Democracy – Ancient and Modern

In The Principles of Representative Government (1997), Bernard Manin attempted to explain why Athenian (sortive) democracy was supplanted by election at the time of the birth of modern representative democracy. Many members of this forum have lamented this development and called for a return to classical democracy. In this post I would like to argue that sortition was only ever one element in Athenian democracy and that the other elements, if translated into a modern context, would of necessity be rather like the institutions that we currently bemoan. For analytic convenience I’ll deal with Athenian democratic practice under three categories:

  • One Man One Vote
  • Deliberative Scrutiny
  • Rule and Be Ruled In Turn

One Man One Vote (OMOV)

The principal legislative forum in Athens was the Ekklesia (general assembly), which was open to all (male) citizens. Although legislative proposals were usually introduced via the randomly-selected Boule (Council of 500), nevertheless the fundamental principal of Athenian democracy was that proposals were put to the general assembly and decided on the basis of OMOV. This would involve a meeting of (up to) 30,000 in the Agora, which is about as large a democratic assembly as might be imaginable.

Assuming the fundamental democratic principle of OMOV, how might this be scaled up to the needs of large modern states? One way is via direct voting, as in a referendum, a comparatively easy matter in an age of digital communication. However referenda rarely reflect the considered view of the electorate and are usually a general verdict on the (un)popularity of the current government.

Most modern states have opted instead for representative government via general elections. Although these are (nominally) for named constituency representatives, in practice most voters opt for the political party that offers the policies that best approximate their own views and interests. As such, elective democracy best approximates the Athenian principle of OMOV and it is difficult to imagine any alternative for large modern states.

Deliberative Scrutiny

The problem with large popular assemblies (actual or virtual) is that they inevitably become dominated by demagogues and offer an impoverished level of deliberation. As a consequence the resulting vote is anything but the considered verdict of the political community (the parallel between the Athenian general assembly and the modern general election is a direct one in this respect). This led to the Fourth Century innovation of the nomothetai (legislative courts), The nomothetai were selected by lot from among the jurors who were over thirty and who had taken the dikastic oath. ‘It was the wisdom of advanced age combined with the importance of the oath that distinguished the nomothetai from the Assembly’ (M.H. Hansen, personal communication).

There is no modern analogue to the legislative courts, hence the justified call by members of this forum for the establishment of a modern equivalent. Note however that, to the Athenians, this was only ever a check on the OMOV verdict; to replace direct (or electoral) voting by sortition would be a direct contravention of the norms of Athenian democracy. As to whether or not the sort of franchise restrictions suggested by Hansen are applicable in a modern setting is not the subject of this post.

Rule and Be Ruled In Turn

The third aspect of Athenian democracy was the predisposition to rule and be ruled in turn:

One factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn . . . [by] election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill; no property-qualification for office, or only a very low one; no office to be held twice, or more than a few times, by the same person (Aristotle, Pol., VI.2, 1317b).

Apart from military and a few other specialist functions, most Athenian magistracies were filled by lot. But how is it possible to import a model of democracy that originated in an ancient city-state – where every citizen would have stood a reasonable chance of being selected for office at least once in his lifetime – into large modern nations? In nations of many million citizens there is as remote a chance of being selected for political office by a modern electronic version of the kleroterion as there is of drawing the golden ticket in the National Lottery. Clearly ruling and being ruled in turn is no longer possible. The dramatically increased size of modern states was one of the reasons for the birth of representative government at the end of the eighteenth-century. So why is there a call for a return to this aspect of Athenian democracy?

Aristotle’s exclusion from the lottery process of magistracies that needed experience or skill (prompted perhaps by Socrates’ sarcastic observation that choosing skilled officials by lot is like ‘selecting a pilot or a flute-player . . . by bean’), rules out sortition as a sensible way of selecting government ministers in complex modern polities. Indeed a plausible argument could be made for appointing government executives on merit alone, a practice that is becoming increasingly common in modern states. In the UK, despite a supposedly fused (politicized) constitution, currently three out of five civil servants work for ‘Next Step’ agencies headed by appointed chief executives. It would be much better to acknowledge this de facto privatization of ‘political’ roles and put it on a formal (and accountable) statutory basis than to continue the pretence of government by ordinary citizens (or their elected surrogates).


A direct comparison between the institutions of classical and modern democracy would indicate that there is more in common than might initially appear. All that would be required for a better match between modern and Athenian democracy would be the introduction of randomly-selected political juries to scrutinise legislative proposals that have passed a prior elective hurdle. To seek to replace OMOV by sortition would contravene fundamental democratic principles, ancient or modern, however distasteful or dysfunctional we may find the abuses of modern electoral democracy.


