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What ancient Athens can and can't teach us about the Greek referendum

- July 4, 2015
An European Union flag flutters as the ancient Parthenon temple is seen in the background in Athens. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

As the Greek referendum approaches, it is tempting to draw parallels to the ancient world, particularly to the classical Athenian democracy. Supporters of a “no” vote on the referendum, such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, make reference to the “strong democratic tradition” of the Greeks. The referendum seems to steer us to classical Athens, and to the image of citizens flocking to the assemblies to decide on the most important matters of the day.

Yet classical Athens provides only a tempered defense of democratic decision-making in the financial realm. In the 4th century, the Athenians elected important financial magistrates and retained popular control through accountability mechanisms beyond election, designed to ensure that elites acted in the interest of the people and did not enrich themselves at their expense. Similarly, the best one might expect from the Greek referendum is elite accountability and control.

The Athenians’ commitment to the competence of the ordinary citizen cannot be understated. The democratic ideology was premised upon the notion that ho boulomenos – anyone who wishes – could participate in political life. This entailed turning up at the assemblies, but it also provided the rationale for filling many important positions by lot, including the Council of 500 and the vast majority of other magistracies.

By the 4th century, though, the Athenians did not leave decision making about crucial financial matters to their own collective judgment or to a citizen selected at random, but chose the magistrates by election, just as they chose the generals who would lead them to war.

There are many reasons why the Athenians might have chosen to elect financial officers, including as a means of co-opting economic elites, but one crucial reason was competence: not just anyone could serve as a general, and not just anyone could make the critical financial decisions for the polis. Indeed, leading scholars of the ancient world such as P.J. Rhodes and Josiah Ober  ascribe the creation of these financial magistracies, and the election of highly skilled magistrates, as a major factor in the economic success of the 340s and 330s B.C.

Returning to the looming referendum, there is something not merely romantic, but serious and attractive, about asking Greek citizens their opinion about the best course of action for the financial future of the nation. Yet news reports over the past several days suggest many Greek citizens find the referendum extremely confusing. The matter is certainly complicated, but the bafflement, such as it is, does not constitute evidence of Greek citizens’ incompetence.

The ballot question reads (in English) as follows:

Should the proposal that was submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund at the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, which consists of two parts that together constitute their comprehensive proposal, be accepted? The first document is titled ‘Reforms for the Completion of the Current Program and Beyond’ and the second, ‘Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis.’

In the words of Athens Mayor George Kaminis at a “yes” rally: “People don’t even understand the question.”

Note that this is not atypical for referendums: In the United States, the language of ballot measures frequently court confusion. Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, was marked by uncertainty over its language: even former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, advocating the rejection of the proposed amendment, urged his audience to vote “yes.” Such cases of confusion over the language of referendums are legion, but typically – as in the case Proposition 8 – voters have a sustained campaign in which to become informed. Not so in Greece.

Supporters of a “no” vote on the referendum, like Stiglitz, argue that the vote will strike a blow at the democratic deficit that has marked the euro zone. But given the hastiness of the referendum and the uncertainty concerning the actual impact of referendum will have under either outcome in terms of Greek austerity measures or the future of Greece in the euro, it is hard to regard any result as embodying the popular will.

Nonetheless, one likely result produces a striking parallel with Athens. The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has announced that he will resign immediately if the Greeks vote yes. Although the Athenians elected magistrates to deal with the complexity of finance in the fourth century, they retained control over these magistrates through the use of accountability mechanisms. In addition to scrutiny prior to taking offices, the magistrates knew that at the end of their term, they would have to submit their accounts for auditing, with a risk of a private suit or public prosecution for malfeasance and steep penalties if found guilty.

The referendum itself is likely to tell us little about the true preferences of the Greek citizens, apart from their frustration with austerity, and their anxiety about the future. Nor should it lead us to wax eloquent about the majesty of Greek democracy since antiquity. But if the referendum helps to shape elite behavior – if it enables the Greek citizens to send a signal to their leaders about their policies and their strategies – it may merit the parallel and help the Greeks to navigate their wine-dark seas.