Buffalo Bull

Issue E.3 — Friday, 2011.11.18

Democracies and Idiots

It is a common misconception that the United States is a democracy. It is, and it isn't.

It also is a common misconception that a republic is a form of government with representatives chosen by the people. That isn't true, either.

In fact, “democracy” is a relative term. There can be more or less democracy. Some countries have more than others. The U.S. is not the most democratic of the industrialized nations, nor do its people have the most freedom. (That might have been true many years ago, but no longer.) So, when politicians talk of democracy or of freedom, they take advantage of the situation that democracy and freedom are vague and ambiguous words.

In a pure democracy the people control the government directly. No constitution limits their power, but no official does not answer directly to the people. Direct democracy can be a roudy, disorganized thing, but it can work if the people who possess it make the effort to care for it.

To show that a direct democracy is a very different animal from our own form of government, what follows is a description of the most famous example of a direct democracy, that of Athens in Ancient Greece.

Athenian Democracy

The word democracy, derives from Greek δημοκρατία (demokratia, “people power” or “people strength”). It has long been used to describe a form of government where the people, acting more or less directly, exercised equal power in running a state or other entity. The ancient Greeks didn't invent democracy, but the Athenian democracy (from 508 BCE to 322 BCE, with a few oligarchic interruptions), is one of the best known to us. In fact, only adult male citizens were allowed to participate; women, non-citizens, and slaves were excluded.

There were three main bodies in the Athenian government: the assembly, the boule (βουλή), and the courts. The assembly was open to adult male citizens, the 500 members of the boule were chosen by lot, and the courts were open to men over the age of thirty. Participation in the democracy required having undergone military training. The boule was an executive body: it implemented the policies of the assembly; however, it could prepare questions for assembly debate without setting any policy itself. Typically the quorum for the assembly was 6000 citizens, and several hundred (sometimes many more) for the courts.

Any qualified citizen was entitled to speak in the assembly, to propose laws, and to suggest a public legal action. If a law was challenged in the court, then if the law was determined to be improper the person who proposed the law could also be held accountable.

There were about a thousand officials. Around a hundred were elected, but the rest were selected by lot. The Athenians considered selection by lot to be more democratic than election, since people would tend to vote for those who were popular, powerful, or wealthy. Since random selection carried the hazard that unqualified or incompetent people might end up in office, most actions were taken and decisions made by boards or committees, so no single person could do too much damage. In a group, it was likely there were experienced members to counter the hazard of inexperienced ones.

Those who had to handle large sums of money were elected rather than chosen randomly. The citizens could be sure to choose someone who had enough money so that, in case of embezzlement, it would be possible to go after the official's own assets. Stealing from the people was often punishable by death. Officials were often subject to personal audit to prevent their dishonesty. (Try and imagine being killed after failing an audit. Sometimes it was found later that the problem was only an accounting mistake, the official had been sentenced wrongly, but the government apparently stayed honest for almost two centuries. We should be so lucky.)

The details of the Athenian system changed over the duration of the democracy, but these were the basic principles.

There was little respect for those who did not participate. Someone who minded his own business, without involvement in public affairs, was known as an idiot (ἰδιώτης, idiotes, from ἴδιος, idios, meaning “private” or “one's own”; the root is also present in the words, idiosyncrasy, “a person's distinguishing peculiarity”, and in idiom, an expression with a meaning peculiar to itself). The derogatory implication of the term remains with us today.

(Now you know for certain that most Americans are idiots: they are not involved in public affairs. Even those that vote don't usually count: voting in American elections doesn't imply involvement in the government or its policies, any more than going to the grocery store makes one a farmer or rancher. What shows up on ballots is almost always so tame that the people can do little damage, or have little effect, no matter which way they vote. If voting were ever to threaten to effect any real change, it probably would be made illegal. Only a very small minority of Americans attend public meetings, campaign for causes, regularly write to their representatives, or otherwise participate in the machinery of government.)

The Athenian democracy came to an end a few years after Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) defeated the Athenian coalition in 338 BCE, and the Macedonians came to control Greece. Later, attempts were made to revive the democracy, but the result was flawed, and it never again worked as it did before.


From Ancient Rome, we get the word republic. It comes from the Latin res publica, “public thing” or “public property”. By contrast, res privata is a “private thing” or “private property”. The word “republic” is somewhat synonymous with “commonwealth”, and implies the common good. It refers to a government run for the benefit of the people, as opposed to one run for a few. (For instance, a monarchy is not usually considered a republic, because a monarchy is, theoretically, run for the benefit of the king. However, in many governments, kings were elected by the people or by a council of elders or heads of families, so many monarchies have been called republics.) Despite what the broken American school system teaches, a republic need not have a specific form of government. Republics don't require a legislative body. They don't even require elections. All democracies are republics, but few republics are democracies. Republics can be run by representatives, as democracies, by consensus, or otherwise.

The Roman Republic is usually dated from 509 BCE, when the monarchy was overthrown. This event gives the Republic a definite beginning date, but the destruction of the Republic was marked by a number of events, and has been given various dates. Perhaps the most common is 43 BCE, when the Lex Titia (“Law of Titius”; Roman laws were commonly named for their sponsoring legislator). The Lex Titia gave the Second Triumvirate (Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus) the power to rule by decree; it was viewed as a kind of emergency measure, but the Republic never recovered.

