A political Economy Perspective of Direct Democracy in Ancient Athens

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A Political Economy Perspective of Direct Democracy in Ancient Athens

George Tridimas

Using a political economy framework the paper argues that in ancient Athens direct democracy, absence of political parties and appointment to office by lot were inextricably linked. Direct rather than representative democracy was in the interest of the constitutional framer at the time of the transition to democracy. Deciding directly each policy issue under majority rule diminished the intermediation function of political parties, a tendency possibly reinforced by an integrative ideology of defending the polis. In the absence of political parties to fight elections and distribute rents from office, appointment of office-holders by lot randomized their selection, a process which yielded an accurate representation of individual preferences, and distributed rents irrespective of the private wealth of individual citizens.

JEL Classification:

D7: Analysis of Collective Decision making

N4: Economic History – Government

Key words: Ancient Athens; direct democracy; majority voting; political parties; appointment to office by lot, Cleisthenes reforms

George Tridimas

School of Economics, University of Ulster,

Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim, BT37 0QB, UK

E-mail: G.Tridimas@ulster.ac.uk

July 2010

Constitutional Political Economy

DOI: 10.1007/s10602-010-9093-5

Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Dennis Mueller and Claire Taylor for their comments and suggestions on a previous version of this paper. Their advice has been invaluable in clarifying my own thoughts as well as improving the presentation of the paper. Of course, responsibility for any remaining errors or omissions is mine alone.
A Political Economy Perspective of Direct Democracy in Ancient Athens
1 Introduction
In a democracy, the issues of public interest can be decided directly, as when citizens debate and vote directly on policy proposals, or indirectly, as when citizens vote for elected representatives, who then decide policy. Ancient Athens is an archetypical example of direct participatory democracy, where any ordinary citizen could propose a bill to the Assembly of citizens on which a vote would then be taken by simple majority, there were no recognizable political parties, voting for political representatives was a small part of political activity and appointment to legislative and judicial boards was made by lot and for a limited term, which ensured significant office rotation. Such institutions differ substantially from contemporary democracies, where citizens vote for representatives organized in political parties, complicated majoritarian or proportional representation electoral rules apply, direct democracy mechanisms like the referendum process are used only sparingly (with the notable exceptions of Switzerland and the USA at the state level), and government officials are elected to office.

After the establishment of democracy in the late 6th century BC, Athens developed into the preeminent Greek polis, one of the greatest military powers of its time and experienced unprecedented levels of wealth. In no small account that was the result of direct democracy. Despite the fragmentary nature of the sources, scholars have investigated at length and depth the structures and procedures of the Athenian democracy and their effects, in a way treating direct democracy as an explanatory variable which determines the success of Athens. The present study pursues a complementary line and inquires what factors explain the emergence of various aspects of direct democracy treating direct democracy as the explained variable. It examines how, if at all, contemporary political economy can help to explain the extension of political rights to the poorer classes of citizens, the adoption of direct decision making with a simple majority voting rule, the absence of political parties and the appointment of public office-holders by lot, a process also termed sortition. It concludes that these attributes complemented each other and worked in tandem comprising a coherent set.

