Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens

7 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2009 Last revised: 8 Jul 2009

See all articles by Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty

Date Written: July 1, 2009


In his excellent book Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober argues that ancient Athenian democracy surmounted the dangers of political ignorance and made effective use of dispersed citizen knowledge to forge good public policy. He effectively demonstrates that Athenian democracy was more successful than the oligarchic and tyrannical governments of rival Greek city-states. He also shows how Athenian institutions worked to reduce the dangers of political ignorance.

On the other hand, Ober is less successful in showing that the relatively impressive performance of Athenian democracy should lead us to be optimistic about today’s democratic states. Indeed, his account suggests that Athens’ success in overcoming political ignorance was in large part the result of two important ways in which it differed from modern democracies: the small size of its electorate and the very narrow range of functions performed by its government.

Keywords: Althaus, Delli Carpini, classics, fans, Founding Fathers, information, Keeter, Plato, rational choice, Sparta, Syracuse, Thucydides

JEL Classification: D70, D72, D80, D83, H40, H41

Suggested Citation

Somin, Ilya, Democracy and Political Knowledge in Ancient Athens (July 1, 2009). Ethics, Vol. 119, No. 3, pp. 585-590, April 2009, George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 09-31, Available at SSRN:

Ilya Somin (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School, Faculty ( email )

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