Sunday, April 12, 2015

What Makes an Oligarchy "Narrow" and "Tight"?

I have used the term "narrow and tight oligarchy" in the past without giving too much thought to its meaning.  Ultimately, I have assumed that the two terms interchangeably, assuming that they mean the same thing, more or less treating the use of both as a mere intensifier.  But, thinking it over, how "narrow" and how "tight" a government is are two separate issues.  Both measure a government in terms of democracy versus oligarchy, but they do not measure it in the same way.

As I will use the terms, at least while discussing the subject of Classical Antiquity, how "narrow" or "broad" a government is will mean how large a portion of the population it allows to participate in government. How "tight" or "diffuse" government is will mean the degree of participation open to the average participant.  If this seems vague, perhaps I can offer some tangible examples to illustrate what I mean.

To recap.  All city-states in Classical Greece would count by today's standards as oligarchies.  That is to say, all allowed democratic participation by the citizen body, but in all cases the citizen body was a minority of the population.  Nonetheless, these oligarchies ranged greatly in their breadth and tightness, with Sparta far at the "narrow and tight" range of the spectrum and Athens far at the "broad and diffuse" end.

Artist's recreation of the Athenian Assembly
Breadth is easy.  Solon's democratic reforms admitted to citizenship all free, native born Athenians and made naturalization comparatively easy.  This led to great disputes over who was and was not a citizen.  When Cleisthenes restored the democracy, he resolved these dispute by simply admitting all free, native-born Athenians of the time as citizens but made naturalization difficult in the future. Both reformers eliminated any distinctions of birth among citizens and allowed even the poorest to vote and sit on juries.  Citizens were nonetheless a minority of the population.  Wikipedia gives as an estimate that in the 4th Century, B.C. Athens had a total population of about 300,000 of whom 100,000 were citizen families, making citizens about a third of the population.  Of course, half of these citizens were women, who were ineligible to participate, so the share of the population with any prospect of participating was about 50,000, or one in six.  Furthermore, some male citizens were under age.  The estimate of adult, male citizens who were eligible to take part in the city's political life was about 30,000, or 10% of the population.  However, most assembly meetings were nowhere near this large -- 6,000 was generally considered a good turnout.  To avoid confusion in terms, when speaking of Ancient Greece or Rome, I will speak of all citizens, including women and children as the "total citizen body" or "citizen families."  I will speak of those citizens who were allowed to participate in the city's political life as "eligible participants" or "eligibles."  And I will speak of the share who actually did participate as "active participants" or just "participants."  Hence Athens may seem narrow to us, with only a third of the population citizens, only 10% eligible participants, and fewer still as active participants.  But by Classical standards, this was a very broad share of participants.  Indeed, a larger share of the population participated actively in the city's government than in any other society, before or since.

In Sparta, the peak number of eligible participants is estimated at 8,000.  The usual estimate is that helots (serfs) outnumbered citizens by seven to one. (This is based on Herodotus' estimate that for every heavy-armed citizen soldier, the Spartans produced seven helot assistants).  Sparta also had its resident aliens, demoted citizens (status unclear) and probably chattel slaves (numbers unknown). This was very narrow citizenry, narrow enough to cause serious domestic security problems.

"Tightness" is a separate issue, but Athens and Sparta were also on opposite ends of the tight-diffuse spectrum.  In all city-states, ultimate sovereignty rested with the Assembly, consisting of all participants.  But even with the narrowest citizenry, the Assembly would be too large to be an effective governing body, so significant amounts of power had to devolve on a Council and various executive officials.  But there was a broad range of how this could be done.

In Athens, Council had 500 members, 50 from each of the ten tribes.  These were not elected (election was considered oligarchic), but chosen by lot from candidates selected by the tribes.*  They served one-year terms and were limited to two terms in a lifetime.  Council members served various jobs on a rotating basis.  Some were administrative, but the more important ones conducted foreign policy and decided what matters to present to the Assembly.  Any participant could propose a law; the Council actually drafted legislation and presented it to the Assembly.  The Assembly debated proposed laws and foreign policy decisions with any member allowed to speak, made amendments as they saw necessary, and voted by show of hands.  Besides the Council, there were about 500 other administrative officials, most quite narrow and with limited power, also chosen by lot for single, one-year terms.  This means that about one in thirty eligible participants held office at any given time, and that a participant who was so minded had well over a lifetime worth of offices available.  Only offices calling for skill were elective.  The main elective offices were military and treasury.  Military officers were indefinitely re-eligible.  This is an extremely diffuse system, allowing any participant so minded to propose, debate, or amend laws and to hold any number of offices.

In Sparta, the Assembly also consisted of all eligible participants, met about once a month, and voted on legislation and important foreign policy issues such as decisions of war and peace.  However, participants could not propose, debate, or amend legislation.  They simply voted up or down proposals by the Council.  Voting was by voice vote.  The Council had thirty members, two hereditary kings, and twenty-eight members elected for life by the Assembly (also by voice vote). Since members had to be at least 60 years old, "life" was shorter and elections more frequent than if younger men had been allowed.  It is generally assumed that members always belonged to one of Sparta's most prominent families.  Day-to-day government was managed by the Ephors, elected by the Assembly by voice vote from the total body of eligible participants.  There were five Ephors, elected to one-year terms and ineligible for re-election.  The two "kings" appear, in fact, to have been hereditary generals with decidedly limited powers and subordinate to the Ephors. They commanded forces in the field, but always under supervision of at least Ephors,  The Ephors could override a king, arrest him, and even threaten him with execution.  Ephors, in short, had immense power, but only for a single one-year term, after which they returned to the general citizen body.  This is a much tighter system, but not so tight as to be an oligarchy within an oligarchy.  It was widely admired in Classical Antiquity as an example of "mixed" government combining government of the (comparatively) many (the Assembly and Ephors) the few (the Council) and the one (well, two, the "kings.")  The Ephors, incidentally, were added later than these other features.  Before the Ephors were added, the system was much tighter, almost to the point of being a junta in the guise of an oligarchy.

