How To Handle Public Officials A Lesson From the Ancient Greeks

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To an ancient
Greek, nothing was more precious than honour (tîmê).
The root of this word was financial — what you were worth.
And what you were worth was judged not by your own values (note
‘value’), as by other people’s assessment of you.
By that token, ‘honourable’ Members of Parliament should
by now be quietly slinking shamefacedly down the back alleys (as
the poet Pindar said of a wrestler humiliated in Games held at Delphi).
Officials in Athens who had so transparently exploited the people
would not be so lucky.

Most officials
in Athens were appointed by lot and for one year only. They did
not serve an elected parliament but the whole citizen body (Athenian
males over 18), meeting roughly every week in Assembly. This body
was sovereign, deciding every course of state action. The same people
also had total control over the courts.

Each official
had to report regularly to the people, and could be arraigned at
any time. At the end of his term, the people subjected him to a
full audit. Within 30 days of laying down office, he presented his
financial accounts (public funds received and expended), which were
checked against documents in the state archives.

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11, 2009

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