Essay/Fairness & Equality

Lessons of Demopolis

Wisdom from classical Greece: democracy and liberalism are both better off if we understand the difference between them

Josiah Ober

Young soldiers visit the Acropolis, Athens, 2013. Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum

Josiah Ober

is professor of political science and classics at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (2015).

3,300 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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A quarter-century ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced that history had ended. The long search for the best possible political order had come to a close. Liberal democracy – defined as popular sovereignty plus individual autonomy and human rights – was the answer.

Today, in an age of terrorism, enduring war and resurgent autocracies, history has returned with a vengeance. Fukuyama, however, has recently reiterated in impressive detail his basic point that liberal democracy is the highest form of political development, a view that is widely shared. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker contrasts liberal democracies with regimes based on demonising, utopian ideologies, concluding that: ‘democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government’. Like other modern writers, Pinker uses ‘democracy’ as shorthand for ‘liberal democracy’,  meaning a grab-bag of favoured conditions: popular sovereignty, rule of law, voting rights, human rights, free speech, equal opportunity, separation of church and state, distributive justice, and a market-based economy. To its ancient Greek inventors, democracy meant simply collective self-government by citizens.

The liberal democracy package is so widely admired today, and so seldom scrutinised, that people tend to forget that it is, in fact, a package. Even skeptics lump democracy together with liberalism: in early 2008, the then President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan called on Western governments to stop obsessing about democracy, by which he meant: stop focusing on human rights. When Fukuyama, Pinker or Musharraf uses ‘democracy’ to refer to a commitment to universal rights or the separation of church and state, few stop to ask questions. But let’s do just that. Democracy and liberalism both  contain much of value, but they’re not the same thing. They can be conjoined in a successful political order, but their marriage is not inevitable.

The history of citizen self-government in the Greek city-states clarifies what democracy is – and what it does (and does not) deliver. Ancient Athens, like some other Greek city-states, was a democracy, not a liberal democracy. Ancient Athenians neither embraced human rights nor separated religion from coercive state authority. Liberalism is a moral ideal born of the 18th-century Enlightenment and centred on the value of individual autonomy. Liberalism offers reasons why rights should be regarded as universal, as inhering in each individual human being, and why a coercive state must be neutral in regard to religion. A political regime might be liberal but not democratic – the 19th century Austro-Hungarian empire, for example.

Musharaff’s naysaying aside, democracy today has almost no forthright opponents. Even neo-Nazis in Germany dub their political party National Democrats (rather than National Socialists). Chinese autocrats describe their authoritarian regime as a democracy. The constitutions of post-revolutionary states, the foreign policies of major powers and the missions of international agencies all actively hold out democracy as their goal.  So what? What is the problem if democracy becomes indistinguishable from liberalism, if collective self-government is equated with human rights and secular governments?

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If democracy is so important, meriting the marshalling of immense effort and resources, people ought to have some clear idea about what it is. At least some of the human misery in the past quarter-century of purported democracy-building efforts has resulted from the fact that the political class had no clear idea of the components of the liberal democracy package. If democracy is worth fighting for, it is important to grasp the basics.

When scholars use the term democracy in a narrow sense, it is generally taken to mean simple ‘majority rule, full stop’, as opposed to the rule of law. For those who, like James Madison, the principal author of the US Constitution, fear the spectre of mob rule, democracy without liberalism risks majoritarian tyranny. Ancient Greek democracies show that imagining democracy as nothing more than majority rule is an error. Democracy, even democracy before it is liberal democracy, is actually more than majority rule.

Reducing democracy to majoritarianism authorises elite rule. Plato, with his plan for philosopher kings, was an early proponent of such elitism. He believed that good government requires keeping most people away from active participation in politics. Plato’s goal in restricting government to a few was the promotion of virtue. The modern world also has influential political theorists, for example the late Ronald Dworkin, who urge that ordinary people must be kept at bay in the name of defending the liberal moral values of autonomy, rights, and distributive justice.

However well-intentioned, the elitist approach to government is dangerous (as well as undemocratic) because moral commitment is not enough to guide the day-to-day behaviour of most people most of the time. Liberal morality alone cannot produce a stable social order based on free choices of self-interested individuals. In order to produce social stability, contemporary liberalism needs either democracy or autocracy as its political foundation.