12 Responses

  1. Keith,

    I have several responses, but I will take them one at a time, rather than place them all in this post. By the way, I am finally reading your book…good stuff.

    Keith wrote of the Assembly: “This would involve a meeting of (up to) 30,000 in the Agora, which is about as large a democratic assembly as might be imaginable.”

    Just to clear up some historical details, and any confusion this might leave…The Agora of Athens had become a commercial center (marketplace) and the Assembly (ecclesia) actually met nearby at the meeting place on a hillside called the pnyx. Now this meeting place could only accommodate a bit over 6,000 people (which was also the quorum requirement at certain times). thus the Assembly was ALWAYS merely a SAMPLE of the full citizenry. It wasn’t a RANDOM sample, in that most attendees chose to be there (though sometimes they would round up unwilling people from the Agora to make the quorum). Thus for some important meetings, many citizens who wished to participate were necessarily excluded, and could not cast their one vote. Thus Athens may have held OMOV as an ideal, but not in practice. The principle of “govern and be governed in turn” was the actual principle that was adhered to. That principle and how it can apply in a modern mass society will be the subject of my nest response.


  2. “One way is via direct voting, as in a referendum, a comparatively easy matter in an age of digital communication. However referenda rarely reflect the considered view of the electorate and are usually a general verdict on the (un)popularity of the current government.”

    It is not clear to me that this is necessarily true. Far from all referenda are mere verdicts on the current government: the last one here in Norway, for instance, about EU membership, was absolutely not a verdict on the labour government. In fact the labour party was rather split on the issue.

    Using referenda merely as a means to express displeasure with the current government, I think happens mostly when:

    -The issue is complex in a technical sense
    -There is little interest in it in the general population
    -People are extraordinarily displeased with the governing party
    -People have few other ways to “punish” disappointing politicians.

    All was true for the recent AV referendum in UK. None (except possibly the last, slightly) were true in Norway’s 1994 EU referendum.


  3. Thanks to Terry for correcting me regarding the Athenian assembly. I concur that OMOV was the guiding principle, even if it was never observed in full (the same thing of course is true of modern elections). Looking forward to hearing how rule and be ruled in turn might be implemented in the modern context.

    Regarding Harald’s (anon?) point about referenda, I agree that they function better in countries that have a stronger tradition of direct democracy (that’s not to say, of course that they deliver a considered judgment, but that it is at least a judgment on the issue at hand, rather than — as in the UK — an excuse to kick unpopular politicians).

    My preference for selecting between the proposals that would be put before the allotted chamber would certainly be more akin to a referendum — i.e. voters would be asked to rank the proposals and the Top Ten (or whatever) would become parliamentary bills. There would be no necessity, in principle, for political parties to sponsor the proposals, only that the party mechanism would add a greater measure of coherence and accountability. Parties that consistently proposed populist measures that were rejected by the allotted assembly would, over time, diminish their credibility. But if coherence and accountability could be located elsewhere in a mixed constitution there’s no reason for political parties to generate policy proposals, this could be any advocacy group (or even individuals) who gained enough signatures to get the policy on the referendum slip.

    So thanks to ?Harald? for providing some credibility to the referendum process


  4. It is rather absurd that you offer lengthy convoluted arguments on what are supposedly subtle theoretical issues while you offhandedly make gross errors regarding simple facts.

    > elective democracy best approximates the Athenian principle of OMOV and it is difficult to imagine any alternative for large modern states.

    This is no more than a case of doctrine-induced failure of the imagination. There is every reason to think that an allotted chamber with full parliamentary powers would do a much better job of approximating political equality than elections could ever do.


  5. My claim was regarding OMOV, not political equality. Elections under universal franchise implement the principle of OPOV (to use the inclusive acronym), sortition does not. This is a simple matter of fact.

    Regarding the “subtle theoretical issues”, it’s important to come to an analytic understanding of what sortition and can and cannot do, rather than just rely on vague normative ideals like “political equality”.

    As to what “doctrine” is underlying my claim, I’m still awaiting enlightenment. But having asked you this question repeatedly in the past to no avail, I’m not holding my breath.


  6. Yup, anon was me. Sorry, posted via the phone.


  7. “One person one vote” is at best a means, not an end (at worst, it’s a stupid, empty slogan). I understand that my act of voting is already best viewed as a lottery ticket, an extremely modest bid at affecting policy outcomes that interest me.

    I am not so stupid that I would reject a better lottery ticket just for the pleasure of symbolic action. I don’t think that lowly of my fellow citizens either.