The paper is structured as follows: By way of background, the next section provides a short historical overview of some major events that led to the emergence of the Athenian democracy and some of its key institutional arrangements. Section 3 uses contemporary intuitions to understand the extension of franchise in ancient Athens. After discussing the advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy, Section 4 attempts to explain its establishment in ancient Athens at the end of the 6th century BC by focusing on the utility maximizing choices of Cleisthenes, the constitutional framer at the time, the role of pre-existing institutional arrangements and the political risks facing the citizens. Section 5 discusses two reasons to explain the absence of political parties, notably political parties are less likely to emerge when the population shares common objectives blunting therefore sharp social divisions, and second, mediation by political parties is not necessary for the operation of direct democracy. Section 6 focuses on the compatibility of direct democracy and appointment of public post-holders by lot and points out how, amongst other noteworthy characteristics, it rendered private wealth as an irrelevant condition for assuming public office. Section 7 concludes.
2 Constitutional developments and institutional structure in ancient Athens 1
(i) The rise of democracy
In archaic Athens the principal government officers were the nine archons2 appointed from the members of the aristocracy and the Council of Areopagus consisting of former archons, which oversaw laws and magistrates and conducted trials. 3 In 594 BC after a century of internal conflicts, the statesman Solon introduced a series of fundamental political and institutional changes. Solon extended political rights previously enjoyed only by the aristocracy by making appointment to public office conditional on wealth with different classes of wealth owners qualifying for different offices, while the majority of the population including small land-owners and the landless were excluded. In addition, he granted all citizens the rights to participate in the assembly and to act as prosecutors in criminal trials, and introduced accountability of magistrates. However, the new constitutional order came under attack and was eventually overturned in 546 by Peisistratus, who ruled as a tyrant. The tyranny was overthrown in 510. In the consequent competition for power between the members of the aristocracy, Cleisthenes lost to Isagoras, another aristocrat. In an unprecedented move Cleisthenes then allied himself to the common people – demos – by proposing constitutional reforms that would offer them wider political rights. Isagoras responded by asking the oligarchic Sparta, the then strongest military power, for help. The Spartans, in turn, occupied Athens and expelled Cleisthenes and 700 of his followers. However, when they tried to dissolve the legislative Council and establish a new government faithful to Isagoras, the Athenian demos confronted them. 4 The Spartans were forced to leave and Cleisthenes was recalled (508). He then instituted a series of constitutional reforms regarding citizenship and the powers of the Assembly of citizens which led to the foundation of democracy.
In a new wave of reforms from 487 BC the selection of archons by lot was introduced. After the 479 victory against the Persian in the sea battle of Salamis, the Athenian fleet became critical for the defense and prosperity of Athens and so did the landless lower class who found gainful employment as rowers. They, in turn, were eager to improve their political standing and able to use their new-found strength to do so. Enterprising political leaders from the aristocratic elite saw their chances for success and promoted the institutional reforms which eventually incorporated the landless fully in the political life of Athens. In 462 the statesmen Ephialtes and Pericles reduced the checking powers of Areopagus to those of a judicial body concerned with homicide. By the mid 5th century a fully democratic constitution was functioning. The democratic rule was briefly interrupted twice. In 411, after the catastrophe suffered by the Athenian fleet in the Sicilian expedition, an irregular meeting of the Assembly abolished the democracy and handed power to an oligarchic Council of Four Hundred. Following an important naval victory a year later, democracy was reinstated. But in 404 after defeat in the hands of Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War democracy was once again replaced by oligarchy, led by a Commission of the “Thirty”, later known as “Thirty Tyrants”. The oligarchs were defeated in 403 and democracy was restored. It went on until 322 when the Athenian fleet was defeated by the Macedonians, and never recovered.
(ii) Institutional structures
