Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Public Choice in Athens by Roderick T. Long
* Demosthenes offers an example of the latter from Locri, a Greek colony in Italy, where the introduction of hasty or frivolous bills in the legislature was discouraged as follows:
* We’ve seen that the Athenians sought to avoid devices of representation wherever possible. But when representation was necessary, Athenians preferred to select representatives by lot, via the method of “sortition.” This is how we pick juries today, but the Athenians filled most other offices by the same means. They reasoned that elections tend to be won by those who are wealthy and prominent – in other words, by members of the upper classes. Sortition, by contrast, ensures that those selected will be a representative cross-sample of the population.In that country the people are so strongly of opinion that it is right to observe old-established laws, to preserve the institutions of their forefathers, and never to legislate for the gratification of whims, or for a compromise with transgression, that if a man wishes to propose a new law, he legislates with a halter round his neck. If the law is accepted as good and beneficial, the proposer departs with his life, but, if not, the halter is drawn tight, and he is a dead man.2
*Democratic worries about the ability of the rich to translate their wealth into political power were likewise embodied in the institution of ostracism, whereby an individual could be voted into temporary exile with no charges or opportunity for defense.
*Juries, as I noted in the previous installment of this series, were extremely large by our standards, ranging from hundreds to thousands of members. This was partly to ensure proportional representation, and partly to prevent jurors from being bribed or intimidated.
* The Athenian solution, in the event of a guilty verdict, was for the prosecutor and the defendant each to propose a penalty, and the jury would then choose between the two penalties. This policy gave the litigants an incentive to avoid proposing excessively harsh or lax penalties; while the defendant would of course propose a laxer penalty than would the prosecutor, too lax a proposed penalty would risk leading the jury to pick the prosecutor’s harsher penalty, while too harsh a penalty from the prosecutor would risk the reverse.
* A wealthy person chosen for the “honor” of funding a public festival was allowed to shift the burden to someone even wealthier; the means of determining comparative wealth was for me, say, to challenge you to exchange all of your wealth for all of mine, on the assumption that if you refused, you thereby acknowledge that you’re wealthier.
* Even slaves benefited to some extent (though of course not terribly greatly) from the incentive structure of Athenian law. A slave could escape abusive treatment by resorting to a special place of sanctuary – but could then leave the sanctuary only if he found a new buyer. That’s admittedly not much as checks and balances go, but the option does introduce a slightcompetitive element into the slave system and thus a slight incentive for masters to treat their slaves less cruelly.