Montana State University

MSU students visit Greece to discover the origins of democracy

May 10, 2009 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


MSU economics professors Rob Fleck (front, left) and Andy Hanssen (front, right) stand with their origins of democracy class. The class leaves for Greece on May 11. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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In a few days, Montana State University students will stand on the Acropolis and discuss why Athens became the wealthy democracy it did, then visit Spartan ruins and consider why this other Greek city-state chose institutions so different than Athens.

The students are traveling to Greece to discover the origins of democracy first hand. It is the culminating lesson for professors Rob Fleck and Andy Hanssen's class: economic institutions and economic performance in a global context.

MSU economics professors Fleck and Hanssen hope that a trip to Greece will help students better understand the role of ancient Greek institutions in forming that culture.

"Seeing things first hand is exciting and travel is broadening," said Hanssen. "And the landscape of ancient Greece played a large part in how they set up their institutions."

Austin Owens, a finance and economics senior from Ft. Collins, Colo. registered for the class because, "it stuck out to me as an alternate look at economics and how the past plays into how we do things today."

Fleck and Hanssen's students met once a week during spring semester to read about, write about and discuss the role of institutions in a country's economic performance. According to Fleck and Hanssen, there is a general consensus among economists that differences among institutions explain much about the difference in living standards around the world.

Fleck and Hanssen asked their students, "How do countries with poor institutions create "good" ones such as democracy, clearly defined property rights and a well functioning legal system." And "Why are some countries rich and stay rich while other countries are poor and stay poor?"

"Economists are concerned with democracy and rule of law," said Fleck. "Everyone agrees that those are good things, but it is hard to figure out how to get those things set up."

The class is studying institutions from around the world, but using ancient Greece as a focal point.

"Ancient Greece is like a laboratory for exploring how institutions are set up," Hanssen said. "Athens and Sparta shared the same religion, ancestors, and similar terrains, but their institutions were different."

In a paper published in the Journal of Law and Economics in April 2006, Fleck and Hanssen compared ancient Greek city-states Athens and Sparta to suggest conditions under which democracy first emerged.

The citizens of ancient Athens were granted more property to ensure that farmers worked hard to bring in their crop.

"Athens grew olives and it is hard to tell how much effort is being put into an olive crop simply by observing the harvest, since olive yields vary greatly from place to place," said Hanssen.

Giving the olive growers property rights wasn't enough. Because of the natural variety in olive output, the government couldn't penalize someone for a poor crop--there was no way to tell if it was the fault of the grower or nature. And it was a long time from planting to harvest, usually 10 years.

"Political rights, including the right to vote, then served to guarantee the property rights," said Hanssen.

By contrast, grain was Sparta's major crop, and it was much easier to tell how hard farmers had worked by looking at a grain crop. Spartan aristocrats didn't need to grant political rights.

"Ancient Greece is strikingly different than the norm for human history," said Fleck. "You have to be able to explain what happened in Ancient Greece to understand democracy in other places."

Sarah Saxby, a business finance and economics major from Kalispell, said, "One thing I've learned from this class is that government will not work efficiently unless the government can credibly commit to its actions and provide incentives for everyone to work for the public good through the generation of personal wealth."

Fleck and Hanssen use the example of Ancient Greece to better understand the role of institutions, such as property rights and legal systems, throughout history and throughout the world.

"We do a lot of reading and are exposed to a lot of ideas," said Owens. "Our class sessions are entirely discussion-based. It is a very engaged classroom."

In addition to visiting Athens and Sparta, the 11 students and two professors will tour key sites from other eras of Greek history. They will visit Mycenae, which pre-dates the ancient Greek democracies, and the Byzantine ruins at Mystras. They will see the first capital of modern Greece, Nafplio, where they will visit Venetian fortifications and churches.

"And they have very good gelato there," notes Fleck.

As the May 11 departure date approaches, the students are feeling enthusiastic.

"I am so excited for the trip," Saxby said. "It will be really fun to interact with the professors on a personal basis while learning about Greece."

"We are all getting very antsy and looking forward to it," said Owens.

Contact Rob Fleck at (406) 994-5603 or rfleck@montana.edu or Andy Hanssen at (406) 994-5616 or ahanssen@montana.edu.