Citizenship rights were extended by Cleisthenes to all adult resident males (but in 451 they were limited by Pericles to those, whose both parents were Athenians). Cleisthenes divided the citizens of Attica into three geographical sections (Urban, Inland and Coast) and each geographical section was then divided into ten parts. The thirty parts were reconstituted into ten new tribes; each tribe comprised parts from each one of the three geographical sections allocated by lot, so that “a tribe included citizens from quite different parts of Attica, with widely differing traditions and economic bases” (Hansen, 1999, p.103). As a result, the interests that the members of a tribe had in common were those that all citizens of Attica had in common. This ended earlier conflicts arising from geographical divisions and forged a united army. The new structure had an immediate effect on the military ability of Athens, which in 506 defeated a hostile coalition of Sparta, Boeotia and Chalcis. Each tribe was further divided into geographically based communities called demes, numbering a total of 139 in the 4th century. In 430 there may have been 60,000 Athenians with full political rights (adult males), while in the 4th century, because of disease and defeat in the Peloponnesian war, the number fell to 30,000 (Hansen, 1999).
The Assembly of citizens (Ekklesia tou Demou) after Cleisthenes reforms became the principal decision making body; it decided all issues of public interest, including public finance, foreign policy, war and peace; it passed laws, elected the generals and chief financial officers and tried public officers for corruption and treason. It consisted of all Athenian males aged twenty years and above, while every male Athenian after the age of thirty had also the right to assume public office as a magistrate (member of a board of executive officers), or as a court juror. Participation and attendance was voluntary; a quorum required the presence of 6000 citizens. With an average size of 6000 to 8000 participants, it met regularly between thirty and forty times a year. By the mid 5th century all citizens regardless of wealth had the right to address the Assembly. Any private citizen could introduce a motion for discussion. After listening to the speakers, voting took place by show of hands and decisions were taken by simple majority. 5 Unlike representative democracy, in assembly debates “rhetoric, the ‘art of persuasion’, was the most important weapon in the competition between political leaders” (Hansen, 1999, p. 306). If it was relevant to the implementation of a motion passed, the Assembly also passed a decree giving instructions, appointing officials, specifying rewards for success and sanctions for malfeasance, and stating ways of appeal if the private actors charged with a public task thought they were treated unfairly. Pay for attending the assembly was introduced at the turn of the 4th century (ibid, p. 150); it was set at approximately half the average wage, equal to a juror’s pay, with various adjustments taking place during the 4th century, and restricted to the first 6000 coming to a session. 6
The Council of Five Hundred (“Boule”) comprising 50 members of each tribe and selected annually by lot from each demos (in proportion to its population) with the members of each tribe chairing the administration of Athens for 1/10 of the year. The members of the Council met every day and received a wage for their services. The Council prepared the agenda for the Assembly, was responsible for the day-to-day administration of the state and oversaw the implementation of the various projects approved by the Assembly. Councilors voted by show of hands. Contrary to modern practice where the government initiates legislation, it was private citizens who brought issues for discussion to the Council. After deliberation, the Council would bring the issue to the Assembly, either for ratification of a specific decree already passed by the Council, or as an open issue to be discussed and voted by the Assembly. 7 As the Councillors were not experts in administration they were supported by a small team of public slaves and citizens-clerks, who nevertheless did not amount to a professional bureaucracy (Ober 2008, p.104).
The board of the ten elected generals (“strategoi”) was introduced in 501 BC; they served as commanders of the army and navy and carried out some additional functions in domestic and external policy. They were elected annually by the Assembly by show of hands, originally one from each tribe, but later (from 440 BC) at least one was elected from all tribes implying double representation of one tribe and non-representation of another. There is no surviving information detailing the exact election procedure. It is understood that a tribe nominated a candidate and the entire Assembly voted for or against him, not just his own tribe. 8 This implies that, unlike contemporary members of legislative bodies who represent local constituencies, the elected general could not be seen as a tribal representative. 9
