminating about their recommendations and as a result the whole council becomes increasingly capable of doing its difficult job well.
Moreover, as the Council overcomes its collective action problems and learns to work cooperatively towards its common goal, it can potentially access external knowledge resources distributed through the entire population of Athens – and beyond. Because each Councilor has a network of contacts outside the Council, each Councilor is a bridge between the Council and a local subset of the larger population. As a result, the Council, as a body, can access, at fairly low cost, a good deal of the total knowledge available to the extended Athenian community. As a result, at least potentially, “Athens knows what the Athenians know.”
Finally, because Councilors ordinarily serve only for a year, and are judged, and potentially rewarded, on the basis of how well they serve the public purposes of the polis, the Council as an institution never developed a self-serving identity or corporate culture.28 This key insight was developed by Gomme 1951 The rules of order remained sufficiently simple and transparent to be learned by each year’s incoming class. Because each year’s turnover is complete, all Councilors enter upon their year on something approaching equal footing; there is no in-group of “old Council hands” controlling the agenda. As Councilors build their extended networks and work together over the course of the year on problems of polis governance, they come to better grasp the larger governmental system of which they are (for a year) one part. Government ceases to be regarded as a black box, and Councilors can quite quickly become fairly expert at the work of politics.
Their growing system-level expertise conjoins with the Councilors’ growing social-knowledge based information-sorting capacity and so they are better able to judge the value of available knowledge to the larger purposes of the polis – and thus better able to make good decisions in the exercise of their office. As a result, better agendas are set, the government is better run day-to-day, and so Athens does better overall. We can thereby begin to understand how participatory democratic institutions could help promote growth in productive capacity and overall organizational success.
5. Ostracism: Preclusive prediction
Ostracism, the famous (and perhaps unique) mechanism by which Athenians annually had the opportunity to vote a single man into exile was, like the council, inaugurated in the early years of the democracy.29 Forsdyke 2005 is the standard and indispensible account of Athenian ostracism. The evidence for ostracism outside of Athens is exiguous: Forsdyke 2005, appendix 2. Like the council, ostracism was predicated on the value to the state of aggregating the knowledge dispersed across Athens’ socially diverse citizen body. Yet the mechanism was different in that ostracism was a non-deliberative procedure. Rather than encouraging active sharing of information and building expertise among a deliberating group, ostracism aggregated many diverse and independent individual judgments.
Ostracism addressed a specific and recurring problem that could not be solved by identifying specifically relevant information-sets or experts: How to identify individuals who were likely to pose especially serious risks to the polis — without crushing entrepreneurial initiative? Ostracism manifests design features that are reminiscent of a modern prediction market (Sunstein 2007): it is a non-deliberative system for aggregating independent guesses about the likely future course of events. Unlike modern prediction markets, however, ostracism maintained the principle of equal votes. Furthermore, as an instrument of public policy, ostracism did more than predict future outcomes. Ostracism weighed the likelihood of future conditions that might come about in absence of public inaction, and precluded a specific future though rule-bounded joint action.
Ostracism was a highly formalized institution: Once (and only once) each year the agenda of the citizen Assembly (open to all citizens in good standing) called for the Athenians to vote on whether to hold an ostracism that year. This preliminary Assembly vote answered a first question about how the present state of affairs in the polis was expected by the majority of those present to play out in the future: “Is there now in the polis an individual whose continued presence might put the state so greatly at risk as to justify his immediate expulsion without trial?” The answer (i.e. the majority vote) was usually, “no”; only about 15 ostracisms are known to have been carried out in the 180 years of the democracy.
If, however, the Assembly’s vote was “yes,” a special sort of “election” was held in the Agora: Each Athenian now had the opportunity to cast a ballot, in the form of a pottery sherd (ostrakon) inscribed (by himself or another) with the name of the Athenian he most wished to see expelled from the polis. He had no responsibility for justifying his vote. There was no necessary assumption of past misconduct; an ostracism was not a legal trial (although ostracized men could be tried in absentia); no charges were filed. The state did not provide information to help voters choose their targets: There were no formal “nominees” for ostracism, and no formal speeches for or against possible “candidates.” The institution’s design focused attention on a calculation of expected public gains and losses, rather than on justice or retribution for past actions.
