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What Pericles would say about Obamacare

By Paul Woodruff


The mess in and around Obamacare is a good illustration of what’s wrong with democracy in the United States. Notice I do not say “what’s wrong with democracy.” Democracy in a truer form wouldn’t produce such monstrosities. Here we have a law designed to bring much needed benefits to ordinary citizens — which it will do, given a chance — while showering unnecessary riches on the insurance industry. The interests of a few have cruelly distorted a program for the many. A Republican House voted to repeal this law, even though it was based on policies devised by Republicans, mainly in order to embarrass a Democratic president in an election year. And all this irresponsible behavior concerns what is most precious to us: our health.

Some might say this sort of behavior is inevitable in democracy, but that is nonsense. Rather it is a product of features peculiar to our form of democracy, which was grafted onto roots established by thinkers like James Madison. Madison was deeply opposed to democracy and wanted us to have a republic instead, designed to prevent genuine rule by the people. Democracy was invented in ancient Greece precisely to keep special interests at bay and prevent party cliques from mangling the people’s interest with silly fighting.

Why not ask an ancient Greek? Pericles would say that one major cause of our trouble in the United States is money. A few weeks ago we heard that eight-figure gifts are now in play to influence this year’s election, thanks to the Citizens United decision. Pericles’ democracy was designed to reduce the power of wealth to a minimum and it did so. We know that, because for the almost two hundred years of democracy in Greece, the rich often tried to bring it down and replace it with oligarchy.

A second cause Pericles would point out is our dependence on elections. “Elections!” you exclaim. “But aren’t they the essence of democracy?” Not at all. Pericles’ democracy cut way back on the use of elections for two reasons: elections give money an opportunity to exercise power, and elections make cliquish infighting the norm in politics. What ought to be the norm (Pericles would say) is serious discussion of what is best for the people.

Elections, thought Pericles, give too much power to the rich and famous and too much scope to political parties. So powerful representative bodies in Athens, such as the Council (like our senate), the courts, and the lawmakers, were composed of representatives selected by a lottery to represent equally the divisions of the city, somewhat like an American jury. These representatives didn’t have to run for election, so they didn’t need to listen to special interests, build up a war chest, or do stupid things to embarrass a political party. All they had to do was carry out their duties as best they could and avoid any charge of corruption.

Imagine a council of 500 citizens chosen at random from our various regions to represent our citizen body, and then imagine them sitting down — with no worries about reelection — to find a solution to our health care problem. They would be given time to sort through the issues on the basis of expert testimony. If caught taking money from special interests, they would be subject to severe fines.

How would they be chosen? Pericles’ way of choosing representatives was so fair that it never led to complaints. It began with a division of the citizen body into tribes each of which represented the regions of Attica, and it ended with the use of a machine you can see today in the Agora Museum. All citizens who had sworn to uphold the law were eligible, apparently all felt an obligation to serve, and were paid a reasonable salary for the time they served. (Well, not quite all: Like the United States in its early days, ancient Athens did not give political rights to women, slaves, or resident aliens. To their credit, some of their thinkers at the time saw this as a problem.)

Taking electoral politics and money out of the deliberative process on health care might just produce what we all want — as fair a solution as we can reach. Why not try the lottery? It’s a lot cheaper than an election. Lottery or no lottery, we must do our best to take large sums of money out of the arena. Ask Pericles. The best policy isn’t the one with the richest supporters, or the one that does the most harm to the other party. Letting the super rich decide our fate is not democracy.

Paul Woodruff teaches philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has held positions for over twenty years as department chair, honors director, and dean. He served in the United States Army as a junior officer, 1969-71. His many books include The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness and Rewards, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, and The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched.

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Bust of Pericles wearing a Corinthian helmet. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original. Museo Chiaramonti, section I, #14. Photo by Jastrow, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Das

    I wonder how today’s world would accept the Pereclean definition of “citizen”? Or how well Athenean democracy would have functioned without.the solid underpinning of slavery?

  2. Danai Mermiga

    I believe readdressing what Democracy is, is Crucial, to pathing our way towards it. Aristotle’s “Politics” are very explanatory and there are two points in his book, to be taken very seriously:

    1st, that Democracy is NOT a electorate system. Athenians loathed elections. A Democratic citizen ought to be a ruler and be ruled SIMULTANEOUSLY. Therefore the random participation on public offices.

    2nd, that who ever failed to participate on discussions and/or did not perform to the City’s best interest, as a public servant, was deemed an Idiot (private person, in greek…). That was a punishment. All property was seized and the idiot (private person) was exiled or even killed if his idiocy was deemed harmful to the City. The idiot was considered to be lazy, incompetent and unworthy to be part of the City.
    But most importantly, the Athenians considered the worst possible Idiot, to be the Professional politician. An idiot with power..

    To sum it up, Democracy relies on constant participation.
    Elections have nothing to do with it.

    The creators of Democracy, thought electing a representative to take your decisions, was like being an Idiot who depends on Idiots.

    We need to Re establish the meaning of Democracy, NOW.
    Or else all “springs”, will come to a dead-end.

    Thank you for the nice post! DM

  3. Weekend Reading « AC 2nd

    [...] What might Pericles — the most famous leader of the ancient democracy of Athens — say about democracy in America [...]

  4. Charles

    Pericles’ hubristic, expansionist and imperialist policies led to the Peloponnesian War where Athens tried to put itself in control of Greece. Instead Sparta prevailed and after thirty years of defeats Athens was reduced to devastation, ending its golden age and its prosperity. We are in enough trouble without turning to this disastrous failure of a statesman for political advice.

  5. hanmeng

    This is awfully silly, especially from someone who must have sat through his share of faculty meetings, where highly educated people fruitlessly argue over minutiae. Even assuming randomly selected people are smarter than college professors, how does the good professor propose to select “experts” who present testimony to help sort through the issues? The doctors, who have set up licensing barriers to limit their numbers and drive up their earnings? The lawyers, whose lawsuits have driven up the cost of procedures? The insurance companies, who want to get rich? The unions, who insist that health benefits remain untaxed and so whose actual cost remains unseen by the workers? The healthy young people, who don’t want to be forced to pay for insurance they don’t need? The sick elderly, who hope to have their lives extended into senility and beyond? The experts who have made an expensive hash of Medicare or of Romneycare?

  6. Thomas N. Morrison

    interesting! I’m not original in thinking government positions should be filled by citizens through a lottery! Not only would every citizen need a modicum of knowledge of issues, but an understanding of how government works, especially if “you’re next!” I see some who poopoo the idea, but each political office has, now, a staff devoted to “helping” the politician “understand” where they stand on issues, and that wouldn’t change. NO ONE is brilliant enough to go it alone.

  7. [...] of contemporary Greece. The Republic wasn’t a democracy and far less vulnerable to popular whims than classical Athens, and possessed a practical flexibility that the equally militaristic Spartans lacked. On the [...]

  8. [...] the Greeks and American Founding Fathers to modern political scientists, democracy has been misunderstood as [...]

  9. [...] Photo by Marsyas, 2005. Creative Commons License.Such an interpretation would take us back not to the ancient history of Pericles but to the modern political history and writing of Sir Bernard Crick and notably his Defence of [...]

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