The Real Athenian Democracy

Democracy is our present world’s political religion. India supposedly is world’s largest democracy. We are being bombarded everyday by politicians, media pundits, academicians and other intellectuals about the virtues of democracy. In his second term’s first Mann ki Baat program prime minister Modi termed democracy as a part of India’s culture and heritage while on the other hand Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was urging voters, before Loksabha elections, to defeat Modi and Shah to save democracy.  It is seen as the highest form of political system; a goal which every nation state must strive for and achieve to safeguard happiness of its citizens. Democracy is a God.

Democracy is a political system having its roots in 5th century BC Greece, especially the city-state of Athens. Here is Wikipedia on the origins of democracy:

The term originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”, which was coined from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (kratos) “power” or “rule” in the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) “rule of an elite”. (footnotes removed)  

So, what was this system of democracy as originally practiced in the city-state of Athens? Are today’s democracies similar to this original system of Athens? How today’s democracies differ from the Athenian democracy? In the following paragraphs I give brief answers of these very important questions.

Before I begin, I want to make one thing clear that I am in no way in love with democracy or the State. The following discussion only compares today’s democracies with the original Athenian democracy. Notwithstanding all the following discussion of various forms of democratic states, I don’t support the formation of any state or the kind of democracies that we are having today. I firmly believe in the market democracy where consumers directly vote with their money for different sellers’ products. The best political organization is an Anarcho-Capitalist Libertarian society.

George H. Sabine’s in his important book A History of Political Theory discusses the Athenian democracy in the beginning chapters. Reading of these chapters will immediately make one thing clear, which Sabine also points out, that today’s democracies and democratic states are nowhere near or original in form compared with the democracies of Greek city-states like Athens. These differences are important to understand what’s wrong with today’s so-called democracies. The first major difference that Sabine discusses is about the size – both in terms of area and population – of democracies in Greek city-states and today’s states.

As compared with modern states the ancient city-state was exceedingly small both in area and in population. Thus the whole territory of Attica was only a little more than two-thirds the area of Rhode island, and in population Athens was comparable with such a city as Denver or Rochester. The numbers are exceedingly uncertain but a figure somewhat in excess of three hundred thousand would be approximately correct. Such an arrangement of a small territory dominated by a single city was typical of the city-state. (p. 19)

Compared to these extremely small sized city-state Athenian democracy, India’s so-called largest democracy of 140 crore people is a joke. The size of democratic state is important for many reasons. First, in a small place like a city democracy, people can keep more effective control over the elected administrators. Elected magistrates will also be more representative of the population e.g., in India’s democracy there are total 545 MPs representing more than 140 crore people i.e., according to latest population figures, 1 politician (legislator) representing 25,68,807 people!  Second, as Hans Hermann Hoppe explained, a more decentralized polity is good for preserving citizens’ liberty.

Smallness contributes to moderation, however. A small government has many close competitors, and if it taxes and regulates its own subjects visibly more than its competitors, it is bound to suffer from the emigration of labor and capital and a corresponding loss of future tax revenue. Consider a single household, or a village, as an independent territory, for instance. Could a father do to his son, or a mayor to his village, what the government of the Soviet Union did to its subjects (i.e., deny them any right to private capital ownership) or what governments all across Western Europe and the U.S. do to their citizens (i.e., expropriate up to 50 percent of their productive output)? Obviously not. There would either be an immediate revolt and the government would be overthrown, or emigration to another nearby household or village would ensue.

 Contrary to orthodoxy, then, precisely the fact that Europe possessed a highly decentralized power structure composed of countless independent political units explains the origin of capitalism – the expansion of market participation and of economic growth – in the Western world.  It is not by accident that capitalism first flourished under conditions of extreme political decentralization: in the northern Italian  city states, in southern Germany, and in the secessionist Low Countries (Netherlands). (Democracy: The God That Failed, pp. 110-11, footnotes removed)

Compared to today’s giant centralized Indian state, imagine the Indian subcontinent filled with many small city-states like Surat, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, New Delhi etc., etc. Just for the sake of argument if we assume of having a democratic state as our political order, then, this world of many decentralized competing city-states will be a much better place to live for Indians compared to today’s monolith Indian state ruled from New Delhi by handful of political oligarchs. Today billions of Indians don’t have any choice of escaping the depredations of the Indian state.