Once the votes had been cast, they were sorted, counted, and the “winner” (whoever received a plurality of votes) was publicly announced.30 Regrettably, we do not have the vote count for any given ostracism; the literary record does not record that information, and ostraka found by archaeologists can not be dated with enough accuracy to provide a random sample for a given year. So we do not know how large the “winning” plurality would have been in practice. My sense (based on the large numbers of ostraka naming prominent leaders) is that the winning plurality was never small – i.e. that in a given year, most of those who voted to hold an ostracism, and those who cast ostraka, were focused on one of a handful of individuals. See, further, Rhodes 1994. Although (thanks to the thousands of ostraka that have been found and studied by archaeologists) we know that some Athenians voted to ostracize political unknowns, in practice the plurality vote invariably selected a prominent political figure. This second vote therefore served to aggregate many independent judgments about prominent individuals to answer the obvious follow-up question: “Whose continued presence would be most likely to put Athens seriously at risk?” The vote by ostraka thereby identified the alternative future (“Politician X remains in Athens”) regarded as mostly likely go badly (or likely to go worst) in the absence of concerted public action.
The formalized rules of ostracism prescribed the answer to a third question: “What will we do with the man whose continued presence is considered to put our future most at risk?” He was immediately exiled for 10 years, thereby effectively precluding the future of “Politician X remaining in Athens” and the risks associated with that future. The overt effects of ostracism were limited to the individual: the ostracized man’s friends and family were free to remain in Athens and he retained possession of his property. Upon completion of his ten-year exile (or upon being recalled, as several ostracized citizens were in advance of the Persian wars) an ostracized individual could return to Athens and take up his life, including (if he chose) his political career. The clear rules and the limited downside risk to prominent individuals (limited, that is, compared with the mass expulsions that had characterized archaic Greek political conflicts) served as an incentive to accept the rules of the game. The incentive appears to have worked; there was certainly no mass exit of elites from fifth-century Athenian public life.
In that, in an ostracism, the “selected” future was precluded, ostracism is quite unlike a modern prediction market, in which the majority or plurality opinion (in the form of purchased shares) is demonstrated to be right or wrong once the outcome (e.g. the result of an election) is known. This means that there was (and is) no way to know whether or not the votes cast the two stages (Assembly vote by show of hands, Agora vote with ostraka) of an ostracism came up with the “right answer” to either of the two key questions concerning future risk and the identification of the riskiest individual. But it cannot, in any event, be said that Athens suffered from a lack of bold leaders during the half-century (480’s-440’s) during which most recorded ostracisms were held. After an ostracism in ca. 417 returned an anomalous “winner” (perhaps due to collusion among the two most obvious candidates), the Athenians never again answered “yes” to the first question about whether to hold an ostracism in a given year (Rhodes 1994). While the first question continued to be asked every year, the actual practice of ostracizing an individual was evidently no longer regarded by the collectivity as essential to the proper functioning of the polis. This limited institutional history contrasts quite starkly with the continued existence of the deliberative Council and other Athenian knowledge-aggregation institutions (e.g. Assembly and People’s courts).
The Athenian system of government both encouraged (through incentives) and required (in order to broaden the range of information and expertise) participation in decision-making and problem-solving from a diverse population. Equality of opportunity for public participation was a cherished Athenian value (Raaflaub 1996). The institutional design model established by Cleisthenes, and elaborated through subsequent institutional innovations, was based on offering substantial incentives (honorary, social, and material) for public service. These incentives made public service possible and more desirable across class lines. Formerly inexperienced men had the chance to become experienced in political affairs, indeed, to become quite expert at the work of democratic politics. By gaining experience and therefore confidence in their own capacities, Athenian citizens lost a substantial disincentive to political activity. Substantial power inequalities remained between elite and non-elite social strata. But opportunities for political activity were to some degree equalized across class lines by the use of the lot (Taylor 2007) and pay for service.
