A few weeks ago, in a moment of political frustration, I tweeted the following poll, soliciting which ancient political institution people would want to return to practice today.
The winner was ostracism by far, but I think that this is in part because my options weren’t great. Here are better suggestions made by others.
Apoklêrosis/sortition: : This is the ultimate anti-oligarchic and anti-plutocratic move from ancient Athens, to select by klêros officers and representatives from a larger predetermined list. The Athenian Council of 500 was selected by lot as early as the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 8.69.4). Imagine if we selected 100 senators in each state and then reduced that number to 2 by drawing lots! We could have an NBA draft style show.
Drawbacks: Political chaos before and after the drawing of lots. Positives: Wild entertainment, dilution of power of money in politics.
Antidosis: The antidosis goes hand-in-hand with the leitourgia (or liturgy) which was the practice of having the wealthiest members of the state (voluntarily) pay for public works (buildings and even military expenses like triremes). Imagine how proud our wealthiest classes could be to put their own names on stealth bombers!
The antidosis is used if someone has a public obligation to make but cannot do so or wants to avoid it by pointing out that there is someone richer who should pay for it. Need a new bridge? Let’s take our wealthy to court and make them pay for it! I think that the suggestion also had taxes in general in mind. Imagine if individual citizens could sue other citizens (and corporations) for not paying enough in taxes….
Drawbacks: The wealthy might use this as a tool to attack one another. Positives: See negatives.
Dual Consulship: Rome somehow survived with two consuls elected annually. They held power in alternating months and, when they were done with service, went off to serve in the provinces (but not all the time). The Consulship was, from some perspective, a novel solution to the concentration of power in the hands of the monarch. But some have seen it as a destabilizing institution.
Imagine if we had new chief executives every year and how it might be if they alternated in their duties from month to month? True. it might yield a type of stability through detente. But it might also be pure insanity.
Drawbacks: Nonstop, annual campaigning for office. Positives: Diluted executive power, increased range of executive officers.
Hostage-taking: I am not sure if this option is serious or not. Hostages (obses) were often taken in ancient Greece and Rome as part of treaties with other nations or subordinate states. There were meant to guarantee fidelity to agreements. I am not quite sure how this would work internally in a single state.
Drawbacks: Using violence against captive human beings as a threat to ensure good behavior of foreign actors is beneath our moral values…..Positives: See Drawbacks.
Collegial Magistracies with Veto: Roman magistrates could impose a veto on the actions of an equal or lesser magistrate’s actions. This would not help with the executive power in the US or UK at the top, but it might help with the actions of executive appointees. More interesting, if we are considering vetoes, would be the creation of a Tribune of the Plebs with full veto power.
Drawbacks: Wild cross-checking among elected and appointed officials might make government action less efficient. Positives: Transparency and accountability?
Euthuna: (often spelled Euthyna). This is a “straightening” of accounts after someone has served in office. It was used in part require elected officials to provide financial accountability for their time in office, but questions of conduct and decision making could be introduced as well. The idea of reinstituting this, I think, would be that modern officials would be more restrained in expenditures and conduct if they knew they would be audited after a term. Of course, in ancient Athens there was a board of investigators. Given human corruptibility, the euthuna might be as useful as ethics investigations in the US House of Representatives.
Drawbacks: Constant accounting from elected and appointed officials might make government action less efficient. Positives: Transparency and accountability?
Here’s another one:
Lawsuit Penalties: In Athens, if you failed to secure a portion of votes for conviction in a losing trial, then you would have to pay a penalty for a frivolous lawsuit. In our modern age, corporations and the wealthy can sue weaker parties into submission even if they continually lose their lawsuits because of legal costs (money as well as time).
Rhodes, Peter J. (Durham), Ameling, Walter (Jena), Kierdorf, Wilhelm (Cologne), Nollé, Johannes (Munich), and Heimgartner, Martin (Halle). ‘Lot, Election by’. Brill’s New Pauly. Ed. Hubert Cancik and et al. Brill Reference Online
4 thoughts on “Old Ideas for New Problems: Ancient Government Institutions Today”
Tribunes whose power somehow didn’t just become a back and forth political tool sound great, but, I mean, the evidence against them is right there in history. But as a guy who found the Tribunate fascinating I’m kind of pissed I didn’t think to mention it when you had this poll up!
Yeah. You’re slipping in your old age!
Sortition is part of the American tradition: there is a story which folks on the right tell each other about “I would rather be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston telephone book than the faculty of Harvard university.” (The source seems to be William F. Buckley Jr. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/10/31/telegovern/)
I like the idea of “ostracizing” with everyone writing the name of their least favorite politician and voting on who has to leave the state! 😉