By modern standards, then, the Athenian government would be considered moderately narrow, and diffuse to the point of absurdity.  The Spartan government would be considered extremely narrow, but not particularly tight once the Ephors were added.  The history of Athens is often described as one of ever-increasing democracy, but this is so only in the sense of ever-increasing diffuseness.  Over time, the citizen body shrank as a share of the population, making the government of Athens grow narrower over time.  As for Sparta, the citizen body shrank at an alarming rate, making the oligarchy ever narrower, eventually to the point of having only 700 eligible participants.  But this diminution necessarily made power more diffuse, as each participant's chance of serving as Ephor grew the more the citizen body shrank.

It also means that I was mistaken in saying that Sulla wanted to create a "narrow and tight oligarchy" similar to the patrician oligarchy that ruled at the beginning of the Roman Republic.  In fact, there had recently been a major broadening of the Republic by extending citizenship to (many of) the Italian Allies.  Sulla made no attempt to reverse this broadening.  What he did do was greatly tighten the system.  Recall that the Roman Senate had no actual power to pass legislation; it could merely recommend it.  For legislation to be binding it had to pass one of three popular Assemblies.  (Any one would do).  Consuls, Praetors and Tribunes could introduce legislation to the Assemblies without consulting the Senate, or against the recommendation of the Senate, and if the measure passed it would be binding law despite the Senate.  Sulla limited the Assemblies to voting up or down measures approved by the Senate.  He rigged the Centuriate Assembly (the only Roman Assembly to be organized by class), so that the First Class (the richest Romans, a distinct minority) would have nearly half the votes.  Finally, he made the rigged Centuriate Assembly the only one with the power to pass legislation.  (The other Assemblies could still elect certain officials).  Since Sulla did nothing to shrink the number of participants, and, indeed, accepted the recent broadening of their number, he could not technically be said to have narrowed the oligarchy.  But he tightened it to the point that participation for most became purely nominal.**

This also makes another point.  Tightening of power, even if not accompanied by any formal narrowing of the eligible participants, can create a de facto oligarchy (or oligarchy within an oligarchy) even in a formally democratic (or broadly oligarchic) system.  Yet too diffuse power can make a system dysfunctional to the point of being non-functional.  This, too, is not merely a matter of ancient history.  For instance, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted, it was widely denounced as undemocratic.  Certainly, this was not because it meant any narrowing of power.  To the contrary, it moved election to Congress from state legislatures to the people directly and guaranteed that eligibility to vote for the House of Representatives would be on the broadest basis allowed by each state.***  What it did do, however, was to tighten power in the federal government.  Likewise, although this provision ensured that the federal government could not be any narrower than the state governments, it was tighter than the states.  Indeed, government on so wide a scale cannot be as diffuse is is possible on a narrower scale.  This was one of the reasons so many people distrusted any strengthening of the federal government.  (Alexis de Tocqueville, by contrast, saw it as a distinct advantage of the federal government).

Finally, it should be noted that extremely diffuse government can have a paradoxical narrowing tendency.  Simply put, giving people an ever greater degree of participation in government makes such participation more and more work.  Most people don't want to participate as much as champions of extremely diffuse government could wish.  As noted above, although Athens had some 30,000 eligible participants who were free to propose legislation and debate in the Assembly, only a fraction of that number actually showed up.****  Presumably the Spartan Assembly, which required no more than shouting a measure up or down, had higher turnout.

Albion's Seed found a similar pattern in the English colonies.  Political power in New England was very diffuse, being the main example of direct democracy besides Athens.  There, too, participants met in the direct democracy of the town meeting where they proposed, debated, modified and enacted town ordinances; made the town's major policy decisions; elected numerous town officials to one-year terms; and annually elected and instructed representatives to the colonial legislature.  Turnout was low, with no more than 10-30% of eligible participants showing up for most meetings.  (Turnout surged during crises and when something important was being debated).  In Virginia, political power was much tighter, with the only elective offices being to the colonial legislature, and elections (combined with instruction of representatives) being held only once every seven years.  Turnout was much higher.  Finally, Pennsylvania was intermediate, with participation being limited to electing officials, but such elections being very frequent -- as many as five a year.  Turnout was intermediate.

Or consider the length of the ballot these days -- candidates for county commission, county clerk, assessor, surveyor, initiatives, referendums, bond levies, and so forth.  To say nothing of intermediate elections for school board, mill levy, sales tax, etc.  Is it any wonder that turnout is often so low?  In California, initiatives have become so numerous and complex that the combined pamphlet of all initiatives can run to hundreds of pages.

In short, too-tight government creates an informal oligarchy, even in a system that is formally democratic.  But too-diffuse government invariably proves that there is only so much democracy most people can stomach.  Striking the right balance is a difficult and delicate operation.

And now, on to Classical Athens, perhaps the most diffuse government ever invented!

*The method of selection varied over time, but in all cases the candidates had to volunteer for the office and be at least minimally qualified.
**Keep in mind, though, that they retained other benefits of citizenship, such as not being subject to enslavement for debt.
***Many states set a higher property qualification to vote for the upper house of their legislature than the lower house, or set a property qualification to vote for the upper house and none for the lower house.  The US Constitution said that whoever could vote for the lower house of the state legislature could vote for the U.S. House of Representatives.
****As in Rome, though, citizenship had advantages even for those who chose not to participate.

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