Rome was a stratified society, with clear class distinctions. The elite were the patricians, originally a kind of nobility. The rest of the citizens with some property were the plebeians. Those with little or no property were the capite censi (“head count”). Eventually the proletarii emerged from the capite censi as a separate, somewhat higher class. (The proletarii were so called because their assets were their children or offspring, proli being “offspring”. Of course, all classes had children, but go figure.) At the bottom of the hierarchy were the slaves.

The patricians were members of their class by accident of birth. They typically had more property than the plebeians, but over time some plebeians became wealthier than some patricians.

Participation in the Roman Republic was limited to patricians and plebeians. The capite censi, the proletarii, and the slaves had no say in the way things were run.

The government had three basic institutions: the officials, the Senate, and the legislative bodies.

There were two kinds of officials. The magistrates were elected by the people, while the plebeian tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the plebeian council. The magistrates had various ranks; from highest to lowest these were the dictators, the censors, the consuls, the praetor, the curule aediles, and the quaestors. Magistrates held office in pairs, and each could veto or obstruct the other, and either could veto any lower ranking magistrate. The offices were typically held for a short term (one year or eighteen months), and re-election usually was prohibited until some time had passed. The veto power and short terms prevented individual magistrates from gaining too much power. The plebeian tribunes and aediles, though technically not magistrates, had similar powers. Each kind of magistrate, tribune, or aedile had certain functions, powers, and limitations. The dictators, though they had great power, were usually elected only temporarily during times of crisis, such as military emergencies.

The Senate was a body composed entirely of patricians. It was not elected. The members were appointed by the consuls and, later, by the censors. Often, the members were consuls who had served their terms of office. Although the Senate had great prestige, it had little formal power. (It had exclusive authority in a few areas, such as public money and foreign policy.) It made recommendations to the magistrates, but these did not have the force of law. However, its recommendations usually were followed.

The real power of the government, to elect the magistrates and to pass laws, belonged to the legislative assemblies and to the plebeian council. The assemblies were composed of the people as a whole, plebeians and patricians; the plebeian council consisted of the plebeians. Each assembly or council was attended by the people, and voting was by the people themselves and not through representatives. Thus the Roman Republic was for the most part a direct democracy. It differed from the Athenian democracy in that there were multiple assemblies and councils, each with certain powers and limitations.

Near the beginning of the Republic, the Senate and the patricians had more power. Over the almost five centuries of its history, the plebeians acquired more power and came to control the government. Interestingly, however, although the plebeians had power, they did not exercise it much: in practice, the magistrates and the Senate ran the Roman Republic.

While the Athenian democracy ended because Athens lost a war, the Roman Republic ended largely because the Romans won too many wars. The cost of empire was high, and debt enlarged greatly. Even the spoils of war became a problem: the great number of slaves brought into Rome contributed to a significant unemployment problem among the citizens.

Rather than turn to more democracy as a solution to the increasing problems of governance, the citizens turned to less. They passed laws concentrating power into the hands of fewer and fewer officials, until the Lex Titia effectively removed their power to overrule their own officials. These increasingly powerful officials promised to fix things. They sure did.

Note that, although the Roman Empire is said to begin after the Roman Republic ended, it was in fact an empire a century before. In 146 BCE, Rome conquered Greece and Carthage. Although it had begun its empire, it remained a Republic until the Lex Titia of 43 BCE. By 27 BCE, Octavian, who took the name Augustus, was the only leader of Rome. He took for himself the powers of the magistrates. He even took on the immunity which belonged to the tribunes (who could not be questioned or hindered).

If this sounds like a familiar situation, it ought to. Americans are turning to less and less democracy in a futile attempt to preserve their ever declining freedom, just as they turn to more and more borrowing to solve the problem of debt. It's easy to conclude that the American Republic is probably doomed. We are probably fated to repeat the lessons of history, which we have ignored.

A Way Out of the Wilderness

As I have hinted, there may be a way out of the spiral downward: more democracy, not less.

The Athenians could put 20,000 citizens into the Pnyx (Πνύξ, the hill where the people convened to decide the direction for their government. It might be a little difficult, however, to find a place where a few million of us could meet to govern the U.S. However, there are other options. Democracy, remember, is a relative thing: we can have a lot more without needing to have a pure, direct democracy. I will discuss some of the options in future issues. Just a few constitutional amendments, and we might be good to go.

Meanwhile, we might remember the three basic principles of a democracy, as defined by the Athenians:

isēgoria (ἰσηγορία))
“equal speech”, the right of every citizen to speak and debate policy
isopoliteia (ἰσοπολιτεία)
“equal citizenship” the right of everyone to vote and hold office
isonomia (ἰσονομία))
“equal law”, equality under the law

We do not adhere to these when the people must accept the laws of the elected, when judges serve for life, when minority political parties are excluded from participation, or when seniority defines power in our elected bodies.

More to follow...

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