CEMS Lecture on 15 October: Democracy before Liberalism by Josiah Ober (Stanford University)

October 12, 2015

The Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies cordially invites you to the second lecture of its 11th Colloquia Series  

by Josiah Ober (Stanford University) 


Democracy before Liberalism

Time: Thursday, 15 October, 17.30
Place: CEU, Popper Room, Nádor 9, Budapest

Reception to follow


Basic democracy, “before liberalism,” is the solution to the puzzle of how, within a competitive ecology of states, a large and diverse body of people might create a reasonably stable political order that is at once secure, prosperous, and non-autocratic – and do so without resort to value neutrality, human (as opposed to civic) rights, or a developed theory of distributive justice. The solution requires collective and limited self-governance by citizens. Both in theory and in historical practice, democracy can, under the right conditions, answer what I called “Hobbes’ challenge,” the claim that any secure and prosperous state requires a third-party enforcer in the guise of a lawless sovereign.

Democracy solves the challenge by providing citizens with good reasons to believe that the costs they incur as citizens, in order to sustain the regime, are shared by their fellow citizens. Only when citizens have good reasons to trust one another and are mutually protected against exploitation by the powerful, will they rationally invest in human capital and share what they know when it may be of value to the pursuit of their common interests. Gains in the stock and effective uses of knowledge can counterbalance the relatively high costs of collective self-governance, while pistemic depth and diversity can create a comparative advantage relative to autocratic states.

Even before liberalism, democracy must sustain the conditions of political liberty, political equality, and civic dignity – these are required by the functional needs of the democratic system itself. In the place of autocratic social coordination based on hierarchy, centralized command and control, and ideological mystification, basic democracy substitutes coordinated collective action of rationally self-interested citizens. It does so by employing well-publicized rules (laws and norms) as focal points for the mobilization of citizens in defense of the civic dignity that is the precondition of each citizen having the secure high standing essential to full participation. Basic democracy is achievable, as demonstrated by, for example, by Athens in the age of Aristotle and Demosthenes, but democracy is not easily realized in practice. Theory and historical precedent can suggest the general form of an institutional system, but in practice institutions will always need to be adapted to local conditions

Josiah Ober, Mitsotakis Professor in the School of Humanities and Science, works on historical institutionalism and political theory, focusing on the political thought and practice of the ancient Greek world and its contemporary relevance. He is the author of a number of books mostly published by Princeton University Press, including Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens(1989), Political Dissent in Democratic Athens (2008), and Democracy and Knowledge (2008). He has also published about 75 articles and chapters, including recent articles in American Political Science Review, Philosophical Studies, Polis, and Transactions of the American Philological Association. His new book on The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece will appear in Spring 2015, from Princeton UP.  It  documents and explains the sustained Greek material and cultural efflorescence of ca. 800-300 BCE, the Macedonian conquest of the late fourth century, and the persistence of economic flourishing into the Hellenistic era. Other work in progress includes a general theory of "democracy before liberalism” and a study of rational cooperation and useful knowledge in Greek political thought.