Josiah Ober's General Theory of Democracy


Josiah Ober

Josiah Ober is a classicist and political theorist at Stanford University, and his work on ancient Greek democracy is widely read in both disciplines. The Art of Theory recently spoke with him about Athens, democracy, and fly-fishing.

The Art of Theory

What prompted your interest in classics?

Josiah Ober

I attended a troubled, inner-city high school in Minneapolis, became disenchanted with formal education, and went to college more or less by accident—a long story involving my then-girlfriend’s dental work. I registered for classes at the University of Minnesota at the last minute (as one could in those days), stumbled almost by accident into a Greek History course, and was immediately taken by the subject matter and the austere manner in which it was presented. The contrast with the other humanities and social science courses I had tried was pretty dramatic.

My extremely demanding professor, Thomas Kelly—who became my first mentor and a later a good friend—presented Greek history completely without bells or whistles. Tom Kelly thought history was self-evidently important and he was profoundly uninterested in students who failed to grasp its importance. He offered a complex narrative of politics and society that we can come to understand only if we are willing to do the hard work of reading difficult texts in their entirety and with great care.

He was initially dismissive of my life-plan, which I boldly announced after my first term of Greek History: namely, to follow his career path. But he told me what I needed to do, starting with learning ancient languages, if I wanted to give it a try. So I did, and kept at it, ending up with a Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan in 1980.

Although I’d taken a lot of classics courses, mostly in Greek and Latin language, I didn’t really become a classicist in any proper sense until I was hired in 1990 by Princeton, where Greek and Roman history were done entirely within the Classics Department. My classics colleagues at Princeton were kind and patient. They taught me some of what a classicist ought to know, although to this day my grasp of Latin poetry, Greek poetic meter, and much else within the grand tent of classical studies, remains sadly rudimentary.

The Art of Theory

Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens is one of the landmark studies in ancient political thought. How did that book develop?

Ober

I had been fascinated by classical Greek democracy since my first undergraduate days, but my early scholarly work was focused mostly on military history and field archaeology. In 1983, the Greek government suddenly denied foreign nationals permission to conduct field projects of the sort I was then engaged in, so I turned to a back-burner problem that I thought of as “elitism and anti-elitism in Greek thought.” It morphed into Mass and Elite thanks to conversations with several social scientists who—improbably—were resident fellows with me at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina in 1983-84.

I taught at Montana State University through the 1980s. There was no other classicist or historian of antiquity anywhere nearby, so my work developed largely outside of ordinary disciplinary bounds. That might have been a disaster, of course, and I was surprised when Mass and Elite was enthusiastically received by classicists, although the enthusiasm was not universal. In retrospect, I got lucky in writing the right book at the right time: many younger classicists, as it turned out, were increasingly dissatisfied with standard literary and historical approaches to ancient texts.

The approach that I sketched in the book, analyzing texts as strategic discourse developed in the context of political institutions and social divisions, could readily be adapted to other bodies of classical literature. That was, I suppose, what convinced the Princeton Classics Department to hire a historian who had spent his career to date teaching in Montana.

The Art of Theory

What brought you to study political theory?

Ober

Like Molière’s famous Monsieur Jourdain, who was surprised and delighted to learn that he had been speaking prose all his life, I had not realized that I had been writing political theory until I arrived at Princeton in 1990. George Kateb got wind that I was being recruited, and in our first meeting he informed me that I was a political theorist. Despite some uncertainty about what that actually meant, I believed him and began attending Princeton’s Political Philosophy workshop. The monograph I was working on at the time, which became Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, had begun as a project in intellectual history. As a result of my deepening engagement with theorists at Princeton, and elsewhere, it became increasingly self-consciously a work of political theory.

In retrospect, I see that George Kateb was really insightful: my interests had always been aberrantly theoretical by the standards of the field of ancient history—which was, and remains, a very empirical field. The things about history that most interested me always had, at least implicitly, a normative dimension.

I spent 16 years on the Princeton faculty; in addition to my primary appointment in the Classics Department, I was cross-appointed in the University Center for Human Values. The double appointment offered me the intellectual space to develop my theoretical interests in near-ideal circumstances. I never lost my passion for history, and for six years was chairman of the Department of Classics, but I now had access to the intellectual resources to develop a scholarly research program that was at once historical and explicitly theoretical. Admittedly, this mix of fields makes for a hybrid sort of scholarship that is not to everyone’s taste; see, for example, Peter Rhodes’s Ancient History and Modern Ideology.

The Art of Theory

Your work draws on some sources that one doesn’t usually find in the study of antiquity, such as F.A. Hayek in your Democracy and Knowledge and game theory in your current project on democracy. How have these sources enriched your research?