There are two ways to arrive at the core meaning of democracy. One is by looking back to the ancient Greek society that invented democracy. For them, it meant the power of an extensive body of citizens to do things: to make and execute public policy. But why should citizens of the 21st century care what a bunch of slave-owning men, who denied political participation rights to women and immigrants, thought democracy meant? The answer is that we still aspire to their basic concept of democracy.

The word ‘democracy’ arose in the city-state of Athens, following the Athenian Revolution of 508 BCE. In that revolution, the people of Athens overthrew a foreign-backed political leader who exiled his opponents and tried to impose a repressive government staffed by cronies. In the aftermath of the revolution, the victorious Athenians recalled from exile Cleisthenes, their preferred leader. Cleisthenes realised it was not possible to simply return to rule by tyrants and narrow coalitions of aristocrats. The people of Athens would now be the collective author and guarantor of a new constitutional order. The revolution had brought the Athenian people on to the stage of history.

The experimental system devised by Cleisthenes in conditions of crisis proved extraordinarily successful. With their new government in place, the Athenians rose to prominence in the Greek world. Newly enfranchised working-class citizens provided Athens with large and highly motivated armed forces. They voted to use fiscal windfalls for public purposes. Freed from fear that tyrants would seize the profits of their initiative, Athenians invested in their society. Arts and crafts flourished. Manufacturing and trade soared. Athens joined with its rival Sparta to defeat a massive invasion by the mighty Persian Empire, then built an Aegean empire, survived a catastrophic war with Sparta, and drove two centuries of Greek economic growth. The rise and vitality of classical Athenian democracy helped to lay the cultural groundwork for Western civilisation.

The best argument, rather than the loudest voice, had a good chance of carrying the day

The Athenians named their new government ‘democracy’, or demokratia in Greek, which combines demos (‘the people’) and kratos (‘power’). So democracy is ‘people power’ – but specifically demos in the sense of ‘all citizens’, and kratos in the sense of ‘the capacity to do things’. The new name asserted both an ideal and a practical fact. First, the word proclaimed that the citizens as a collectivity, rather than a tyrant or a small gang of aristocrats, ought to rule their own state: the people were the most legitimate public authority. The ideal of democracy also held that the people were morally and intellectually capable of governing themselves. They were fallible, but competent to pursue public interests in a rational manner.

The people ruled by using the new institutions of their democratic government to make and execute policy, without a boss. Citizens from all walks of life deliberated on matters of policy in ways at once cooperative and competitive. They pooled information and knowledge to devise innovative solutions to problems. The best argument, rather than the loudest voice, had a good chance of carrying the day. In an annual lottery, the Athenians chose the 500 citizen-members of a democratic Council. The Councilmen consulted experts, debated policy, and set the agenda for frequent meetings of an Assembly open to all citizens. A typical Assembly meeting in the age of Aristotle drew between 6,000-8,000 voting citizens.  

Some resented the power of the people. Disgruntled aristocrats, furious at losing their political monopoly, scorned the new government as the domination of a self-interested majority over a leisured and educated minority. How, they asked, could ordinary men – farmers, potters, retail traders, shoemakers – know anything about important affairs of state? How did they differ from hard-working slaves? For angry aristocrats, demos became a pejorative term, limited to those citizens who had to work for a living. For the rejectionists, the working-class majority illegitimately held power over the ‘excellent few’, the men who believed they ought to rule on the strength of their superior wealth, education and birth. 

Having rejected democracy, Greek aristocrats made up a fiction that it really meant ‘lawless majoritarian tyranny’. A comparison with other Greek words referring to ruling (aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, etc) makes it clear that in fact ‘democracy’ first appeared as a positive term, originally used by those who embraced the state as a common possession of all citizens.

For Athenian democrats, the demos included everyone who could be imagined to be capable of actively exercising political authority within a bounded state territory. The ancient Greek cultural imagination of ‘who could be a citizen’ of a state privileged ‘free, adult (over 18) males, who are either of native birth or who had proven their loyalty to the state’. In historical perspective, their imagination was expansive because it included all native males, without a property or educational qualification. The ancient Athenian level of inclusive citizenship remained unequalled until at least the 18th century Age of Revolution.

