Working Paper No. 09-31:
Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens

Author(s):

Ilya Somin

Date Posted: July 2009

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Abstract:

In his excellent book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober argues that ancient Athenian democracy surmounted the dangers of political ignorance and made effective use of dispersed citizen knowledge to forge good public policy.  He effectively demonstrates that Athenian democracy was more successful than the oligarchic and tyrannical governments of rival Greek city-states. He also shows how Athenian institutions worked to reduce the dangers of political ignorance.

On the other hand, Ober is less successful in showing that the relatively impressive performance of Athenian democracy should lead us to be optimistic about today's democratic states. Indeed, his account suggests that Athens' success in overcoming political ignorance was in large part the result of two important ways in which it differed from modern democracies: the small size of its electorate and the very narrow range of functions performed by its government.