The model I have presented here predicts that, over the course of time, the population of “sophisticated and politically active citizens” should be increasingly representative of, and indeed functionally coextensive with, the citizen population as a whole. An initial over-representation of wealthy citizens, and by those with easy geographical access to the city-center, should lessen as poorer and more geographically distant citizens came to appreciate the potential value of their own participation, both to themselves and to their community. This prediction is borne out by Clare Taylor’s demographic analysis of some 2200 politically active Athenians in the fifth and fourth centuries. In the fifth century 19% of identifiable politically active citizens were wealthy (i.e. from liturgy-paying class: ca. 4% of the total population) and 58% came from near-city demes (aggregate bouleutic quota 123/500: ca. 25% of the total population). In the fourth century, by contrast, only 11% of citizens known to be politically active were wealthy and 31% were from near-city demes. Taylor’s numbers do not prove that citizens’ growing experience with government processes (or any other candidate variable) caused the trend towards equalization in levels of participation. Her results are, however, consistent with the model offered above. The opposite result (growing inequality of participation) would, by contrast, falsify it.31 Taylor 2008, arguing persuasively that exogenous factors (e.g. demographic changes due to disease, war, rural migration to the city) are inadequate to explain the growth in participation. Taylor’s figures fit well with the conclusions of Morris 1998a: 235-36, who notes that in comparative terms, and especially in comparison with the pre-democratic period, the pattern of landholding in fourth-century Athens was “extremely egalitarian” (Morris’ emphasis: Gini coefficient of 0.382-0.386).
The social context of knowledge aggregation processes explains how Athenian institutional design promoted growth in individual sophistication while preserving diversity of perspectives. The principles of representative sampling through a lottery and rotation inhibited emergence of a limited elite of entrenched “policy experts.” The circulation through a variety of kinds of public service (military, judicial, magisterial) by a great many citizens, who remained diverse in terms of age, geographic home, economic class, and occupation, facilitated innovative problem-solving. Innovations emerged continuously as teams of citizen-magistrates brought into being new constellations of social and technical knowledge by aggregating an ever-changing repertoire of diverse information and expertise. Innovation was stimulated though cross-appropriation of knowledge between domains of expertise, and from one solution space to another.
Like all decision-making processes, the Athenian system was fallible and sometimes produced bad policy. Yet overall and over time, democratic Athens fared well enough to outdo all of its city-state rivals. The postulated value of aggregated knowledge, drawn from a large, diverse, and increasingly sophisticated population, to problem-solving in the fluid and competitive environment of world of the Greek city-states solves the riddle of “unexpected” Athenian success. It offers at least a partial explanation for why Athenian democracy, with its costly participatory decision-making institutions, is so strongly correlated to improved state capacity and superior competitive performance.
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Professeur de sciences politiques et de lettres classiques à l'université de Stanford, Josiah Ober travaille sur l'institutionnalisme historique et la théorie politique, en se concentrant sur la pensée et la pratique politiques du monde grec antique et leur pertinence contemporaine.