Of course, in the 21st century, the ancient Greek cultural imagination of who could be a participatory citizen appears so bounded as to be illegitimate. It excluded women, slaves and most foreign-born residents of Athenian territory. Some students of Greek history therefore assert that Athens was not democratic. But what they actually mean is that Athens was not a liberal democracy, in that the Athenians did not recognise the human rights of slaves, women and long-term foreign residents. Indeed, Athens was not a liberal democracy, but it was a democracy – that is, it was governed by its citizens.

The end of the fifth century BCE saw the most important constitutional change in the history of Athenian democracy. New rules, adopted by the citizens of Athens in the aftermath of a harrowing period of external war, plague and civil war, clarified the relationship between policy decrees and the underlying principles of constitutional law. The new rules made decrees passed in the Assembly of citizens subject to legal challenge. Legal review could invalidate any decree. This check on the power of direct democracy stabilised Athenian society after the civil war, by ensuring that the wealthy and the poor alike had recommitted to sharing their community. The new rules were a refinement of democracy, not a 180-degree turn-around from majoritarian tyranny to constitutional rule of law. The Athenians had in fact established limits on the power of the Assembly at the inception of the democratic era.

Democracy need not be a majoritarian train wreck  

The rule governing the practice of ostracism provides a telling example of a limit on the Assembly’s legislative authority – a limit that was democratic but not liberal. Each year, at a meeting of the Assembly, the Athenians voted on whether to hold an ostracism. Usually they voted ‘no’. On 15 known occasions, they voted ‘yes’. Then they held a second meeting, in the public square, to which each citizen brought a fragment of pottery (ostrakon) on which he (or a literate friend) scratched the name of the man he thought most deserved to be exiled from Athens for 10 years. The plurality winner of this ‘unpopularity contest’ was  thus expelled. There was no trial, and no appeal.

Ostracism traduced the individual rights that would come to be the core of liberalism. But it was certainly democratic, and the Athenians narrowly defined its scope. The rules restricted the option to hold an ostracism to once each year. The vote on whom to expel was held only at the second meeting. With the ostracism law, Athenians constitutionally limited their own legislative authority in the immediate aftermath of their democratic revolution. The later legal reforms formalised and extended a principle of legislative limitation that had existed from the beginning.

This is an important point because many people today suppose that limiting the power of government is a modern, explicitly liberal innovation. It is not. A democracy that is not liberal can impose limits upon itself. Democratic citizens can choose the rule of law as a constitutional principle, and they can do so without invoking the mystical notion that it is the laws that do the ruling. Democracy need not be a majoritarian train wreck.  

Mature, ancient Greek democracy consisted of limited and collective self-government by citizens. Is that still the essence of democracy today? The question can be answered philosophically. Imagine a large modern population, inhabiting a defined territory; call it Demopolis. The diverse population of Demopolis contains rich and poor. The citizens of Demopolis come from different ethnic backgrounds. Some are liberals, others are libertarians, republicans and religious believers of various faiths.

The people of Demopolis are self-interested in the usual ways that people are, and no more naturally cooperative than other people. But they do agree on three things: they want to create a state that is 1) stable and secure, 2) prosperous enough to compete with rival states, and 3) non-tyrannical – it is not ruled by a powerful individual or coalition. The people of Demopolis can create new constitutional rules for their state, but, if the new order is to succeed, they must limit those rules to those that its diverse population will actively support.

Demopolis’ constitution-writers do not presume that they are setting up a system that will be universally best for all people, everywhere. Rather, they seek a government that will allow the people of Demopolis to gain the three goals of security, prosperity and non-tyranny. They will pay some costs in the form of time and taxes to live without a boss, but they do not intend to devote their entire lives to governing. The hypothetical constitution-writers of Demopolis are collectively responsible for making sensible and sustainable rules for themselves and for future generations. The rules must enable the citizens and their descendants collectively to enforce and, when necessary, change those self-same rules. The citizens must, therefore, be willing and able to engage in joint action, as a collective agent. 

