Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Republic

In our recent heated debate about partisan versus non-partisan methods to make the politics of failure work again I mentioned that Dr. Strangelove’s proposals seemed (at least to me) to be reminiscent of Plato’s Republic. I’m not trying to start another fight about Dr. Strangelove’s arguments. But I do think The Republic is an interesting subject for discussion. What follows is merely a brief introduction to The Republic and barely even that. I’m not a political theorist and I’m sure I’m leaving many important things out.

In The Republic, Plato lays out (through the hypothetical words of his mentor Socrates) his ideal form of government. Society will be divided into categories of people who will be bread by the state to be optimally adapted to their role in the society. Workers bred to work. Soldiers bred to fight. “Guardians” bred to rule. Guardians are the wisest in society, the ones who know what is best for the community.

“So the state founded on natural principles is wise as a whole in virtue of the knowledge inherent in its smallest constituent part or class, which exercises authority over the rest. And it appears further that the naturally smallest class is the one which is endowed with that form of knowledge which alone of all others deserves the title of wisdom.” (Part 5, Book 4, section 429).

The Guardians attain their rank by birth initially but must spend their childhoods passing tests and trials and must follow strict rules: Guardians own no private property. Guardians have no home or storehouse to which all shall not have access. Food shall be provided to them as an “agreed upon wage” for the Guardians.

And how would these Guardians be prevented from abusing their position? Plato advocates the creation of a state religion. “They must be told that they have no need of mortal and material gold and silver, because they have in their hearts the heavenly gold and silver given them by the gods as permanent possession, and it would be wicked to pollute the heavenly gold in their possession by mixing it with earthly, for theirs is without impurity, while the currency among men is a common source of wickedness.” (Part 4, Book 3, section 416e).

One might think that this merely a utopian speculation. But in Plato’s time, Greek states assumed many of the powers that he discusses. For example, Spartan children were taken over and raised by the state. Indeed, Plato’s form of government is based in part on Spartan principles. To Plato, this was a serious proposal of a practical form of government.

This approach to establishing good government was widely followed for nearly two thousand years. Macheivelli is part of that tradition, as are the advocates of the divine right of kings. In the 18th century a new approach arose based on individual preferences and laws. These philosophers (Locke, Jefferson, Madison etc) no longer think of selecting or creating the best possible types of governing elites. Instead they dream of creating institutions capable to getting the most out of who ever gains office. Which leads me to the Federalist Papers which I have posted about before and probably will again.

11 comments:

Dr. Strangelove said...

I've been pondering a good, meaty response to RbR's discussion of Plato, and I'm still putting it together. RbR's post was very interesting and provocative, in a good way. But in the meantime, I had a few random, amusing thoughts I thought I would share with you.

1. The Arabic name for Plato sounds like "ah-FLAY-toon," after which I always want to say, "Gesundheit." Incidentally, this switching of p<->f is the same reason why "Palestinian" and "Philistine" refers to the same people (as the American Heritage Dictionary notes in its "Word History" section, "It has never been good to be a Philistine.") Another fun fact is that Arafat's "Fatah" movement is not only a clever Arabic acronym (it literally means PLO), but it also is a verb meaning, "to open up," and, "to grant victory."

2. The Arabic language also includes the verb "FAL-sah-fah," which sounds uncannily like "falsify," but which actually means, "to be a philosopher." So one could say "FAL-sah-fah ah-FLAY-toon," and men in turbans would nod sagely with you.

3. Curiously, Arabic also has the verb "ta-FAL-sah-fah," which means, "to pretend to be a philosopher." Thus, given Arabic prefixes and suffixes, this means Arabic may be the only language in the world in which one can exclaim, "You're just pretending to be a philosopher!" with a single word: Ta-ta-FAL-sa-foo!

So remember this. It may come in handy some day :)

Raised By Republicans said...

One of my favorite political science professors in under grad was a Korean guy named Chong Do Ha. He used to interrupt his lectures and give little asides much along the lines of this Arabic ta-ta diversion preceded by, "You don't need this for the exam but it'll make you hot shit at a cocktail party." Despite these little jokes a lot of students were more than a little afraid of the guy.

On an aside from the aside...another professor (Taylor, the Classics professor) used to love to immitate Ha's Korean accent. One day we had a fire drill in Main Hall and we all poured out and waited. Then behind the crowd of students we heard "You lazy students! Is no fire! Is only drill! Now get back in there and work!" Half the students jumped out of their shoes and the other half looked ready to run into the burning building rather than face the wrath of Ha. I turned around and Ha was doubled over laughing himself silly while Taylor looked like the cat that ate the canary.

Another aside from the aside, .... Taylor's trade mark was a lecture he would give to rich alumnai at fund raisers. It was based on Plato's Republic (required reading for all students at my college) but told in the format of beer-keg softball. Its a kind of Wisconsin intellectual elite thing.

Dr. Strangelove said...

[This turned into more of a rant than it should have been. Well, I'd tidy it up more but I'm just darned tired of editing it. So here goes.] When I read RbR's description of Plato's Republic, I was struck by the lack of some basic principles most Americans take for granted: (a) that all people are created equal, and (b) that one of the most important functions of the State should be to guarantee individual freedoms. By choosing people at birth for a profession, and by dictating a rigid social order, the Republic violates these principles.