Another way in which the Athenian democracy differed from today’s democracies in a big way was its political institutions. Sabine discusses these institutions in some detail.

The institutions by which his body of citizen-members undertook to transact its political business can be illustrated by taking Athens as the best-known type of the democratic constitution. The whole body of male citizens formed the Assembly or Ecclesia, a town-meeting which every Athenian was entitled to attend after he had reached the age of twenty years…

The interesting thing about Athenian government is therefore not the Assembly of the whole people but the political means which had been designed to make the magistrates and officials responsible to the citizen-body and answerable to its control. The devise by which this was effected was a species of representation, though it differed in important ways from modern ideas of representation. What was aimed at was the selection of a body sufficiently large to form a sort of cross-section or sample of the whole body of citizens, which was permitted in a given case or for a short term to act in the name of the people. The terms were short; there was usually a provision against re-election: and thus the way was open for other citizens to have a turn at the management of public affairs. (p. 22, emphasize mine)

As we can see above, the important mechanism to control the civil servants (today’s politicians, bureaucrats etc.) was keeping their term of service short and a provision against re-election. This is crucial because today’s democracies don’t have any of these provisions. In fact, today’s politicians and bureaucrats are professional careerists. Politicians’ actions are dictated by only one goal: election and re-election.

They also had two other political institutions: The two bodies which formed the keys to popular control of government in Athens were the Council of Five Hundred and the courts with heir large popular juries. Various demes (wards or parishes or townships) elected and selected the members of the Council of Five Hundred. Their method of election was very different from today’s elections:

The demes elected candidates, roughly in proportion to their size, and the actual holders of office were chosen by lot from the panel thus formed by election. To the Greek understanding this mode of filling offices by lot was the distinctively democratic form of rule, since it equalized everyone’s chances to hold office. (p. 23)

Imagine today’s politicians and bureaucrats being chosen by lot!

The courts of Athens were important in controlling both magistrates and the law itself. Sabine explains this fact:

It was through the courts, however, that popular control both of magistrates and of the law itself was consummated. The Athenian courts were undoubtedly the keystone of the whole democratic system. They occupied a position not comparable to that held by the courts in any modern government. Their duty, like that of any other court, was of course to render judicial decisions in particular cases either civil or criminal; but in addition they had powers vastly beyond this, which to modern ideas were clearly of an executive or legislative rather than of a judicial nature. (p. 24)

In three main ways the courts controlled the magistrates:

In the first place, there was a power of examination before a candidate could take office. An action might be brought on the ground that a given candidate was not a fit person to hold office and the court could disqualify him. This process made the choice of magistrates by lot less a matter of chance than it might at first appear to be. In the second place, an official could be made subject at the conclusion of his term of office to a review of all the acts performed by him, and this review also took place before a court. Finally, there was a special auditing of accounts and a review of the handling of public money for every magistrate at the end of his term. The Athenian magistrate, ineligible as he was to reelection and subject to examination before and after his term by a court composed five hundred or more of his fellow citizens chosen by lot, had little independence of action…

The control of the courts by no means stopped with magistrates. They had a control over the law itself which might give them real legislative power and raise them to a position in particular cases coordinate with the Assembly itself. For the courts could try not only a man but a law. Thus a decision of the Council or of the Assembly might be attacked by a peculiar form of writ alleging that it was contrary to the constitution. Any citizen could bring such a complaint and the operation of the act in question was then suspended until it was acted upon by a court. The offending law was tried exactly as if it were a person and an adverse decision by the court quashed it. (p. 25-6)

Today’s state kangaroo courts don’t have any similarities with these original Athenian courts. Today’s judiciary system works merely as a rubber stamp for the government.

As we have seen above, compared to the original democracies of the Greek city-states, today’s democracies are pure farce. Even those people who worship democracy should understand that we don’t have any democracy in India. We are better off doing away with this democracy and establishing a truly free society instead.

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