In order to achieve their three goals, the people of Demopolis need to establish basic rules. The first rule requires participation in making and enforcing the rules. The participation requirement means that all those persons culturally imagined as potential citizens are actual citizens. Because this is modernity, that includes all native adult men and women, and at least some naturalised foreigners. The participation rule also means that all share the costs of government. All citizens have a duty to help make and enforce the rules. They have a corresponding duty to sanction anyone who fails in her participation duty. The participation rule is necessary to reduce free-riding. Each citizen, insofar as she is rationally self-interested, can choose to enjoy the goods of security, prosperity and non-tyranny without contributing to the effort of maintaining them. But the state will not long remain secure and prosperous if it is beset by free-riders.

The second rule concerns how decisions will be made. Non-tyranny means that no defined faction of the demos can legitimately rule, as a collective autocrat, over the rest of the demos. Participation plus non-tyranny implies that each citizen must have an equal vote, and an equal opportunity to join in making legislation and taking on whatever other political roles are created in the course of establishing the rules. Moreover, legislative policy must aim not only at non-tyrannical process, but also at efficiency. If they are to achieve the end of security in a dangerous and mutable environment, governing decisions made by the citizens must be better than ‘coin-flip’ random choices. To make better decisions, the citizens therefore also require freedom of thought, speech and assembly.

A third rule sets limits on collective authority: the legislative, policy-making process must restrict citizens’ collective ability to make rules threatening the functional equality or freedom of citizens. Strong protections are needed because political freedom and civic equality are necessary to secure the basic purposes for which the state exists. Because the citizens agree that they want a state that is secure, prosperous and non-tyrannical, the citizens – as legislators – recognise that they must not make any rule that would be likely to make the state insecure, impoverished or autocratic. In brief, the rules must meet a constitutional standard: the rule forbidding legislation that threatens the three ends of security, prosperity and non-tyranny must be legally entrenched and enforced.

the modern tendency to conflate democracy with liberalism has made it harder to implement a successful democratic but non-liberal regime

The three basic rules – requiring participation in making and enforcing the rules, establishing procedures for shared and effective decision-making, and forbidding legislation that would threaten the conditions necessary for making and carrying out decisions – yield a basic government for the imaginary Demopolis. That government has core features identical to those of actual ancient Greek democracy: collective and limited self-government by a large and diverse body of politically free and equal citizens. That government is not liberal, in the contemporary sense of guaranteeing universal human rights, but neither is it majoritarian tyranny. It is, in fact, democracy.

Demopolis is just a thought experiment, but it has close analogies in the real world. In the past quarter-century, many people have sought to create new state governments that would be non-tyrannical, secure and prosperous ­– recall the Arab Spring and the eastern European ‘colour revolutions’. Like the real ancient Athenians and the citizens of imaginary Demopolis, they aimed at democracy, as collective self-government. But not all of them embraced liberalism. For some liberals, that must be seen as a moral failure. The anarchy and autocracy that have so often followed what were supposed to be democratic transitions point, however, to a more fundamental political failure. That failure can be attributed in part to the fact that basic democracy, without liberalism, was never on the international policy menu.

There are many reasons that the Arab Spring and other recent revolutionary movements have not resulted in stable, prosperous and non-autocratic states. But the modern tendency to conflate democracy with liberalism has made it harder to implement a successful democratic but non-liberal regime. Such a regime falls short of what liberal democrats hope for: it might not support human rights, might impose religious conformity, might distribute material goods less than justly. But a non-liberal democratic regime can be stable and need not devolve into majoritarian tyranny. It should provide political equality along with basic political freedoms for citizens. When the alternatives are repressive autocracy or anarchy, democracy – as collective self-government – is a worthy goal. Democracy can provide a sturdy foundation for political order. It might even lead to liberal democracy.

Both democracy and liberalism offer laudable features for a modern society. But we must not underestimate how hard it is to sustain collective self-governance by citizens while protecting and advancing liberal rights. That difficulty is manifest in the 21st-century US, as the country struggles with global and domestic terrorism, political polarisation, new and old forms of discrimination and group identity, and growing economic inequality. The prospects of both democracy and liberalism, at home and abroad, will be much improved if people understand the difference between them.

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