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The Art of Theory Interviews Josiah Ober

The Art of Theory has published a good interview with Josiah Ober about Athens, democracy, and his current book projects.


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.

For Josiah Ober’s recent working paper on democracy’s dignity he talks about in this interview see my post here.

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