Ober

I had been convinced for a long time that the biggest unsolved problem in democratic theory and in Athenian classical history was how masses of ordinary people could produce policies good enough to enable a democratic state to compete over time with authoritarian rivals. As a result of having had an unusual opportunity to do some freelance consulting for a big professional services firm, through my friend and later co-author Brook Manville, I conceptualized the problem as one of knowledge organization. Yet I flailed about for quite a long time trying to figure out how to make sense of the equation, “democracy + knowledge = high comparative performance,” in a way that went beyond mere hand-waving. I wrote several drafts of a book on the topic, but none of my initial attempts was very satisfactory.

Again, in the end, I just got lucky, meaning that I ran into the right people in the right fields who were willing and able to talk through my problem and steer me to the relevant literatures. During a year’s residency at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS)—just as the National Humanities Center had broad-mindedly accepted social scientists as fellows back in the early 1980s, CASBS sometimes took on classicists—I had a chance to talk regularly with some outstanding economists, sociologists, and political scientists.

Those conversations eventually led me to realize that Hayek’s early work on dispersed knowledge in society, along with some aspects of game theory, network theory, and organizational theory, would allow me to answer the question I had set myself. The other outcome of those conversations, and the book that I wrote as a result of them, was that I moved to Stanford in 2006, taking a joint appointment in the Political Science and Classics Departments.


The Age of Pericles, Philipp von Foltz, 1853

The Art of Theory

You’re currently working on a general theory of democracy. What do you take to be the greatest deficiency in our understanding of democracy today? What sorts of questions should democratic theorists be asking that they have so far failed to ask?

Ober

I think political theorists should be more willing to think in terms of human nature and strategic rationality. As I now conceive of it, normative (including critical) and positive (including game theoretic) approaches to political theory are part of the same project. Following Aristotle’s lead, I think political theory needs to start with humans as social beings of a particular sort, beings that seek to achieve a range of individual and collective ends by employing a set of distinctive natural capacities: notably a remarkable (compared to any other species) ability to communicate and to employ reason.

So, starting from those premises, I take the central question of political theory as just this:

How can we—each of us as individuals, and many of us as a collectivity—live securely and well , i.e., under good material and moral conditions, stably over time, free of fear?

Democratic theory adds the following rider:

How can we do that without ceding absolute authority to a sovereign ruler, i.e., to an individual, an elite faction, or a tyrannical majority?

Framed in is way, democratic theory can be thought of as an attempt to answer the challenge of Thomas Hobbes, who famously claims in Leviathan that if we wish to live at all well or securely—that is, outside the extremely bad “state of nature” or war-of-all-against-all—there is no alternative to submission to the authority of a lawless sovereign, i.e., an absolute ruler unconstrained by law or by the separation or balance of powers.

If we take up Hobbes’ challenge on its own positive theoretical terms, we quickly realize that life under the lawless sovereign will be only marginally better than the fundamentally bad state of nature. Given Hobbes’ assumption that all share common knowledge of the badness of the state-of-nature alternative to the sovereign’s lawless rule, the Hobbesian sovereign knows that he can demand from his subjects anything short of their death without occasioning their defection. Therefore, he can rationally be expected to act accordingly: he will confiscate their goods, impose humiliation when it pleases him, etc. The logic of the Hobbesian lawless sovereign thus reduces “living well and securely” to a minimum—one step above the state of nature. And thus it remains a minimal answer to the basic question of political theory: Hobbes asks us to accept that we cannot hope to live very well or very securely, but can only hope to live without the constant fear of death.

Democratic theory, as I conceive it, seeks to show why and how it is in fact not only preferable, but also possible, to live more securely and better than Hobbes suggests, and that these better conditions are achieved by rejecting the rule of any absolute sovereign in favor of collective self-governance. The central question that I suppose democratic theory seeks to answer, in light of the Hobbesian alternative, presents us with a definition of democracy:

Democracy is collective self-government that is at once stably effective and limited.

Simultaneously meeting each of the three primary conditions of the definition—(1) collectively self-governing, (2) effectively stable, (3) limited—is demanding insofar as democratic theory is intended to be at once normative and positive, i.e., to offer an answer to how we ought to live and how we can live that way. Meeting that demanding standard is the burden of the democratic theory I propose. And obviously, as I’ve set it up, the problem of meeting the three conditions entails doing both normative and a positive theory.

The Art of Theory

What does democracy require of citizens? How many virtues and habits are required, and how far can we get on self-interest alone?

Ober

In some recent working papers, I have been pursuing the idea that, in order for democracy, as collective governance, to persist over time, citizens must not only have freedom and equality, but also must have civic dignity—that is, they must live securely under conditions of non-humiliation and non-infantilization. Dignity may be understood as equal high standing underpinned by immunity against humiliation and infantilization. That immunity is guaranteed by public rules that are enforced by the rational choices of other citizens.

Civic dignity is closely related to both political equality and political liberty, but it is, I think, distinct from them. One may be politically free and equal in certain respects, and yet not enjoy equal high standing in terms of having respect and recognition from one’s fellow citizens.

