Thursday, September 3, 2009

Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, A Book Review

Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Oxford University Press, 2005

The Athenians are known for democracy and in particular, participatory democracy. (Paul Woodruff recognized that slaves and women did not vote. But Thrasybulus led the force that defeated the thirty tyrants put in by the Spartans. Thrasybulus argued that the slaves on the side of democracy should have been given their freedom. This had happened before as said in Xenophon's Hellenica and aristophanes Frogs and the debate about when slaves should be freed after serving in combat was debated often.

The wealthy, who owned slaves, under ARchinus defeated this belief. And as Paul Woodruff pointed out, and we saw in the bank bail out, the wealthy interests defeat common sense. Paul Woodruff lamented, often the interests of the rich and powerful prevail and pure democracy does not prevent this.

Paul Woodruff points out that a democracy must make decisions when the outcomes are uncertain and advocates that this is precisely the time when decisions must be made by sortition. And he contrasted this with Plato's dream of rule by expert, the techne, the philosopher kings. A democracy must deal with experts who have interests. And a democracy must deal with the times that experts have legitimate disagreements, perhaps disagreements based upon ideology.

Paul Woodruff uses Athens' war in Sicily both to give the power of a sortition-based assembly and its problems. The Athenians considered whether they should attempt an invasion of Sicily and capturing Syracuse. On page 148 to Page 149, Mr. Woodruff beautifully recounts the pros and cons for the attempted invasion as it would be viewed by Athenians. And he talks about the second vote, where the Assembly was to plan the invasion and what would be needed for it. Nicias talks about the cons once again. (He is an experienced general.) Alcibiades is pro-war and another "brilliant commander." He talks about the situation of experts, as both these generals were, disagreeing, the difficulty of knowing the future and why in these situations, true democracy should triumph.

Three generals were appointed, Nicias, Alcibiades and Lamachus. Woodruff does a wonderful job of explaining the interaction between democracy, expert politics, and the end of the Peloponnesian war and the rivalry between Sparta and Athens. (However, I read the Wikipedia articles on Nicias and Alcibidias. The former also give a somewhat different perspective on the history.) The wikipedia pages put these in the context of the conflict between the overcautious and the overoptimistic. Is participatory democracy the way to deal with this conflict which certainly occurss again and again including modern times?

And Paul Woodruff gives us the parable of the ship sailing in heavy seas, and decisions must be made quickly, and there is no time to debate, sort out differences among experts, and vote. "That is why ships have captains, and no ship, can be democratic." These pages are truly beautiful and I believe everyone should read them!

And certainly, there are many situations where participatory democracy is inappropriate, a platoon leader in battle, a surgeon in the operating room and the pilot in an airplane come to mind. But overall strategy in war including political strategy is not decided instantly, the decision to operate or not is, usually, made after deliberation, and possibly the decision to ground an aircraft due to weather could be made after deliberation and hearing several opinions. Similarly a decision in a firm about whether to merge with a rival or acquire a possibly synergistic company is not made immediately.

Mob Rule

Of course, one of the objections to participatory democracy, is the danger of mob rule. Paul Woodruff points out a famous example of the "trial" of 406. Athenia won a naval battle against the Spartans at Arginusae. After the victory, the generals tried to rescue some of the crewmen of sinking vessels. But failed. The generals of the navy were brought back for trial. They were supposed to be given a trial one by one and each individual should have an opportunity to defend themselves. The Assembly denied this and executed the generals; the Athenians then recognized their mistake. Paul Woodruff said that this anomaly led the founders of the United States to fear mob rule.

Other innovations

  1. Jury duty and a day in the assembly had a modest payment, about half a days wages for a laborer. But it was enough so that all classes participated and at times, the Athenians had to rope off the Assembly when six thousand people showed up.
  2. Every public officer had to be officially cleared of financial misdealings before leaving position.
  3. Also, some officials were chosen by lot and others needing special expertise were elected, particularly generals and those dealing with financial situation. Many officers that were selected by lot had a formal review.
  4. They used a juror system as well. In court cases, juror panels were large. They were chosen by lot the day of the trial. Thus, it was hard to bribe jurors. Individuals defended themselves. There were arguemnts about wehther the rich should be allowed to hire speech writers.
  5. Anyone could bring up anyone on charges including leaders of government, but those who did not get 20% of the vote on the jury paid a heavy fie. But there were sycophants who threatened to bring the wealthy upon charges in order to extort payments.
  6. A council fo five hundred and legislative panel did the work of screening and marking up legislation done by committees in federal and state legislatures. These were chosen by lot.
  7. There was at first the Aeroagus, an aristocratic court, and after Solon, popular courts in which any citizen could bring charges against others.
The combination of systems, perhaps as some might denigrate by using the expression "ad hoc," or as others might refer to it, "wisely using the right mechanism for each purpose or situation." is what John Zube referred to as "panarchy."

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