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Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens

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By (author) Josiah Ober

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  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Format: Paperback | 368 pages
  • Dimensions: 155mm x 229mm x 28mm | 522g
  • Publication date: 1 April 2010
  • Publication City/Country: New Jersey
  • ISBN 10: 0691146241
  • ISBN 13: 9780691146249
  • Illustrations note: 15 halftones. 9 line illus. 19 tables.
  • Sales rank: 363,512

Product description

When does democracy work well, and why? Is democracy the best form of government? These questions are of supreme importance today as the United States seeks to promote its democratic values abroad. Democracy and Knowledge is the first book to look to ancient Athens to explain how and why directly democratic government by the people produces wealth, power, and security. Combining a history of Athens with contemporary theories of collective action and rational choice developed by economists and political scientists, Josiah Ober examines Athenian democracy's unique contribution to the ancient Greek city-state's remarkable success, and demonstrates the valuable lessons Athenian political practices hold for us today. He argues that the key to Athens's success lay in how the city-state managed and organized the aggregation and distribution of knowledge among its citizens. Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs. He explains why a government's attempt to dam the flow of information makes democracy stumble. Democratic participation and deliberation consume state resources and social energy. Yet as Ober shows, the benefits of a well-designed democracy far outweigh its costs. Understanding how democracy can lead to prosperity and security is among the most pressing political challenges of modern times. Democracy and Knowledge reveals how ancient Greek politics can help us transcend the democratic dilemmas that confront the world today.

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Author information

Josiah Ober is the Constantine Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include "Athenian Legacies, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens," and "Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens" (all Princeton).

Review quote

Shortlisted for the 2010 Hessell-Tiltman Prize, English PEN Winner of the 2008 PROSE Award in Classics and Ancient History, Association of American Publishers "Josiah Ober is a practically minded, get up and go, people's kind of democrat... There is certainly nothing like [Democracy and Knowledge] in the literature on ancient politics."--Geoffrey Hawthorn, Times Literary Supplement "Democracy and Knowledge is the final book in an extraordinary trilogy. It follows Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, which appeared in 1989, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, in 1998. This third book incorporates the central conclusions of the first two, and with this volume Ober, by means of a highly original historical argument about Athens, does in fact refute Michel's famous law... Ober's careful historical work and his theoretical framework generate a convincing portrait of a flourishing participatory democracy that overcame real crises, and achieved a stable balancing of the interests of masses and wealthy elites, and responded to collective action problems by developing institutional and cultural solutions that focused on the social distribution and the social valuation of knowledge... Is it too much to ask that members of the Obama administration turn to a dense work of ancient history to help them make good on Obama's vision of an American state that combines the resources of representative and participatory democracy? They would take away from Democracy and Knowledge at least a few important general ideas."--Danielle Allen, The New Republic "This book ... 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.'"--Christopher Moore, Bryn Mawr Classical Review "Josiah Ober's book is a remarkable contribution to classical Greek history, social theory, and political philosophy. It advances understandings within each field and shows why these disciplines should be in more conversation with one another."--Gerald Mara, Cambridge Journals "The book is written in a very accessible style and it should be of interest to a wide range of scholars working in the are of ancient history, political science and democratic theory."--Zsuzsanna Chappell, Political Studies Review "[This book is] very much worth reading, if for no other reason than for the extremely rich and interesting historical detail to be found... In this respect, [the] author live[s] up to [his] justly earned reputation as [a] great political historian."--Frank Lovett, Perspectives on Politics "[T]he book is well worth the read. The attempt to cross disciplinary boundaries is refreshing. Moreover, Obe"s analysis offers a valuable contribution to democratic theory."--Emma Cohen de Lara, Acta Politica "[Ober] makes a detailed and stimulating case. This is a book which has much to offer to both scholars of Athenian democracy and democratic political thought."--Peter Liddel, European Legacy

