An Ancient Athenian’s Advice to President-Elect Obama

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Mr. Ober is Constantine Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. He is author of Democracy and Knowledge. Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press 2008).

Tom Paine, American revolutionary patriot, ardent democrat, and author of the 18th century bestseller, Rights of Man, predicted that, “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.” Paine was prescient. By leveraging its democratic government and culture, America -- like ancient Athens -- has become wealthy and powerful, innovative and experimental, error-prone but resilient.

As he prepares to take office, Barack Obama has been seeking insight in American history. His sources of inspiration reportedly include Abraham Lincoln’s formation of a team of rivals and Franklin Roosevelt’s ambitious plans to use the powers of government to provide a New Deal. If Paine was right, the President-Elect should also look to classical Athens, the place where the word democracy was first coined.

So what advice might a time-traveling Athenian citizen have to offer an incoming leader of a democratic nation confronted with war and economic crisis? Maybe something like this:

“First, remember that the original meaning of democracy was not “majority rule.” When we Athenians invented it, democracy meant “the capacity of the Demos – that is, the People -- to make things happen.” There is a big difference between the majority and the Demos. You are now the leader of the entire American Demos, not of a party or a faction. You need to find ways to stay in touch with the Demos. That will require a lot more than good opinion polling. No matter what anyone tells you, democracy is not just about aggregating popular opinions, or individual preferences, or special interests.

“Next, stay open to the wider world. Fortifying your borders in order to keep problems at bay is likely to backfire – as it did for us. We Athenians lost our independence only after we invested heavily in a high-tech system of border fortifications to prevent enemies from infiltrating our sacred homeland. Our new system of homeland security worked fine for a while – and it helped us to become a great international center of trade. But in the end, it gave us a false sense of security and blunted our determination to build alliances.

“Third, don’t let anyone tell you that they have figured out how you can accomplish great things without risk. You Americans got into your  current economic crisis and into a long conflict in what used to be the heartland of the Persian Empire because some very clever people (we called them Sophists) convinced democratic leaders that new ways of thinking and new technologies had eliminated the risks associated with markets and war. We Athenians jumped into what proved to be a disastrous invasion of Sicily because we foolishly allowed ourselves to be convinced that a really huge expedition would be risk free. The majority of us became so excited by the vision of enormous profits with no risk that the clear-eyed critics who foresaw the dangers dared not speak against the expedition. We paid a terrible price for this lapse in our democratic method of decision-making.

“Finally, despite what your predecessor believed, don’t start thinking that a democratic leader can mimic the arbitrary powers of autocrats. Kings, tyrants, and oligarchs have advantages that a true democratic leader does not enjoy. You may envy their freedom of action. You may be tempted, as were some leaders in Athens, to try to grab more executive authority for yourself. If you give in to that temptation you will fail. The Demos will come to despise your presumption and you will cut yourself off from the ultimate source of democracy’s competitive advantage.

“Athens was the preeminent state in the Greek world for a long time because we Athenians devised institutions that brought the useful knowledge that was dispersed across our diverse population into a public solution space. As a result, Athens knew what the Athenians knew. Because we drew on a diverse knowledge base, we could respond to new challenges in novel ways. As any historian will tell you, we made our share of ghastly mistakes. But because we learned from our mistakes, democratic Athens proved much more resilient than our authoritarian rivals. Athens bounced back from catastrophes that make your credit crisis look like a stroll in the Agora.

“Getting access to dispersed knowledge is difficult. It will reequire that you focus, as we did,  on matters of institutional design. It will also require you to build and sustain a culture that rewards both learning and innovation. There will inevitably be a temptation to fall back on a coterie of trusted experts. The problem is that experts to whom you will have easiest access will tend to share the same point of view. Even if they are diverse in gender, race, and ethnicity, they may come from the same social class, may have the same kinds of education and similar life experiences. Keeping your own sources of information truly diverse will be your greatest challenge, but it is the secret to success. When a democratic leader finds ways to tap into the Demos’ extensive knowledge base, amazing things can happen.”

Two hundred and sixteen years ago Tom Paine noted that whereas Athens was ‘the wonder of the ancient world,’ America ‘is becoming the admiration of the present.’ Of course America has not been as widely admired in the last several years as it once was. That will change if America’s new President learns from history. The history of democratic Athens could help him to resist the urge to act as a faction leader, to remain open to the world even at the expense of what appears to be enhanced security, to recognize that growth always entails risk, to control his envy of tyrants’ freedom of action, and to find new ways for us all to benefit from democracy’s unique capacity to identify and to organize new kinds of useful knowledge.

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