  8. PS: in a sortive regime some (allotted) citizens are a lot more equal than others (unlike now, when all electors are equally impotent). In terms of active political functions the inequality between those who win the golden ticket and everyone else is even greater than the existing gulf between the political class and everyone else. In a sortive democracy 99% of the voters don’t even have the power to make a token protest vote — that’s why those whose prime concern is political equality should join me in arguing that allotted representatives should not have active political powers (advocacy and the introduction of policy proposals).

    Anticipating the objection that it’s meaningless to analyse political functions at the individual level (though I’m unsure what other unit of analysis egalitarians would adopt), that’s all the more reason for insisting that sortive representation should be restricted to functions that don’t reside at the level of the individual (aggregated judgment).


  9. Harald said it well, I think: the substance of democracy is political equality. The rest is at best a tool and often no more than trappings.

    Your doctrine, Keith, if you still have not figured it out, is probably best described as “elitism”. (Although since you so like having important-sounding names attached to your opinions, you might want to call this “Schumpeterianism”, “Lippmannism”, “Madisonianism”, “Socratism”, or some such label.) According to you, society should be managed by a competent elite. The rest of us should be glad to be managed by the elite and be satisfied with providing input to be acted upon by the managers as they see fit.


  10. I have consistently advocated a mixed constitution in which all legislative decisions are taken by a randomly-selected microcosm of the whole citizenry.

    Schumpeterians and Madisonians wish to ensure an orderly succession of political elites in which the people “in their collective capacity” are be entirely excluded from the political process. My position is that the people in their “collective” capacity should a) initiate and rank the proposals for legislation and b) deliberate and judge which ones should be passed into law. This is both fully compatible with Athenian democracy and the polar opposite of the two authorities that you cite (if anything, most deliberative democrats are, at heart, Schumpeterians, as their main concern is ensuring that procedural norms are strictly adhered to. In sum, my only affinity with Madison is his pluralist concept of checks and balances, whereas I have no sympathy with the views of Schumpeter and am puzzled why you choose to rank these two very different thinkers together.

    I’m equally unclear as to the relevance of Socrates in this context; as for Lippmann, I have more sympathy with Dewey’s response to his work.


  11. On “Rule and Be Ruled in Turn”

    Keith wrote:
    “Clearly ruling and being ruled in turn is no longer possible. The dramatically increased size of modern states was one of the reasons for the birth of representative government at the end of the eighteenth-century. So why is there a call for a return to this aspect of Athenian democracy?”

    I believe this is still achievable in a society of millions. I don’t think that executive/magesterial officers should be selected by lot (although they probably should be appointed based on merit by groups selected by lot, rather than elected). However, policy/legislative roles should be allotted .

    In order to spread the legislative task widely, we can move away from the concept of a tiny number of legislators who tackle a vast number of issues for years at a time, and instead imagine a huge number of deliberative bodies that come into existence to tackle one or a few issues over a very short time frame and then step down. These would be local, regional and national. Some sortive bodies would also weigh through the proposals that could come from any source, to set the agendas, and call individual sortive policy panels into existence. Perhaps the national sortive bodies would be made up of individuals who had previously served on regional bodies (if you are concerned about skills derived from experience).

    To summarize, most members of society should expect to serve on a few different “legislative” bodies over their lifetime. Some of these might meet for a single weekend, and others might meet for several months, depending on the issue.

    Thus we take turns as “rulers,” unless you consider the executives as the true rulers. However, all executives should be subject to removal and replacement by sortive bodies, and thus be under the control of the population.


  12. Terry, that’s a fascinating idea: it would, in some respects, be a reversion to the practices of early-modern England. In his contribution to Tim Harris’s Politics of the Excluded, c1500-1850 (2001), Mark Goldie describes how many lowly individuals held offices of public responsibility. Incumbents included brick-makers, tanners, bakers and soap-boilers. At the lowest, parish, level, Goldie estimates there must have been 50,000 officeholders at any one time. ‘With rotation, during a decade, over half the adult male population would have had to held office. The figure is confirmed by detailed local studies such as that for Elizabethan London which found that in any one year, one in three householders in Cornhill ward held office’ (Hampsher-Monk, Early Modern Liberty in England c1580-c1800. (2011) m/s). This was all ruined by Fabian busybodies who sought to professionalise and standardise everything.

    However I think there would be serious practical difficulties in implementing your proposal for a ‘huge number of deliberative bodies’:

    1. Have you done the maths? Given the enormous population of modern states, is the rotation principle really feasible?

    2. Given the Schumpeterian background to modern democratic practice do you think your fellow citizens will rise to the challenge? Most parish council elections go uncontested, it’s so hard to find willing volunteers, so perhaps Oscar Wilde was right – it will all take too many evenings.

    3. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? I think you would find that, without some competitive elective process to set the agenda the (appointed) executives would end up as the true rulers (as was the case in early-modern England).

    4. Do we really want so much government?


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