Back cover copy

"In this pathbreaking work, Josiah Ober draws on the full array of modern social science to explain the amazing success of Athenian democracy. He argues persuasively that the Athenians were able to overcome problems of collective action through the efficient aggregation and use of knowledge, as when Cleisthenes created new tribes that brought together citizens from different parts of Attica. The striking vignettes and episodes from Athenian history conjoined with sophisticated theoretical analyses make for utterly compelling reading. It will enrich social science no less than the writing of ancient history. Since the work of Paul Veyne, there has been nothing like it."--Jon Elster, Collge de France"A fresh, intellectually daring proposal by the George Grote of our times: democracy is not just an ethically desirable political form, but potentially unsurpassed as a source of innovation, public learning, and the application of publicly useful knowledge."--John Keane, professor of politics at the University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin"Josiah Ober introduces Athens to students of institutional design and institutional design to students of Athens in an exercise of trailblazing scholarship and analysis. The book will become a standard reference in both areas of investigation."--Philip Pettit, Princeton University""Democracy and Knowledge" looks at Athenian democracy from a quite new angle by taking on a question that has not previously made the transition from political and social science to ancient world studies. No one has even asked how in practice the Athenians aggregated their knowledge to make sensible decisions. There is no treatment of classical Athens or, to my knowledge, of the working of any democracy, comparable to this."--Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge"This is a terrific book. Ober applies modern social science to explain and make sense of Athenian institutions, and offers strong and compelling discussions of many issues. The two central lines of argument--the role and structure of knowledge and the incentive or game structures of the interactions of citizens in politics--are at the core of understanding these issues, and yet they are seldom brought together in this way."--Russell Hardin, New York University

Table of contents

List of Illustrations xi List of Tables xii Preface xiii List of Abbreviations xvii Athenian Money, Taxes, Revenues xviii CHAPTER ONE: Introduction: Dispersed Knowledge and Public Action 1 Theory and Practice 3 Rational Choice and Joint Action 6 Premises and Problem 12 Caveats and Method 22 The Argument and Its Contexts 28 Experts and Interests 34 Hypothesis 37 CHAPTER TWO: Assessing Athenian Performance 39 Historical Evaluation 40 Aggregate Flourishing 43 Distribution of Coinage 48 Athens versus Syracuse and Sparta 52 Citations in Greek Literature and Other Measures 53 Athens ??12: A Multiperiod Case Study 55 Democracy as an Explanatory Variable 70 Republics, Democracies, and Athenian Exceptionalism 75 CHAPTER THREE: Competition, Scale, and Varieties of Knowledge 80 Competition and Its Consequences 80 Participation and Scale 84 Social, Technical, and Latent Knowledge 90 Preferences, Parties, and Costly Information 97 Hierarchy, Democracy, and Productivity 102 Knowledge Processes as Public-Action Strategies 106 CHAPTER FOUR: Aggregation: Networks, Teams, and Experts 118 Institutional Design: Incentives, Low Cost, Sorting 118 Establishing a Naval Station, 325/4 B.C. 124 Demes and Tribes as Social Networks 134 The Council of 500: Structural Holes and Bridging Ties 142 Organizational and Individual Learning 151 Boards of Magistrates as Real Teams 156 Ostracism, Assembly, and People's Courts 160 CHAPTER FIVE: Alignment: Common Knowledge, Commitment, and Coordination 168 Alignment and Hierarchy 169 Following Leaders, Rules, and Commitments 172 Cascading and Social Equilibrium 179 A Trial for Treason, 330 B.C. 183 Common Knowledge and Publicity 190 Rational Rituals and Public Monuments 194 Architecture and Intervisibility 199 Scaling Common Knowledge 205 CHAPTER SIX: Codification: Access, Impartiality, and Transaction Costs 211 Intention and Interpretation 211 Open Entry, Fair Procedure, and Transaction Costs 214 A Law on Silver Coinage, 375/4 B.C. 220 Silver Owls, Athenian and Imitation 226 Approval, Certification, Confiscation 231 Legal Standing and Social Status 241 Rules and Rents: Historical Survey 245 Expanding Access 249 Democracy and Social Security 254 Horizons of Fairness 258 CHAPTER SEVEN: Conclusions: Government by the People 264 Knowledge in Action 264 The Democracy/Knowledge Hypothesis Revisited 268 Formality and Experimentation 270 Institutions and Ideology 272 Exceptionalism and Exemplarity 276 APPENDIX A. Aggregate Material Flourishing 281 APPENDIX B. Distribution of Coins in Hoards 285 APPENDIX C. Prominence in Classical Greek Literature 287 APPENDIX D. Impact of Constitution and Historical Experience 289 APPENDIX E. Athenian State Capacity and Democracy, 600-250 B.C. 292 Bibliography 295 Index 333