The dignity requirement in turn requires that citizens display certain forms of civic virtue: at the minimum, citizens must habitually and reliably manifest some level of courage (taking risks to defend another’s dignity) and of moderation (restraining the impulse to humiliate or infantilize others). The level of virtue required of citizens is, however, not excessively high, because civic dignity, unlike inherent human dignity of a Kantian sort, is sustained in equilibrium: each citizen has a rational interest in restraining him- or herself from inflicting indignity upon others and in mobilizing against affronts to the dignity of his or her fellow citizens.

I do not suppose that limited civic virtue conjoined with rational self-interest is enough to produce a satisfactory moral theory of justice, but it does get us quite a long way towards a theory of democracy. I am ultimately more interested in democracy than I am in Kantian conceptions of morality, because, unlike the democratic theory I’m pursuing, a fully moralized Kantian approach to politics fails to answer Hobbes’ challenge. Insofar as Kantian morality is not sustainable in a self-enforcing equilibrium, it does not ensure that people’s lives will actually be better than they would be under Hobbes’ lawless sovereign.

The Art of Theory

What institutions do we need in order to promote a genuine participatory democracy of the kind that the Athenians had?

Ober

In another work in progress, I am working on institutional design questions about how expertise can be added reliably to democratic decision-making, without devolving to elite capture or into what David Estlund has called “epistocracy.” I think that Aristotle had some important intuitions along these lines. By conjoining recent work on deliberation with recent work on the solution to Condorcet jury problems, we can make some progress towards understanding how a democratic decision-making body could incorporate the highly specialized knowledge of experts.

This seems to me important insofar as a theory of democracy that is actually able to answer the Hobbesian challenge needs to be matched by institutions that are capable of yielding policies good enough to enable democracy to compete with its non-democratic rivals. Athenian democratic institutions and classical political thought can give us some productive ideas to work with, but contemporary problems of political scale and increased social diversity require that democratic theorists work on institutional design solutions that go beyond anything we can find “on the shelf” through the study of the ancient world.

The Art of Theory

So what does Athens have to teach modern liberal democracies?

Ober

Quite a lot. First, it teaches that democracy, which originally meant “people’s [demos’] collective capacity to do things [kratos]” can be much more than just “majority rule.” Second, that political rhetoric can be a two-way street: a way by which citizens respond to and control their leaders, as well as a way for leaders to propose ideas to citizens. Third, that serious consideration of the fiercest intellectual criticism of democracy (of the sort offered by, for example, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle) is essential for democracy, because positive institutional change comes in part in response to the most profound challenges. Fourth, that expertise is important, but that there is a very diverse array of expertise necessary for really good decision-making in the many domains essential to the flourishing of a complex state. Fifth, and finally, that institutional design and political culture both matter a lot. Democracy will only work as well as it ought—and, under conditions of competition with efficient authoritarian regimes, as well as it must—when the imperatives to learn trustworthy routines and to innovate in ways that threaten those established routines are well balanced. That will only happen when institutions and culture are in a positively recursive relationship.

The Art of Theory

Describe your workspace and writing habits. When you sit down to write, what is your process?

Ober

I’m currently chairing the Department of Political Science at Stanford, so my working habits, insofar as they concern anything without a budget line attached to it, are pretty catch-as-catch-can. I steal time to write wherever I happen to find myself with a laptop and an hour or two between meetings.

I do a lot of my sustained writing in the summer, in a little house in Bozeman, Montana, the place where my wife and I lived full-time when I taught at Montana State. My ideal work day is several hours of intensive reading and writing, broken up by a bike ride into the foothills of the northern Rockies, and capped off by an evening fly-fishing on the Gallatin River. Most of what I’ve produced in the last 30 years came out of some variant of that basic plan, so I intend to stick to it for as long as I can.

The Art of Theory

Where do you see your work going from here? What’s next for you?

Ober

In addition to the general theory of democracy and its various parts—civic dignity, expertise aggregation, and so on—I am working on a book on the relationship between rational cooperation and knowledge organization in Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. This is a version of the book I had thought I would write at CASBS, now re-thought through the lens of the book on democracy and knowledge that I did end up writing there.

I am also working on a book that describes and explains, in institutional and political cultural terms, the remarkable (by premodern standards) growth of the Greek economy between 800 and 300 BCE. This project has become strikingly topical in light of the recent economic crisis in modern Greece. The striking success of the ancient Greek economy and its institutional and cultural underpinnings is highlighted by the dismal history of the modern Greek economy, which is not just a twenty-first century headline—in the mid-twentieth century, Greece was the poorest country in Europe. Because we can hold some important variables fairly constant—same location, same climate, same resources—we can highlight the impact of political institutions on economic performance.

Piece originally published at The Art of Theory | Creative Commons License