|↑1||On epistemic democracy, see E. Anderson 2006; Ober 2008, chapter 1; Estlund 2008, esp. 232: “it is very natural and plausible to think that if democracy has any epistemic value it is partly to do with the sharing of diverse perspectives.” Page 2007 emphasizes both the epistemic potential and the problems associated with socially diverse groups of decision-makers. Of course, even successful democracies experience epistemic failures. If it is to survive in a competitive environment, an epistemic democracy must learn from its failures and design institutions that make similar failures less likely in the future; see below. Sections 2-4 of this chapter are adapted from Ober 2008, especially chapter 4.|
|↑2||The terms “data,” “information,” and “knowledge” are variously defined by organizational theorists. Davenport and Prusak (1998: 1-6) suggest that data are facts about events, information is data that have been given relevance and purpose, and knowledge is a matrix of experience, values, insight, and contextual information which allows for the incorporation of new experiences and information. See also Dixon 2000: 13; Brown and Duguid 2000: 119-202. Expertise, as an unusually high level of mastery of a particular domain of endeavor: Ericsson 1999.|
|↑3||For a detailed description of Athenian democracy, its history and institutions, see Hansen 1999. Athens is a good case study because its documented history includes pre- and post-democratic eras, as well as a long (185 year) period of democratic self-government. Athenian history can readily be subdivided into multiple phases, allowing us to assess democracy’s origins, recovery, persistence, and demise. The evidence base is rich: Substantial numbers of documents enable us to trace institutional changes. A large corpus of public speeches allows analysis of democratic ideology. Athenian democratic government was subjected to probing critical-theoretical scrutiny by prominent contemporary intellectuals (e.g. Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle).|
|↑4||Comparative Athenian performance: Ober 2008 chapter 2; the statistical measures of Athenian success confirm the communis opinio of specialists in ancient Greek history.|
|↑5||More egalitarian participation in fourth than in fifth century: Taylor 2007, 2008 and below. Danger of ossification: Levitt and March 1988. Athenian diversity: Ober 2005, chapter 4. Institutional innnovation over time: Ober 2008, chapter 2.|
|↑6||The Athenian political elite: Hansen 1983, 1984; not a ruling elite: Ober 1989. Lack of formal patronage: Millett 1989; democratic ideology: Ober 1989; dissent: Ober 1998.|
|↑7||3.11 = 1281a40-b10. Trans. C. Lord, adapted. Waldron 1995 underlines the importance of this passage and emphasizes its deliberative character. See Ober 1998: 319-24, 2008: 110-114, for discussion and bibliography. Estlund, 2008, chapter 12 contrasts Condorcet’s theorem (and variations thereof) to Aristotle’s diverse-perspectives approach.|
|↑8||Ober 2008 devotes individual chapters to the epistemic processes of knowledge aggregation (4), alignment (5), and codification (6), arguing that it is the integration of these three processes, over time, that produced the result of superior Athenian performance.|
|↑9||Trade secrets: Davenport and Prusak 1998: 16-17. Incentives as essential for effective knowledge sharing: Sunstein 2006: 69-70, 201, 203-5. Open source software and related forms of non-market productivity: Benkler 2006.|
|↑10||On the vocabulary of “honor-loving” and Athenian public practices associated with it, see Whitehead 1983, 1993. Non-material incentives for knowledge-sharing: Davenport and Prusak: 22-51 (internal “knowledge markets”); Osterloh and Frey 2000. Walker 2004 discusses modern “word of mouth” marketing techniques, suggesting that for at least some people the experience of sharing some kinds of information (in this case about new products) with others is valued in itself, and that material incentives are relatively less important. Similarly: Dixon 2000: 6-7.|
|↑11||Difficulty of making effective use of archived data: Brown and Duguid 1991 and 2000. Routinization versus innovation in organization theory: Levitt and March 1988.|
|↑12||The revolution and the constitutional reforms: see note 17, below. Osborne 1990 answers the question “what is a deme and why does it matter?”|
|↑13||On Prasiai see Vanderpool, McCredie and Steinberg 1962; Whitehead 1986 index s.v.; Camp 2001, 281.|
|↑14||Deme life and diachronic history of residence patterns in rural Attica: Osborne 1985, 1987; Whitehead 1986; Jones 1999.|
