(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I’ve been reading a few books about Athens over the last few years, which lead to the thought that Plato would be a worthy nominee for the Higgy as the ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga in serving as the inspiration for technocrats for thousands of years.
The fact that we still read Plato would give a sane person pause in questioning a founder of western thought. No one will be reading Ladner 2300 years from now after all. Sanity is overrated however, and so too is Plato. It has been decades since I read the Republic but I recall being of the firm opinion that it was utter nonsense. Philosopher Kings? Shadows on cave walls? Guardian class? What a lot of rubbish…hey look my new copy of the Avengers arrived!
I’ll give this much to Plato- Athens did not exactly have the democracy thing sorted out. Sure there were golden ages, but they tended to be surrounded by demagogues leading the city into catastrophic wars, plagues, periodic oligarchies etc. People who lead Athens through incredible peril- including Themistocles and Cimon- later found themselves exiled from the city through democratic ostracism. Ungrateful Brits threw Churchill out of office at the end of World War II, but at least they didn’t force him out of the country he saved for a decade. The faults of Athenian democracy were too numerous to summarize adequately. Socrates for instance was chosen randomly to preside over the trial of six victorious Athenian admirals who were prevented from recovering the remains of fallen sailors by a storm. The obvious thing to do of course would be to execute the people who just won a decisive victory due to circumstances beyond their control. Socrates was unable to prevent it. Mysteriously wealthy Athenians who had previously borne the expense of paying for warships found non-military related hobbies occupy their time. The later execution of Socrates on the basis of vague nonsense obviously did nothing to endear Athenian democracy to Plato as well.
Plato was borne into Athenian aristocracy, and in fact his father had been a member of an oligarchy that temporarily overthrew Athenian democracy. Given the pandemonium of Athenian politics, one can hardly fault Plato for attempting to dream up improvements. Having said that, the idea of philosopher kings is utterly absurd. A group of materially disinterested ascetics spend decades in study to prepare themselves to govern the rabble with little compensation other than satisfying their benevolence after earning the acceptance of a self-perpetuating ruling class.
Fortunately no one actually tried to run Plato’s society, but there have been some fairly close parallels from time to time. The dead hand of medieval clericalism and various communist parties for instance come to mind as self-perpetuating elites admitting members based upon decades of training in a world view. I don’t know how one gets admitted into, say, Iranian theocracy, but that might more than vaguely resemble a guardian class. If these examples sound like recipes for stagnation and corruption it is only because, well it is in fact a recipe for stagnation and corruption.
Milton Friedman happily set Phil Donahue straight on this back in the 1970s:
Where in the world are you going to find these angels indeed. Athenian democracy was too often a pig’s breakfast of mob rule chaos, but I would take my chances with it over Plato’s benevolent ruling class fantasy.
The part of American democracy that most closely resembles the Plato’s philosopher kings would be the United States Supreme Court. You may have heard of them, they have been in the news a bit lately. Ross Douhat in fact makes an interesting case laying the blame for much of American political dysfunction in recent years at the feet of…wait for it….David Souter:
Had Souter simply voted like a typical Republican appointee — not in lock step with Antonin Scalia, but as an institutionalist, incrementalist conservative, in line with the current chief justice, John Roberts — then it’s likely that Roe v. Wade would have been mostly overturned in the 1990s, returning much of abortion law to the states, and that the gay rights movement would have subsequently advanced through referendums and legislation rather than a sweeping constitutionalization of cultural debate.
This, in turn, would have dramatically lowered the stakes of judicial politics for many Republican voters, making an untimely event like Scalia’s death less of a crisis moment, a response like the Garland pocket veto less of a necessity and the candidacy of Donald Trump something more easily rejected.
Indeed, I strongly suspect that in a world without the Souter own goal — a world where the Supreme Court had sided with cultural conservatives to the extent one would have expected given the number of recent Republican appointees — a nominee like Merrick Garland could still have been confirmed with Republican votes, and the filibuster could still persist, reserved for the unqualified, corrupt and genuinely extreme. Oh, and into the bargain, Donald Trump might well not be president.
Read the whole piece and see what you think. I largely buy the argument. American democracy is designed to force compromises that no one necessarily loves but most can live with. However tempting it may seem to bypass what can be a very frustrating democratic process, it is a very bad idea. Rule by executive, administrative or judicial fiat by “our betters” that Plato longed for at this point has a storied history of backfiring in fashions ranging from the humorous to the absolutely horrific. In the case of Souter, acceptance at Georgetown cocktail parties must have been swell but things may have indeed worked out better if he had felt some sense of democratic duty to the people who elected George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis in a complete rout of an election. Why let a little thing like a mere election get in the way of acceptance into grandee society?
We must empower authorities, but keeping the ability to turn them out of office seems to work better than anything else we have come up with, even if they hadn’t quite figured it out entirely in ancient Athens. For interrupting my vitally important early 1980s activities like Robotron 2084 robot killing and Magnum PI rerun viewing with turgid and misguided baloney and worse still for inspiring would be technocratic ruling classes for well over two millennia, I nominate Plato for the Higgy, it is a shame he wasn’t James Madison.