The Past and Future of Governance

By Federica Carugati*

Can ancient societies and online communities teach us something new about governance?

The crisis of democratic capitalism urges us to identify new ways to act collectively to ensure the wellbeing of humans and the environment. Current governance theories and practice are predicated on questionable behavioral assumptions. This is an opportunity: revising our assumptions may yield new solutions.

What do I mean by questionable assumptions? As we have known for a while, homo economicus, even the bounded version of behavioral economics, does not accurately reflect many relevant human drivers and aspirations. The problem is not just the simplifications concerning the role and scope of rationality, or the volume of information, or even the cognitive shortcuts needed to trick ourselves into behaving differently, but the fact that we are missing an entire dimension of what makes us human: our need for, and enjoyment of, others – a dimension that the Covid 19 crisis has made clear as day. Because we measure what we preach, this is not just an abstract problem. If we assess human and societal wellbeing in terms of GDP growth, we won’t just be missing many aspects of the modern economy, but also a lot of things that most humans value, such as caring for children, the elderly, and other family members.

Behavioral assumptions dramatically influence policy responses. Take the simple story we often hear about political participation. Voters are lazy and ignorant because they know their vote doesn’t count (and some count less than others), so they’d rather spend the time needed to get to a booth or become informed doing something else – possibly buying things on Amazon. As an ancient historian studying the radically participatory democracy of ancient Athens, I have often puzzled over this axiom. The Athenians—who spent a good chunk of their lives making decisions collectively in assemblies, councils, and law courts (and as far as we can tell enjoyed it quite a bit)—must have been smarter, or just better people.

When I recently started talking with colleagues who study online communities, I discovered that, in our vastly divergent worlds, we are seeing similar phenomena. People crave participation, work for it, and exist in tightly woven communities they deeply care about. Even if they don’t get paid to participate (by the way, the Athenians did) and… wait for it… even if they don’t know personally the other members of their communities.

Can it work in the ‘real’ world? Luckily, we don’t need to go online or learn Greek to test the feasibility and viability of citizen-centered governance today. We can look at experiments with participatory budgeting, Deliberative Polling, online deliberative town-halls, and, more recently, the swath of citizen-run structures created to figure out better way to draw voting districts (California), design constitutional amendments (Ireland), create better data sharing policies (UK), or climate policies (France, UK). A different but related set of structures suggests the value of crowdsourcing for writing constitutions (Ireland), resolve disputes (ODR platforms around the world), gather data (e.g., citizen science), produce new scientific discoveries (e.g., Polymath today), and even set national-level fiscal policy (e.g., the Finance Ministry of Taiwan).

The role and scope of citizen participation in governance is only one of the things we can reflect on anew by directing our gaze to the past or the web. The past provides a window into the questions of origins, endurance and collapse of institutions; the web affords a peak into the process of experimentation that may yield new and robust structures, or make them less resilient, or scalable.

There are pros and cons to both cases. Ancient societies can be analogized to modern states in terms of their functions, but they are smaller, usually more homogeneous (but nonetheless exposed to sometimes violent social conflict), and certainly not liberal (in the normative sense of recognizing universal rights and personal autonomy to all residents). Online communities offer an extraordinary opportunity to study governance at scale, but fundamental differences exist in terms of who participates in what community and why, as well as the costs of exit.

Yet, there might be benefits in reading these cases together. My previous work suggests that we can learn a great deal about governance from ancient Athens. But, given the uniqueness of the ancient case, and the differences between Athenian society and our own, it is sometimes hard to figure out whether and how lessons from Athens might apply to the modern world. Online communities provide a much-needed testing ground. Ideally, this body of research would yield three results: first, we can gather new empirical evidence about what makes cooperation at scale work, and what makes it fail; second, we can assess how new evidence changes existing behavioral and governance theories; and third, we can use new theories to design new institutions.


*Federica Carugati is Program Director at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and a newly elected member of SIOE's board. This essay introduces her to's readers.