9 Nov 2008

The emergence of democracy

Posted by jofr

What have pirates and philosophers in comon? Do Plato and Blackbeard share a common passion? It is hard to believe, but the ancient Greek philosophers and the pirates of the 18th century lived both in early democracies. The economist Peter Leeson and the historian Marcus Rediker argue that pirates in this age understood the advantages of constitutional democracy. They had their own constitution which regulated the division of the loot and the election of the leader. The leader was (s)elected democratically, and the crew “voted him out” if he was autocratic or acted cowardly.

Why did democracy emerge in the city states of ancient Greece and on pirates ships of the 18th century? The Greek city states and the pirate ships were both small isolated communities. Contrary to the Greek city states surrounded by craggy mountains and the Mediterranean sea, cities in Babylonia or Persia were not isolated enough. Greek city states and pirate ships were largely isolated from foreign influence, and there was a strong sense that the city or the ship belonged to the community itself. Both communities knew the consequences of tyranny and autocratic dictatorship and were able to topple autocratic leaders quickly, because the small size of the communities limited the power of the rulers. It was easy to assemble all members of the community in no time, and hard for an autocratic ruler to escape or to hide. The small size of the population was also the reason why the members depended on each other for better or worse in both communities. In case of war, every individual was needed. Therefore they clearly needed structures and rules to organize their common life. It was hard to force the members of the communities to do something.

The conditions for the emergence of democracy are therefore:

  • a small community living in an isolated area (city-state or ship)
  • a feeling of ownership for this area among the members
  • a strong dependency of the free members on each other
  • a high risk of mutiny and revolution

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