Friday, April 10, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. xvi, 342. ISBN 9780691133478. $29.95.
Reviewed by Christopher Moore, The University of Texas at Austin


I. Introduction

Ober argues that Athens' democratic institutions explain its six generations of relative prosperity. His argument depends on seeing that Athens competed with hundreds of other poleis for survival, that is, for trade profits and military strength. His insight translates the question of democratic functionality into one of relative efficiency. For a city during turbulent times, what had to be made efficient was the deployment of human knowledge. The capacious and highly articulated deliberative structure of Athenian democratic government allowed Athens to consolidate, use, and expand its citizens' knowledge in ways simpler or more hierarchical cities could not. It could more often find good solutions to hard policy and logistics problems. This becomes especially clear when considering Athenian resilience and adaptability in the dynamic century and a half before the Macedonian conquest. Ober, drawing from findings in the social-scientific theory of the organization, looks at those aspects of Athens that made it in some ways more like a successful modern firm than like a modern nation-state; but he also shows how certain democratic institutions--the rule of law, face-to-face deliberative bodies, guaranteed free exchange--are crucial for "democratic advantage" even now.

This book, despite its occasional stretches of utilitarian argument against various positions in classical or economics scholarship, richly rewards any reader with interests in democratic theory or Athens. For many it could renew an interest in the sociology of deliberative action. And it does an excellent job rethinking tired political hyperdivision of "public vs. private," "weak vs. strong publics," and "civic vs. market orientations."

This review first summarizes the book, attending most to the organizational-science quandaries Ober sets out to solve. Then it sums up what Ober has in mind by "democracy" and by "knowledge." The end suggests a few ways theorists and philosophers studying ancient politics and democracy might benefit from Ober's results.

II. Outline of the Book

The comprehensive introduction sets out the social-scientific goals of the work. The central goal is to show classical Athens to be a fruitful case study for the understanding of joint action in a political context--parallel to the way one would study Microsoft to see how the firm organizes joint action in a market context--and the excellence of Athenian democracy judged from the perspective of efficiency. Ober works with organizational science more than with game or decision theory. He sets out the economic problems of coordination effectively and without pedantry. The author's major dialectical project quickly becomes clear: he will be arguing explicitly against "the cloistered-experts approach to policy-making" (2), a view supposing that, given the costs of knowledge-acquisition, a mass citizenry will always be too ignorant to run their city adequately; this view supposes the necessity of managerial or technocratic elites. At the end of the chapter Ober sets down his hypothesis--what he means his chapters to support--in italics:

"Democratic Athens was able to take advantage of its size and resources, and therefore competed successfully over time against hierarchical rivals, because the cost of participatory political practices were overbalanced by returns to social cooperation resulting from useful knowledge as it was organized and deployed in the simultaneously innovation-promoting and learning-based context of democratic institutions and culture." (37-8)

The second chapter, "Performance," argues that Athens was the most prosperous Greek polis and correlates that prosperity to its democratic institutions. Ober measures prosperity in terms of "wealth, power, security, stability, and cultural influence--as opposed to moralistic criteria" and against "other real Greek poleis over the full course of the late archaic and classical period" (40). He correlates Athenian prosperity to its political structure because Athens "was quite similar to its rivals in terms of climate, location, geology, ethnicity, background history, and general culture," and because, despite its great silver wealth, "resources endowments [alone] do not spur high performance" (72). This chapter also divides Athenian history into twelve periods (from 700 to 146), and gives handy one-page synopses of each. (While this chapter charts much data from the Inventory of Archaic and Classical Greek Poleis, more data is relegated to five appendices (281-293).)

The third chapter, "Competition, Scale, and the Varieties of Knowledge," sharpens Ober's take on the problems poleis faced. Such cities--"purposeful organizations whose members jointly pursue collective flourishing, as well as other shared and individual goals" (90)--were always threatened by the real possibility of extinction; and as their expanding populations could no longer maintain face-to-face contact, coordinating solutions became increasingly hard. A city would need, accordingly, to figure out how to bring together dispersed and diverse social and technical knowledge (in part recognition of who was comparatively expert in what); how to make sure what was decided upon got done; and how to minimize the cost of potentially effortful but useful interactions. Ober could have elaborated even more on a point he makes, of certain interest to political theorists, that no so-called "leadership" expertise exists (94-5), that there are instead only constellations of expertise potentially relevant to the complex tasks of running a city, and that institutional arrangements can help increasingly large percentages of the citizenry acquire these.

