Athens as a democratic precedent

Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often brought up in discussions and polemics about sortition, both in support of the idea and against it. However, since this is often done in rote or knee-jerk manner rather than as reasoned argument the results provide more insight about modern conventional views than about the mechanism of sortition. It is therefore of interest to make an orderly account of the properties of the Athenian system as they are relevant to the question of using sortition in a modern political system and then use this account to evaluate the relevance of the system to the modern debate: the lessons that can be drawn from the historical record, if any, and whether in fact Athens should be a prominent part of the discussion of sortition today.

The historical facts

The institutional arrangements in Athens are pretty well known. My understanding is that the main source for the details is Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution, but the general institutional picture and the conventional political theory behind them is clear from multiple sources. In addition some background facts about the Athenian society can be established including both facts about the demography of Athens and about the conventional ideology of the Athenians. For our purposes, the following points (“stylized facts”) are the relevant ones:

  1. Athenian citizenship was very restrictive. Of a population of about 300,000 people, only 30,000 were fully enfranchised citizens (adult males of Athenian ancestry). The rest were women, children, foreigners and slaves.
  2. Despite some vestiges of formal political stratification among the citizens, conventional Athenian ideology saw citizens as deserving equal political rights and in practice no formal distinctions were enforced.
  3. The set of Athenian citizens was largely made of two groups – small farmers and city-resident workers. There were two elite groups: landed Aristocracy, and the wealthy city bourgeoisie.
  4. The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.
  5. The day-to-day governing of the Athenian city was carried out by the Council – a body of 500 citizens allotted yearly. The council oversaw a large number of magistrate boards, each made of ten 10 citizens allotted yearly. There were also a few specialized offices (military generals and high financial officers) that were elected.
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