Paul Woodruff writes a post over at the Oxford University Press about how the ancient Greeks (specifically the Athenians of Pericles) would look at our current political mess and specifically Obamacare. You may not be particularly surprised at where he comes down on the issue (after all, he’s a humanities professor) but it is an interesting discussion about what the Athenians might recommend to fix things.
First, of course, is too much money influencing the system. According to Woodruff:
Pericles’ democracy was designed to reduce the power of wealth to a minimum and it did so. We know that, because for almost twoo hundred years of democracy in Greece, the rich often tried to bring it down and replace it with oligarchy.
The second is a bigger surprise: Elections. Now today we almost exclusively define democracy by elections. Remember when Iraq had elections and eveyone was showing their purple fingers? Then the never ending backslapping, self congratulations and general smugness with ourselves? How comfortable are we with the idea that Iraq is a democracy? Iran has elections too, but there aren’t too many out there who would describe that place as a democracy. And, of course, let’s look in the mirror. Can we really say our democracy is going swimingly? It’s kind of a hot mess of inertia like two jackals fighting over a found carcass . All well and good unless that swaying of the tall grass isn’t the wind but is a lion getting in position and ready to pounce on the lot. Ok, Mr. Big Shot, if not elections, then what?
Elections, thought Pericles, give too much power to the rich and famous and too much scope to political parties. So powerful representative bodies in Athens, such as the Council (like our Senate), the courts, and the lawmakers, were composed of representatives selected by a lottery to represent equally the divisions of the city, somewhat like an American jury. These representatives didn’t have to run for election, so they didn’t need to listen to special interests, buidl up a war chest, or do stupid things to embarrass a political party. All they had to do was carry out their duties as best they could and avoid any charges of corruption.
Now, at first we might balk at the idea of selecting our representatives through the same process as we select juries but it really might not be that bad. Considering approval for congress is hovering around 10% could we really do worse than randomly selecting citizens to serve? I’ve often remarked here about my desire to see universal national service implemented but that would only affect the under 25 crowd for the most part. Something like this could apply to all citizens of legal age to enter into legally binding contracts (over 18) with only a very few exceptions for health reasons. Other than that, the salary and perks our national legislators get now would be a significant improvement for the majority of citizens and for those who might see a drop in income…tough titty…it’s your civic duty and the odds of getting selected more than once in your lifetime would be incredibly rare. Some provisions could easily be put in place to prevent small business owners from losing their jobs and protecting employment.
Think of how national priorities would change. For one, I bet education would boost up to the top (or near) of what needs to get fixed. My guess is that all of a sudden national efforts would focus on the problems of the bulk of the people. Rather than figuring out how much to subsidize multinational corporations who have no trouble racking up record profits we might spend a bit of effort on all those people languishing under the poverty line.