The fourth chapter, "Aggregation: Networks, Teams, and Experts," confronts the three-fold democratic problem: any particular citizen is likely to be untutored in high-stakes public decision-making, unfamiliar with who could be expert in what, and unconcerned with people or events outside his rather small circle. Ober shows how membership in multiple deliberative bodies solves all three problems at once. To put it simply, people learn to debate and decide by doing it a lot; they gather useful contacts and advisors when, serving as representatives to larger assemblies, they meet representatives from other locales (e.g., the sea-side); and the desires to win social capital, etc., (e.g., to find potential sons- and daughters-in-law) encourages an important extroversion and catholicity of awareness to goings-on. Ober looks particularly into what makes a "real team"--a group that works increasingly well together--and looks to competition, accountability, feedback, and other incentives. He also admires the paradoxical Athenian tradition of yearly turnover of office (155): it was only an apparent block to the development of efficient routines and the preservation of useful knowledge, since whatever disadvantage that discontinuity caused was overwhelmed by the upside of innovation (120-1), the prevention of "a self-serving identity or corporate culture" (150), and the benefits of an ever-larger percentage of the population gaining official experience. The bulk of this chapter looks at Athenian institutional complexity from two angles. Ober first reads a dispatching decree of 325/4 establishing a naval station. He is very impressed by the fourteen bodies or agents involved and named therein--e.g., "curators of the shipyards," "trierarchs," "the herald of the Council of 500," "apodektai," "treasurers of Athena," "euthonos," "paredroi," "prutaneis," and "dispatchers"--and the incentives offered for quick and effective service. The second angle is on the Cleisthenic solution to the problem of cliques: Ober sets out how Athens organized its populace into tribes, trittyes, and demes, and how those bodies' respective deliberative assemblies allowed just the right intensity of intermixing of the citizenry to unify useful knowledge (140).

Chapter five, "Alignment: Common Knowledge, Commitment, and Coordination," explains how it was that "behind every Athenian statute lay the implicit assumption that coordination could be achieved in the absence of a unitary executive, through dispersed choice making and self-regulation" (169). As in the previous chapter, after outlining the basic dilemmas, Ober takes up both a narrow and broad topic in Athenian democracy. The narrower one is Lycurgus' prosecution against Leocrates on charges of treason in 330 (183-190). The broader one is Athenian civic events and architecture, which, following Michael Chwe's Rational Ritual (Princeton, 2001) and his ideas about intervisibility, Ober shows succeeded at bringing people together in ways that allow them to see what one another knows (and that one another knows that one another knows that...). Such self-consciously shared awareness makes joint action more reliable. (Ober doesn't belabor the way these findings speak to theses about shame or the single-mindedness of communities.)

The sixth chapter, "Codification: Access, Impartiality, and Transaction Costs," focuses on Nikophon's law on silver coinage of 375/4. The hypothesis which Ober's discussion of the law means to support is that the law was enacted to minimize the effort and money wasted in uncertainty about the value of tender on offer (i.e., transaction costs). Further discussion in this chapter concerns legal openness designed to encourage the visit to Athens' markets by foreign traders. It is here where the moral superiorities of democracy--in equality, fairness, and transparency--are seen to be in part driven by market considerations. Yet it's important to see that it is the very advantages of democratic learning and innovation that allow the laws to be driven by those market considerations. Of course opening markets is not itself cost-free--the psychic and (ensuing) deliberative costs could be high. But Ober implicitly but reasonably assumes that banking experts were able to persuade the assembly that the benefits to their city of trade liberalization outweighed whatever excitation of its xenophobia or distaste for thinking about matters economic such resolutions caused.

Democracy and Knowledge's conclusion summarizes its findings and shows how what we know about Athens could be at all relevant to nation-states three to four orders of magnitude larger. Ober is not pessimistic about scaling up Athens' discoveries, should modern deliberative arrangements figure out a way to promote the development of "participatory expertise," create the "potential for long-term social interactions," and operate within "high stakes" environments full of "deliberative experience at multiple levels" (274).