The Heliaia Court of 6000, or ‘People’s Court’, set up by Solon to hear appeals against the decisions of the officials of the polis became the most important court with wide responsibilities. Every year 6000 citizens, 600 from each tribe, were chosen by lot among all the male citizens over 30 years old and not in debt to the state to serve as jurors (“dikastai”). After swearing the relevant oath, they were allocated to cases by lot, sitting in sessions with a normal jury size of 501 or bigger as the case may be (201 minimum) and taking decisions by secret ballot. There was no public prosecutor and all parties appearing, citizens who brought a charge, the magistrates preparing and presiding over a case and the jurors who heard it, were amateurs. Payment for jurors was introduced by Pericles most probably in 462 BC. By the classical period the Court was trying both civil and penal cases, but a most important part of its work was political in the sense of controlling the other organs of the state. It checked the validity of the decisions of the Assembly and had the power to annul a decree and punish its proposer providing therefore an early case of what is now known as constitutional judicial review10; it tried elected generals for the crimes of attempting to overthrow the constitution, treason, and corruption, after the Assembly had referred such a case to the court (rather than trying it itself); it reviewed the eligibility of citizens selected by lot to serve in office based on reputation of character and conduct but not competence, held them into account during service and reviewed them again upon leaving office. The Court was a separate and independent decision making part of government at par with the Assembly. Its heavy involvement in checking the decisions passed by the Assembly rendered it as an additional veto player in the game of policy making. Further, in its capacity to hear prosecutions against public officials it provided a bulwark against misconduct or abuse by office holders. Moreover, as jurors were at least 30 years old, whereas every male above the age of 20 years could attend and vote in the Assembly, the median voter in the Court was in general older than in the latter. In so far as age conditions voter preferences it cannot be ruled out that such age differences may have materially affected voting outcomes in the two bodies. Contrary to the Assembly, voting in the Court was by secret ballot, which afforded more protection to the jurors than the show of hands, and allowed more accurate counting of votes. In addition, as it was meeting 175 – 225 days a year (Hansen, 1999, p. 337), it was able to devote considerably more time than the Assembly to scrutinize legislation and officials.
Cleisthenes also introduced ostracism (banishment) of politicians as a mechanism to defend the demos against potential tyrants, an institution which according to Ober (2008) indicated a more direct and decisive involvement of the Assembly than before. Each year at a designated meeting the Assembly voted by a show of hands whether it wanted an ostracism to take place. If the answer was affirmative, the ostracism vote was held two months later, where each citizen could cast a ballot in the form of a potsherd (ostrakon) with the name of the person he wanted banished inscribed. If there was a minimum of 6000 potsherds, they were sorted by names and the person with the highest tally was banished for 10 years; that is, a plurality of votes was sufficient for ostracizing a political figure. The ostracism was not a penal trial; there were neither prosecution nor defense speeches nor the ostracized person lost any property. The mechanism was used fifteen times during the 5th century (Hansen, 1999). The last one was held in 417, when a politician was ostracized after his rivals probably colluded to secure his banishment. During the 4th century, the most often used mechanism against a political leader was to bring him to trial.
Figure 1 presents a summary of the organs involved in collective decision making in Ancient Athens. The term of offices was annual and term limits applied with the exception of the generals who could be reelected. A man could only serve twice in his lifetime on the Council and once in other offices. He could hold different offices after his tenure in one office was completed and reviewed by the Court, which effectively meant that he could potentially serve in different offices every other year, so that substantial rotation took place. The various magistrates were amateurs – ordinary citizens; Athens did not develop professional politicians. This would have been an almost impossible task for it would have meant that people gave up tending their olive groves or other business. 