|↑15||Granovetter 1973. See, further, Granovetter 1983, 1985; Krackhardt 1992; Gargulio and Benassi 2000; Diani and McAdam 2003. Padgett and Ansell 1993 and Gould 1995 are a notable examples of how social network theory can be used to explain an actual historical situation (the rise of the Medici in 15th century Florence and social movements in Paris in the later 19th century). M.T. Hansen 2002 explores knowledge networks in multiunit firms, an organizational situation with striking analogies to Athens and its constituent demes. Chang and Harrington 2005 emphasize the need for persistent diversity within networks and quality of ties for effective network performance based on both innovation and learning.|
|↑16||Purcell 1990 rightly warns against overstating the insularity of archaic Greek villages. The point is that, in comparison with later Athenian history, Prasiai of the late sixth-century is likely to be relatively lacking in bridging ties.|
|↑17||Athenian revolution: Ober 1996 chapter 5; Forsdyke 2005; Pritchard 2005; Raaflaub, Ober, and Wallace 2007. No Athenian regular army before 508: Frost 1984; Siewert 1982.|
|↑18||The value of social networks in building “communities of practice, and thus to organizational performance is well attested in business literature: Wenger 1998; Davenport and Prusak 1998: 37-39, 65-67; Brown and Duguid 2000: 142-43; 157-59; Benkler 2006.|
|↑19||G. Anderson 2003 offers detailed review of Cleisthenes’ program, with bibliography.|
|↑20||On the intertwining of ritual, financial, and civic life in the Athenian tribe, see Osborne 1994. Sacrificing and eating: Schmitt-Pantel 1992. Marching: Maurizio 1998. Dancing: Wilson 2000: esp. 56-57, 75-76; contra: Pritchard 2004. Tribal networks were also helpful, especially for nonelite Athenians, in legal disputes: Rubinstein 2000.|
|↑21||Rhodes 1985 is the fundamental and indispensable description of the Council of 500, its origins, and its role in Athenian government; see esp. chapter 3 for an analysis of the Council’s main areas of responsibility: finance, army and navy, public works, and religion.|
|↑22||Rhodes 1985: 17-18, favors a later date (ca. 462 B.C.) for the introduction of the tribal delegations serving in rotation as “presidents” of the Council, but he notes that the scholarly communis opinio is that the tribal teams were a Cleisthenic innovation.|
|↑23||Quotas are based on fourth-century evidence. Here I assume that the system was put into place in the immediate post-revolutionary period, and (with Traill 1975: 101-103) remained essentially unchanged through 322 B.C. The main lines of the argument I develop here would not be much affected by the kinds of changes that have been proposed to date, e.g. by Hansen et al. 1990.|
|↑24||I am assuming here that the Council, along with the deme/tribe system, was put into existence in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 508; an alternative view holds that the system was not fully functional until 501/0: Rhodes 1985; 1, 191-93; Badian 2000.|
|↑25||Rhodes 1985 16. Cf. Camp 2001 69-70.|
|↑26||On structural holes, see Burt 1992, 1997, 2004; Gargiulo 2000. Much of Burt’s work builds on insights that are intuitively obvious – one need not have mastered network theory to recognize that advantages accrue to those willing to build bridges between cliquish sub-networks within a larger body that must undertake a common enterprise. The diligently “networking” social entrepreneur is a common feature of institutions of all kinds. The principle is the same whether it is a secondary school, a business firm, a professional association – or a Greek council.|
|↑27||Dowries were very substantial expenses: Cox 1998.|
|↑28||This key insight was developed by Gomme 1951|
|↑29||Forsdyke 2005 is the standard and indispensible account of Athenian ostracism. The evidence for ostracism outside of Athens is exiguous: Forsdyke 2005, appendix 2.|
|↑30||Regrettably, we do not have the vote count for any given ostracism; the literary record does not record that information, and ostraka found by archaeologists can not be dated with enough accuracy to provide a random sample for a given year. So we do not know how large the “winning” plurality would have been in practice. My sense (based on the large numbers of ostraka naming prominent leaders) is that the winning plurality was never small – i.e. that in a given year, most of those who voted to hold an ostracism, and those who cast ostraka, were focused on one of a handful of individuals. See, further, Rhodes 1994.|
|↑31||Taylor 2008, arguing persuasively that exogenous factors (e.g. demographic changes due to disease, war, rural migration to the city) are inadequate to explain the growth in participation. Taylor’s figures fit well with the conclusions of Morris 1998a: 235-36, who notes that in comparative terms, and especially in comparison with the pre-democratic period, the pattern of landholding in fourth-century Athens was “extremely egalitarian” (Morris’ emphasis: Gini coefficient of 0.382-0.386).|