III. "Democracy" and "Knowledge"

Ober looks at democracy as "the capacity to act in order to effect change," when that capacity "lay[s] with a public composed of many choice-making individuals" (12). His concern is not with voting as an accurate or inaccurate way of aggregating preferences but with the way a group of people can decide together to act in concert. Participatory and deliberative ideas of democracy are central to this vision, but this is not itself a justificatory project as those ideas are. Nor does Ober claim that a democracy must transform its citizenry from seekers of self-interest into altruistic councilors; instead, a successful city must bring its people to see what objectives they do share and what knowledge they could share that would help them with those objectives. Incentives and sanctions remain powerful devices for encouraging public work; fortunately, both may be internal to the democratic institutions themselves (e.g., pride in one's committee's excellence; fines for extortive behavior levied by the overseeing legislative body).

What precisely is this "democratic knowledge"? It is only incidentally the knowledge of concern to the Millian liberal, knowledge of what the individual wants (that the individual is best positioned to know), knowledge expressed through free speech, association, and petitioning. Nor is it, exactly, the knowledge each person has about policy decisions (that would be increased if everyone read white papers). Democratic knowledge combines what Ober calls "social" and "technical" knowledge. Social knowledge is knowledge of who is expert in what and thus from whom to take advice; tacit and explicit knowledge of basic routines for fact-finding and making decisions; and awareness of what others' preferences and intentions are such that their actions will be relatively predictable. Technical knowledge is the expertise dispersed throughout any society (including expertise in the deployment of social knowledge, for example, in the invention of new problem-solving mechanisms); every craftsperson, enthusiast, or socialite will have his respective expertise probably useful someday to a city decision.

IV. Relevance to Normative Theory of Ancient Democracy

It is worth noting that rational choice ("positivistic") models such as Ober's make some theorists nervous. Such models seem to rely for explanation on (unjustified? hazardously-oversimplified?) assumptions about self-interest, and they seem to treat the moral success of a regime as a happy accident rather than a constraint on its justifiability.

Ober's first prophylactic against this anxiety is to observe that the survival of democratic societies matters, because democracy "is uniquely well suited to human flourishing" (xiii). He also appeals to the ways Athens' need to survive required it to strengthen its commitments to procedural justice, openness, and accountability (though sometimes to a woefully incomplete extent). Ober could even have identified the many ways in which the proliferation of deliberative venues would have had effects on individual wellbeing besides improving political engagement and putting the decision-maker under better-made laws (which are themselves important-enough outcomes). The points he makes, and those he intentionally leaves aside, go some way toward sketching out a theory of democracy as excelling in both the economic and moral domains, and to identifying core features responsible for this simultaneous excellence.

On this point, one may wonder what this work shares with more conceptual or justificatory works. I take one example, Paul Woodruff's First Democracy (Oxford, 2005). Woodruff's discussion of Athenian democracy, and its lessons for today, talks about seven explicitly moral democratic ideals: freedom from domination, harmony, the rule of law, "natural equality," "citizen wisdom," "reasoning without knowledge," and paideia. A work like Ober's can explain why a city can rely on "citizen wisdom," that is, non-expert leaders (because expertise is diffused throughout society) and on imprecise reasoning (because layers of committees improve it); how a city can achieve harmony (because of its physical ordering) and the rule of law (because of the economic advantages of it); and so forth. Woodruff and other philosophers and normative theorists can explain why a successful Athens was, in a fair number of respects, also an admirable Athens.

V. Some Concluding Remarks

The book, while not always vividly written or given to illustration after interesting illustration (and it could use more mundane examples of decision-making itself), is, besides having the virtues discussed above, very useful. It has a lavish bibliography and an effective index. Ober's repetitiousness proves helpful when flipping back through the book. There are lots of apparatus, well-ordered presentations of data, serviceable diagrams, and some fascinating tables and figures (e.g., pp. 57, 74). It is easy to accept the argumentative structure of the book and Ober's claim that it is part of a trilogy (with his Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens [Princeton, 1989] and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens [Princeton, 1998]), and thus not be annoyed at what it leaves out. One is of course curious about the educational and social institutions in which deliberation, discovery, and judgment might be practiced, and whether Athens had any special ones. Also unanswered are some matters perhaps of especial interest for contemporary development theorists: "How did Cleisthenes' novel tribal divisions take?" "What allowed oversight between organizational structures to maintain its impartiality?" But these absences are no argument against the deeply interesting hypotheses, findings, and ideas of this book.

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