(iii) From aristocracy to democracy: voting franchise and institutional format
Analytically, the shift from aristocracy to democracy for both ancient Athens and modern polities can be broken down to two complementary components. The first is the extension of the franchise to previously disenfranchised groups of the population. The second is the format of democracy which in turn comprises a number of attributes, including the electoral law by which votes are aggregated and a winner of the electoral contest is established, the representation of social cleavages by political parties and the method of selecting public-office holders; see Figure 2 for a diagrammatic description. Ancient Athens established direct democracy, operated a simple majority voting rule, did not develop organized political parties and appointed a large number of public officials by lot. It is the contention of the present analysis that those building blocks were inextricably linked, complemented each other and formed an internally consistent framework.

Majority voting, used to decide direct democracy contests like a referendum, generates clear and stable outcomes when voters choose between two mutually exclusive alternatives like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In indirect democracies representatives are elected by using voting systems broadly divided between majoritarian, like first-past-the-post, and proportional representation. Similarly, political parties are the means of aggregating and expressing the interests of different individual voters in elections for representatives, while they assume a less prominent position in direct votes. Moreover, elections for representatives serve to select officials for filling public offices, and it is those officials who decide policy. Even when policy is decided directly, administration is still delegated to office-holders. But office generates rents leading to competition for winning them. Competition however may be unfair when contestants differ in their means to compete for office. Appointment by lot sharply reduces such competition and equalizes opportunities across different citizens. In what follows we examine those issues in detail.
3 Extension of political rights – franchise
Recent formal political economy research has enquired at length the reasons for the extension of the franchise over the 19th and 20th centuries. In a seminal contribution Acemoglou and Robinson (2000a, 2001) advance the hypothesis that enfranchisement solves a time-inconsistency problem by constraining the power of the ruling elite. They start from the premise that the elite fearing a revolt by the poor who would then confiscate their assets, promises to redistribute wealth. The promise, however, is not credible because after the revolutionary threat subsides there is no incentive for the elite to deliver on its promise, so the risk of revolution and the associated losses are not averted. However, by granting the poor the right to vote and so to determine redistribution policy, the elite can no longer renege ex post to the redistribution policy and its ex ante commitment to redistribution becomes credible. A second view by Lizzeri and Persico (2004) emphasizes divisions between the members of the enfranchised elite and the importance of public goods rather than the threat of revolution. In a setting where an external shock like urbanization causes the value of public goods to increase, a section of the enfranchised elite who wishes to increase the provision of public goods (at the expense of targeted redistribution towards the elite) extends the franchise voluntarily to previously disenfranchised groups of the population. Extension of the franchise increases the number of claimants and reduces the size of the transfer per person. Thus, a vote-maximizing politician is no longer able to attract electoral support by targeted redistribution; instead he increases the provision of public goods with diffused benefits, exactly as the section of the elite wished. 11 Congleton (2007 and forthcoming) also doubts the primacy of revolutionary threats in the extension of the franchise in the 19th and 20th centuries. He argues that laws controlling voting rights tend to be remarkably stable over time, since the decisive arbiter of power is better off by keeping the franchise rule which allows him to determine public policy. Change is then more likely to come from small groups operating within the government rather than large groups operating outside government, while a successful revolution is unlikely to establish a democratic regime, as successful revolutionary leaders would desire to keep control. Congleton emphasises that the extension of the franchise was realised in small steps after the rise of interest groups within and outside the government with economic and ideological interests in franchise reform and after extensive bargaining.
Looking specifically at ancient Athens, Fleck and Hanssen (2004) propose an explanation of extension of political rights which combines elements from both the revolution and the finance of public good hypotheses. They model a setting where the ruling aristocracy seeks to raise taxes from farmers to finance defense – a public good. Tax revenue can be raised after the farmers have invested in agricultural production. If this investment is easy to monitor, it is not difficult for the aristocracy to control the farmers, as it is comparatively simple to identify and punish farmers who misbehave (do not invest); the aristocracy then has little, if any, incentive to democratize and share power. However, if agricultural investment is difficult to monitor, farmers can avoid taxation of their product by not investing as they would remain undetected. But if so there will be insufficient funds for defense. That was the case of Athens, where the soil of Attica is better suited to the production of olive oil (rather than cereals). As olive trees bear fruits only after a lot of effort is invested for a long period of time, monitoring of olive tree cultivation is extremely costly for a ruling aristocracy. The aristocracy could promise not to tax, but the promise lacks credibility. If on the other hand, the aristocracy extends voting rights to the farmers – olive growers and shares power, the credibility of the promise not to tax is restored, because tax policy will be controlled by the more numerous enfranchised farmers. Their incentives for investment are enhanced; tax proceeds will increase and so will defense spending. However, this explanation is not supported by the historical record. There was little taxation in ancient Athens during the aristocratic rule. 12 During Peisistratus’ tyranny, before Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms, ‘tax’ on agriculture production was a 1/10th tithe (dekate) with the proceeds going to the worship of goddess Athena rather than defense. 13 The Fleck and Hanssen argument may then be seen as a more appropriate explanation of the security of land property and decrease in the threat of revolution. A ruling aristocracy interested in maximizing its wealth holdings by expropriating the land of the poor farmers will fail to do so, and may indeed suffer losses, if investment in agriculture is difficult to monitor and farm workers who shirk cannot be detected. On the contrary, granting political rights to the poor small-holders to protect their properties provides them with incentives to undertake agricultural investment and decreases the threat of violent upheavals.
Moreover, Congleton’s view of gradual expansion of political rights is consistent with the democratic developments in ancient Athens. Cleisthenes’ reforms were supported by parts of the aristocratic elite and the ordinary citizens. Despite the violence there did not seem to be a bloodbath. The constitutional reforms built on the earlier political liberalisation of Solon, whose legislation had replaced government based on birth aristocracy with one based on wealth. Cleisthenes’ reforms were fundamental but on the other hand they built on pre-existing governance templates, and were completed a while after he left the stage. A fully functioning democracy, that is, one including eligibility for office by the lowest wealth class, was not established until the middle of the 5th century and the removal of the residual veto powers of Areopagus in 462. Indeed, Raaflaub (2007) goes as far as to argue that the democratic transition was completed with the full integration of the lowest wealth class in the political structure following the emergence of the navy as a critical factor in the security of Athens.
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