A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)

Plato argued that we can’t have a good lives without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, not take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist, not a scientifically illiterate politician. Since running the society is of the utmost importance, Plato believed it imperative that those holding political positions be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class.

Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result, because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations makes them more likely to be qualified to do their jobs than if they were chosen randomly or by a vote of the ignorant.

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she know nothing of medicine, but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You want those who practice to be qualified. And like Plato, I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant issues, in the same way one must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhDs) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting too, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge of the issues; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions I want someone who understand health care, the economy, the environment and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model of observing people for many years to assess their moral virtue, or we may prefer the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of to change our world is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

5 thoughts on “A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

  1. By coincidence, CGP Grey just released a video on his YouTube channel summarizing the thesis of a modern day revisiting of “The Prince,” called “The Dictator’s Handbook,” by Alastair Smith. Seems relevant to this post.

  2. This raises the vexing issue of the value of democracy in an increasingly complex society. We have all had the notion driven into our heads that democracy is the highest and best form of political structure. Yet the popularity of Mr. Trump provides compelling evidence that “the people” are idiots.

    Jefferson was a strong advocate for trusting the people, and he offered two key arguments. The first was that, however bad democracy was, it was always superior to the alternatives considered viable at the time: monarchy or aristocracy or some combination thereof. The second argument was that there would always be so many competing factions in a democracy that they would cancel out their worst elements and only the best policies would survive.

    This second argument was nullified by the two-party system. The fatal flaw of the two-party system is illustrated by the current election: a dangerous candidate who gets a plurality of the votes in primaries can end up winning the nomination, and party loyalty then gives him a real shot at winning the election. Given the obvious fact that a President Trump would be catastrophic for our republic, this system is far too dangerous.

    The presidential system we now use is clearly inferior to the parliamentary system used almost everywhere else. A parliamentary system permits the weirdo candidates to have their parties without disturbing the mainstream. Even so, current developments in European parliamentary systems demonstrate that even parliamentary systems are vulnerable to popular frenzies.

    I very much like Plato’s idea of the professionally trained politician. In Ms. Clinton we have a candidate who closely approximates that ideal — and the fact that she will almost surely win the election does provide some comfort regarding the wisdom of “the people”.

    Most of the changes necessary to reform our republic are politically impossible. But I can imagine one scheme that might help. Suppose that Congress created, funded, and selected staff for a “College of American Politics”. Although I would prefer that the faculty consist of faculty from accredited universities, perhaps we could make it more palatable by using retired members of Congress for faculty.

    Because the faculty would be selected by Congress, it would not be tainted in the minds of right-wing voters as just another ivory tower of leftist fanatics. Graduates of the college would then go through apprenticeships in low-level positions attached to various politicians. Eventually they could become candidates for office, using their school transcripts and evaluations as evidence of their competence. They could start at any level they choose: local, state, or federal. The more experienced graduates could also be candidates for appointed offices.

    The idea here is that somebody who has gone through this educational process would earn a bipartisan seal of approval that should provide an advantage in electoral campaigns. “Should”, of course, assumes that “the people” aren’t as idiotic as many have shown themselves to be this year.

  3. Doc, you are spot on, as usual, especially about women saving us, cause the data clearly suggests they will, thank Sagan. And thoughtful men need to thank them in diverse and and profound ways over the next decade or two (though we’ll surely forget, but perhaps they’ll remind us). However, I am astonished that you (of all people) have come off your own well laid rails: i.e., “balderdash”?!? Good Lord, man, what next? Have you mounted some sort of high-horse? As we say in the suburbs, “tut, tut, indeed.” That is, get a grip, sir. Before we start harumphing at you. And what not.

  4. Really didn’t mean anything by using balderdash. It just popped into my mind as a funny word. I don’t think I’ve ever used it in print before.

    But I do know what Mr. Hart means. I have corresponded with a few professional philosophers who are always saying things like “I’m meant to reply but alas …” And I always thought that was a bit pompous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *