Athens of ancient Greece had perhaps the most advanced system of government of the ancient world. The system of Athens was called a Democracy. That is, every citizen voted on everything. People have claimed that the United States is also a Democracy. This is not true. The government of the United States is a Constitutional Republic (Every). United States citizens vote for representatives, who then vote on the laws. They themselves are limited by a constitution. Democracy is a flawed government system. The Constitutional Republic is also flawed, however, it is better at safeguarding individual rights, when applied correctly. Therefore, a Constitutional Republic is a better system than a Democracy.
Athens was one of the largest Greek city states. (Stockton, 4). It was about one thousand square miles (Stockton, 4). Athens was founded in the 8th century BC (Muller). It was at first ruled by the college of archons. (Muller). After a term of one year, the archons became members of the Council of Elders (Muller). The people had a voice in the popular assembly, the Ekklesia (Muller). However, it did not have real power until 600 BC. By then, it was an established institution of Athens (Muller). It became the central policy making body in the 5th century. There were two main governmental bodies, the Assembly and the Council. (Acropolis). The Assembly was responsible for policy making. (Acropolis) The Council was responsible for administration and implementing the Assembly’s policies. Not everyone could participate in Athenian politics. Slaves, resident aliens, and women were excluded.
The main architect of Athenian law was Solon. It is unknown when Solon was born. He died in 559 BC. (Plutarch). Solon allowed everyone to participate in court (Stockton 19). He created a code of laws based on justice, balance, and good order (Muller). Solon abolished the practice of debt bondage (Muller). Solon created the Council of 400 (Boule), and a court called the Heliaia. (Muller) Solon divided Athenians into classes in accordance with their income (Plutarch). The lowest class, the thetes, was ineligible for election to office (Plutarch). However, they could still come into the assembly and act as jurors (Plutarch). The other classes, from lowest to highest, were zeugits, hippies, and pentakosiomedimnoi (Muller).
Solon’s laws were obscure and ambiguous (Plutarch). The court, therefore, and wide powers of interpretation. This gave a significant amount of power even to the thetes. Before a matter could be submitted to the public for vote, it had to be approved by the Council of 400 (Plutarch). By 431 BC, however, the Council of 400 lost power (Agar 13). All power was in the hands of the popular assembly (Agar 13).
There were many flaws in Athenian Democracy. There were almost no checks on the power of the masses. If a person was not liked by the masses, he could be ostracized-forced to leave Athens. Because the court had so much interpretive power, anyone could be punished for anything-even executed. Witness Socrates. He was executed for being impious (Agar 12). This charge was brought against anyone in Athens who thought for themselves, and not what the masses wanted people to think (Agar 12). Contrary to popular belief, there was no absolute right to free thought, free criticism, and “freedom to cast doubt on all men’s most intimate prejudices” (Agar 12). These are Western concepts (Ager 12). Athenian Democracy does not protect individual rights.
We now turn to the American system of government. Contrary to popular belief, America is not a Democracy. It is a Constitutional Republic (Every). America has a Constitution that spells out basic, inalienable rights, and citizens vote in representatives who are supposed to safeguard those rights, even when unpopular (Every).
The American government is its current form was created in 1789, with the Constitution of the United States of America. The government consists of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The executive branch consists of the President, the legislative branch consists of Congress, a bicameral legislature, and the judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and inferior courts (US Constitution). Currently, only Congress is directly elected by the people. The President is elected by the Electoral College (US Constitution). Judges for federal courts are appointed by the President; these appointments must be ratified by Congress (US Constitution). How judges for state courts are appointed varies from state to state.
Laws are debated by Congress. If passed by Congress by a simple majority, the law is given to the president for approval. If the President does not approve of the law, it is given back to Congress for another debate. If it is passed by a two-thirds margin, it goes into effect. (US Constitution). The people do not, at any stage, directly vote on laws.
Which system is better, a Democracy or Constitutional Republic? At first, it might seem that Democracy is the better system, as it gives the people a better voice in government. However, Democracy has some serious weaknesses. It enables the majority to totally dominate and oppress the minority (Hospers). As was seen with Socrates, the minority is not protected in a democracy. Because, in a true democracy, there is no check on the power of the masses, it is as if there is no rule save for mob rule. A good orator, such as Alcibiades, architect of the disastrous attack on Syracuse, could manage to sway the masses into making unwise decisions. Perhaps democracy’s greatest flaw is there is no real authority. Plato compared democracy to a ship on which the crew had the same powers as the captain. Such a ship, said Plato, would be on a corse for disaster. According to Plato, democracy would give authority to any would be tyrant who called himself the people’s friend (Plato).
The better form of government is the Constitutional Republic. The republic aspect removes the masses from direct involvement in government. This might at first seem like a bad thing, but is actually a good thing. The masses, history shows, will oppress those they don’t agree with-witness the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Nazi concentration camps, and McCarthyism. By removing the masses from government, a Constitutional Republic prevents this from happening. For example, if Socrates were tried in the court of a Constitutional Republic, he might have been convicted by a jury, but would have been given a chance to appeal to a higher court, one which would be totally guided by law. However, an unlimited republic is also an invitation to tyranny. Without limits, the elected representatives could vote to, for example, kill those who spoke out against them. That is why a constitution is necessary. The constitution provides limits to what the government can do. In a Constitutional Republic, with a constitution that respected the rights to life, liberty, and property, there would be no charge to bring Socrates up on. The representatives would be limited in what they could vote to do. If the Constitution does not give them permission to do something, they cannot do it. A Constitutional Republic respects the rights of individuals.
No system of government is perfect. A constitutional republic sometimes fails to protect the rights of individuals. For example, in the United States, the Constitutional Republican government used to treat citizens who were members of minority groups very poorly (Hospers). Failures such as this can be traced to one cause: the representatives focused on doing what was popular rather than what was right. Another problem: a Constitutional Republic is only as good as the constitution. It would be quite possible to write a constitution that demonstrates a complete disregard for individual rights-witness Nazi Germany.
The Constitutional Republic has its problems. However, there is no remedy for these problems that would not involve investing one man with absolute power-a cure that is far, far worse than the disease. It would involve giving one person or group carte blanche power to run the country. This would lead to a Nazi Germany or a Soviet Union like situation. In other words, if these sorts of reforms were implemented, the Constitutional Republic would morph into a Dictatorship.
Even with these problems, a Constitutional Republic is far superior to a Democracy. In a democracy, there is not even theoretical protection for minorities. If the masses vote to prohibit certain philosophies that is allowed. If the masses vote to send certain people to their deaths that is allowed. If the masses vote to seize one man’s property and give it to another man that is allowed. In a Constitutional Republic, this is not allowed. The rights to life, liberty, and property are protected. The government can only exercise those powers delegated to it. However, even constitutional republics have their problems. The leaders or constitution can be bad. The leaders can choose to ignore the constitution. They can interoperate it to give the government powers the framers never intended the government to have. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, a constitutional republic is the worst form of government, except for all the others. We can only hope that the constitution of our Constitutional Republic stays strong and that our leaders pay attention to it and do what is right, not what is popular.
Hospers, John “Freedom and Democracy” Liberty Haven June 1984 5/7/03 http://www.libertyhaven.com/theoreticalorphilosophicalissues/philosophy/freedomdemo.html
“Athenian Democracy” The Acropolis http://jnl-journeys.com/democrac.html 5/7/03
Plutarch Lives http://www.e-classics.com/index.html 5/7/03
Plato The Republic http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/republic.htm 5/7/03
Muller, Helmut M. The Birth and Development of the Polis in Athens http://www.dadalos.org/int/Demokratie/Demokratie/Grundkurs2/antike/athen.htm 1992 5/7/03
Every, David Only Individuals Have Rights http://www.igeek.com/articles/Politics/Government/+IndividualsHaveRights.txt 6/27/99 5/7/03
Agar, Herbert The Perils of Democracy 1965
Stockton, David The Classical Athenian Democracy 1990