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Tag Archives: Plato

Searching For the Golden Mean of Government

Direct democracy is mob rule.  It is so unviable and volatile that no polity has ever had a completely direct democracy.  At best, popular referendums are used sparingly and mostly in local government.
The Ancient Athenian democracy was a disaster and it was even limited to an elite class of citizens.

The founders of the United States took note of history and used the Roman Republic as their model instead of Athens.  
Separation of powers and the use of representatives was far more stable because it could moderate the whims of the crowd and favor the power of one faction over another.

There are those who argue that having a King or Emperor is the best and most natural government.  Monarchy after all has been the most common and stable government for thousands of years.
Monarchists have a good argument that monarchs are effective executives able to make quick decisions when it matters most.  Because their entire lives and family are invested in the state  they have a built-in incentive to care about long-term problems whereas elected representatives just care to get re-elected.
In practice, of course, history has countless examples of incompetent monarchs.  A system that depends so heavily on one person can seesaw between being very well run to a complete nightmare.  

When power is more focused, major changes in policy can occur immediately. But those changes might prove to be disastrous and even bring about the collapse of the state.  
Republican government makes sudden changes in policy difficult to safeguard against any single person making fatal decisions.  It also avoids the ancient problem of being just 1 heartbeat away from wars of succession.  
However, problems that need to be boldly addressed tend to fester when there are safety rails everywhere.

So can we find some kind of balance between autocracy and the republic?
The USA in its current form has nearly universal suffrage and slips into the disaster of mob rule.  The early US republic had limited franchise.  Moderners obsess about suffrage being limited to evil white males but the important part was land ownership requirements.  This may not be exactly what we’d want now, but it gives us a useful principle.  

The idea behind this restriction was that voters had to have skin in the game and safeguard them against people with nothing to lose simply using the state to plunder everyone else.

There was a clear idea that some people were more invested in society as shareholders than others, an idea that’s totally alien to modern concepts of democracy where every warm body has a “right” to vote. 

We also ought to go all the way back to the principles of merit from Plato’s Republic.  Like any other job, those best qualified to rule should be the rulers.  In a republic that would mean we dismiss handwringing over “rights” and worry only about what results we get from bestowing the ballot.

We’d refine the electorate like consultants brought in to trim down a company.  Did we end up fighting wars for no reason?  Were there tax breaks for the rich while peasants starved?  Who voted for these things?  Does someone have the civic knowledge, basic literacy, and intelligence to competently wield the power of the vote? Do they have skin in the game and a reason to care about where society is 100 years from now or does it make no difference to them if they plunder the treasury now?

This is of course an imperfect process. Imagine if we had simply made the top 20% most educated people the only ones with the vote in the US.  Out-of-touch SWPL total rule would have been a disaster for everyone.  So clearly a formula for who gets ballots has to be worked out very carefully.

-Those with special knowledge on an issue get a more heavily weighted vote. (The challenge is this might end up benefiting parasitic insiders.  We’ve all seen where rule by “experts” has gotten us.)
-The whole society gets divided into castes based on capabilities and neurological temperament.  The best(with skin in the game) get to vote.

The basic idea is to use a republican or other system for collective decision-making to limit the potential for a single fool to destroy an empire or for one untimely heart attack to plunge the nation into a war of succession.
Yet there are also far fewer voters making decisions.  Enough so that nothing depends on just one person but so that major decisions and changes are possible.

The Roman Republic gradually fell apart as power had to be “temporarily” granted in crisis situations where political gridlock was simply not an option.  This inevitably led to generals who were more powerful than the state.  When a collective decision making system cannot adapt in real time, it is forced to gradually dismantle itself.

So the successful system of government has to walk a tightrope.
The trick is to benefit as much as possible from the acumen of great men while preventing and blunting the depredations of the worst.
And to benefit from the “wisdom of crowds” from the best crowds rather than an indiscriminate mob.
The use of computers and statistics would play a prominent role in figuring out what works best.

Look up strategies for any online game and we see the experiences of thousands of competent people who played countless hours compiled into build orders timed down to the second, or item builds categorized by victory percentage across an entire server.  It would take more than one person’s whole lifetime to figure all that out by themselves!

Surely these kinds of tools would help a republican oligarchy figure out who has the best judgment to run a health system and who is full of bullshit.

Why Philosopher Kings Are Rare

From control of wealth comes the power to govern.
Therefore the rulers will always be either a warrior elite or a merchant elite.
How then do you have a system that consistently puts a philosopher king in power?
A system that puts governing into the hands of the most capable.
There never has been a meritocracy of governance only the rule of the strong.
The life of the warrior or the merchant demands intense specialization and requires an incurious personality.  The rulers most societies have had most of the time reflects these realities.

Plato identified the main problem of politics 2300 years ago, but no one has ever figured out how to reliably implement that basic idea of giving that job to the best qualified.

Plato, Democracy, and Mob Rule

By the 4th century BC, civilizations had already existed for at least a couple thousand years.
By then, most of the basic patterns of civilization were ancient news.

Plato’s observations about governments over 2,000 years ago might seem disturbingly familiar to us now.

Humans may boast of mechanical technologies such as airplanes and atomic bombs, but social technology, the ways we organize haven’t changed since the very first farming villages:

“Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle.  Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined; oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth.  In either case the end is revolution.   When revolution comes, it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims…when a body is weakened by neglected ills, the merest exposure may bring serious disease.

Then democracy comes…But even democracy ruins itself by excess-of democracy.  Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy.  This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.

As to the people, they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them.  To get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play.
Mob-rule is a rough sea for the  ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course.

The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery…that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’ rises to supreme power.

Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state.  When we are ill we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence—we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one…when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best?   To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good—that is the problem of political philosophy.”

-Plato as quoted, paraphrased, and summarized by Will Durant

The Story of Philosophy
Will Durant, 1953, Pocket Books, Washington Square Press
Excerpts from pages 20-21

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