A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

First Democracy

Here are the tools of First Democracy as explained by Paul Woodruff (Darrel K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin) who wrote First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, published in 2005. I find his thinking very illuminative in looking at how and why democracy developed, what gave it strength, and how it failed at times. I highly recommend his book. This list of tools offers us a background with which to consider and critique our own democracy. Looking at democracy in other countries would likely be illuminating as well, and we welcome any input of this sort.


In his introduction, Woodruff says:


Democracy is a beautiful idea - government by and for the people. Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise our highest capacities while it protects us from our own worst tendencies. In democracy as it ought to be, all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.


Like many beautiful ideas, however, democracy travels though our minds shadowed by its doubles - bad ideas that are close enough to be easily mistaken for the real thing. Democracy has many doubles, but the most seductive is majority rule, and this is not democracy. It is merely government by and for the majority. The ancient Athenians who invented democracy learned this lesson the hard way. After several bouts with class warfare, they took practical steps to make government involve all citizens and serve the general interest.


He talks about the democratic tools the Athenians used for almost 2 centuries (keep in mind that "citizens" excluded women, slaves and immigrants), and I will quote from him directly (although not in full in some sections).


1. Legal system. No professional judges or prosecutors. Any citizen could bring charges against another, and any citizen could serve on the panels of judges that correspond to both our judges and our juries. The panels were large enough that no one could afford to win them over by bribery; 501 men served on the panel that convicted Socrates. Service on a panel was paid, and for this reason it was truly open to people of the lower class....The panel was formed on the day of the trial, by means of a lottery, in order that no one could tamper with the jury. Judging from speeches made in these popular courts, the juries represented a cross section of Athenians, because we do not hear of speakers making appeal to class interests.


2. Governing Body. The Assembly normally consisted of the first 6 000 men to arrive at the Pnyx (a hillside not far from the Acropolis), but this number was not always achieved. Any adult male citizen could take part, and if numbers were wanting, the magistrates ordered a sweep of public places with a scarlet rope, which brought in enough people for business to be transacted. Pay for assembly duty was introduced early in the fourth century, and after that they used the red rope the other way around - to keep people out when the meeting area was full....Any adult male citizen could speak; the right to speak in Assembly, known as parrhesia, was the most precious of all privileges of Athenians. Nevertheless, ordinary citizens rarely used the privilege, leaving it to those active in politics to speak in the Assembly. Such speakers were known as rhetors; they were able to exert special influence without holding public office, simply in virtue of their speaking abilities. (Our word, "rhetoric" derives from their name.)


3. Checks on majority rule. The powers of the Assembly came increasingly to be limited by law. In all periods of Athenian democracy, the Assembly could not vote on any proposal that had not passed through the Council, which corresponds to our legislative committees. The Council was appointed annually by lot, equally from the ten tribes. It represented a cross section of Athenians, and it would normally keep illegal proposals from coming to a vote.

The mature, fourth-centruy democracy distinguished between legislation and policy decisions - between making or revising law and what the Athenians simply called "voting matters" (usually translated "decrees"). Proposals on voting matters had to be consistent with basic law - with what we would call the constitution of Athens. If you put an unconstitutional proposal to the vote, you could be brought to court under an accusation known as graphe paranomon (indictment for violating law). Any citizen could block your proposal from taking effect by making such an accusation. The matter would then be adjudicated in court between you and your accuser. If you were guilty, you would pay a fine; if the accuser was found frivolous, he would be penalized.

Legislation could be framed only by a representative body that was chosen by lot; this legislative panel was known as the Nomothetai. If the Assembly wished to modify the laws, it would have to refer the matter to this body. If the legislative panel approved a modification to the laws, that would then come to the Assembly for a vote.


4. Lottery. The lottery was used to select citizens from panels, selected each year from the ten tribes. The selection process ensured that every tribe was equally represented. The lottery was used for juries, for the Council of 500, and for the legislative panel. The lottery depended on the assumption that anyone who had passed scrutiny and taken the appropriate oath would know enough to exercise power appropriately in these settings, where more time was set aside for discussion and debate than in the Assembly.


5. Elections. Some important positions were filled by election, especially those that required expert knowledge in military or financial affairs. The ten generals were elected mainly to lead military expeditions, but some of them had influence on foreign affairs and domestic matters. The generals commanded obedience in the field, but they could be recalled by vote of the Assembly at any time, and they could pay heavily for failure. The Assembly was capable of condemning them to exile and even death.

In the second phase of democracy, elections were used more often for critical functions - such as the management of funds - that were not wisely left to amateurs.


6. Accountability. On leaving office, a magistrate would have his record examined in a process called euthunai (setting things straight).

If a leader had committed an indictable offense, anyone could take him to court at any time. The only limitation was that the accuser would have to put up a substantial deposit, which he would lose if the case was determined to be frivolous.

If one person appeared to be gaining too much power or to be polarizing the city, the citizens could vote to exile him for ten years. The process was called ostracism.




Woodruff goes on to identify 7 key requirements of democracy in his opinion. They are:


1. Freedom from tyranny
2. Harmony
3. The Rule of Law

4. Natural Equality

5. Citizen Wisdom

6. Reasoning without Knowledge

7. Education


I will describe each of these in a subsequent post. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

3 comments:

Rural said...

If you put an unconstitutional proposal to the vote, you could be brought to court under an accusation known as graphe paranomon …….The matter would then be adjudicated in court between you and your accuser…


The ten generals were elected …….some of them had influence on foreign affairs and domestic matters. …. they could be recalled by vote of the Assembly at any time, and ……. The Assembly was capable of condemning them to exile and even death.


If a leader had committed an indictable offense, anyone could take him to court at any time……. If one person appeared to be gaining too much power…….. the citizens could vote to exile him for ten years.

Now that’s accountability, there are days……….!

Monique said...

Yes, that's what appears really key - they never let one person have too much power, and everyone was accountable!! Honestly - it's amazing that we have let things get that out of whack here in this great country. Rolling over and shrugging that the breakdown of democracy is inevitable or "out of our control" is ultimately the most unpatriotic of actions we can take.

CMax said...

Sorry, but I think Canada never started with government by the people. The only thing that is happening now, is an attempt to put these principles in, and thus it seems kind of backwards. If you ask me.