Engineering the Rule of Law in Ancient Athens

Start Page



Scholars typically regard the rule of law—a stable and predictable process by which laws are implemented, enforced, and changed—as a cornerstone of good governance and a key factor supporting economic growth. Yet establishing the rule of law involves a trade-off: ex ante commitment becomes more credible, but ex post adjustments in response to new information become more costly. An understanding of this trade-off helps to explain the design of legal institutions in what was perhaps the first rule-of-law state: ancient Athens.

No art whatsoever can make a rule that will last for all time. … But the law is always striving to make one—like an obstinate and ignorant tyrant who will not allow anything to be done contrary to his appointment, or any question to be asked—not even in sudden changes of circumstances, when something happens to be better than what he commanded. (Plato, Statesman iii.579)Rightly constituted laws should be the final sovereign; and personal rule, whether it be exercised by a single person or a body of persons, should be sovereign only in those matters on which law is unable, owing to the difficulty of framing general rules for all contingencies, to make an exact pronouncement. (Aristotle, Politics 3.1282b)

Full text not available in ChicagoUnbound.