But how much do we really believe these principles? How different is our society from Plato’s Republic? I’ll begin by arguing that despite the lip service we pay to these principles in public, in private we don't always believe them. Then I’ll describe how our society deviates from these principles. [Please withhold comments on the following claiming that I have sophomorically confused the words “same” and “equal.” I am well aware of the difference, and I’m making a subtler point.]

Most of us believe that some people are just born smarter, stronger, or more beautiful than others (or to be more precise, that certain other people are dumber, weaker, and uglier than ourselves). And furthermore we believe it is acceptable, perhaps even desirable, to treat people unequally: thus it is acceptable to build extra bathrooms for women but not for men; or to require a second airline seat for fat people; or to give “gifted” or talented people better education in certain subjects; or to deny admission to colleges based on examinations which are—how shall I put this—biased toward intelligent people; or even to hire only beautiful, younger people to work in strip clubs.

In other words, we all agree that no two people are equal in any way we can measure, and most of us agree that it is fine to treat people differently in every way we can measure. The wonderful phrase that “all people are created equal” must therefore be an unverifiable statement (hardly “self-evident.”) Without resorting to such metaphysics, I believe what we are trying to say is that “unequal treatment of individuals may only be based on specific, relevant, and measurable inequalities between the individuals themselves.” In other words, you may discriminate by age or gender or anything you like provided that the differences are relevant. What you may not do is give anyone special treatment because of who their parents were, or an unverifiable claim about “better” blood, or how much wealth they can command—nor can you deny anyone standard treatment based on an irrelevant characteristic, such as refusing to hire older people even though they demonstrably can do the job just as well as younger people.

So anyhow, when I read, “Workers are bred for working and Guardians are bred to be Guardians,” I see that if we just replace the words “bred for” with “educated for,” then it’s really not too far from how we do things. Because though we all have choices in theory, in reality we all know that our class and our educational system peg most people to a fixed rung on the capitalist ladder rather early on. To be blunt about it, if you’re born rich and smart, odds are much better that you’ll be a white collar professional than if you’re born poor and stupid. We all love rags-to-riches stories of social mobility, but we also know that these stories are celebrated because they are rare. The only sin Plato committed was to eliminate the small chance of social mobility and to assume one could figure out who was optimally suited for (say) playing sports based on their parents. We now know that’s only mostly true :-)

As for our love of individual freedom, most of us actually value conformity to social norms behavior more than we'd like to admit, and are happy to use social pressure or regulations to get others to behave "properly." As an example, imagine going to work shirtless sometime--or in some cases, try just leaving your tie at home. Peer pressure, possibly internalized into a sense of how you "should" dress, perhaps also a strong dose of puritanical shame for forcing others to view your torso, and likely also a coercive company policy, will soon make you surrender this individual choice--and most of us would probably feel that is quite appropriate. (If that example isn't convncing, try not mowing your lawn in Irvine.) And by the way, I strongly suspect most of us would secretly love to have power over other people; it's the reverse we hate.

So the idea that Workers must live a certain way and Guardians may only live another way is not terribly far from our notions of which restaurants one may go to, how blue-collar people and white-collar people should dress, the idea that if you don't have a full-time job you're a loser, etc. There are strong societal expectations everywhere and these are different depending on the class or category of worker you belong to. And most of us think this is acceptable, even if some of us feel it is regrettable. The only sin Plato committed was to think that social expectations—which after all are strong enough to make a man sit through a three-hour seminar in exquisite abdominal pain rather than disturb the audience by leaving the room or simply relieve himself publicly—were capable of convincing people to behave altruistically. I think Marx made the same mistake. Come to think of it, so did Jesus.

Koala Boy said...

My brain hurts.

Raised By Republicans said...

"lack of some basic principles most Americans take for granted: (a) that all people are created equal, and (b) that one of the most important functions of the State should be to guarantee individual freedoms. By choosing people at birth for a profession, and by dictating a rigid social order, the Republic violates these principles."

Yes. Plato didn't really believe in any of those things. To Plato the top priority was a "just" government and an efficient government. If memory serves, Plato defines justice as "doing what pleases the gods." So he basically punts on the issue.

Plato was writing in Athens after its classical democratic regime had been defeated by the quasi oligarhical monarchy Sparta (I think they had two "kings" who ruled jointly but absolutely). So things like equality and individual freedoms were seen partly in light of having been defeated in war (so they must be less efficient, right?).

"To be blunt about it, if you’re born rich and smart, odds are much better that you’ll be a white collar professional than if you’re born poor and stupid."

I'd go further and say that if you're born rich and stupid odds are better that you'll be a white collar professional than if you're born poor and smart. Its not an absolute thing but probability is not on the side of the poor in our society. In a real sense that's a big part of how we define poverty but perhaps that's a subject for a different conversation.

That said, I think American social mobility is far better than most societies in history or in the world currently. American social class is certainly more flexible than in Plato's world. No body has their children conficiscated by the state for example. The percentage of people going to college increases all the time. Access to education at all levels is very broad. And while things are certainly worsening in the last few years, access to education is generally better than it was 50 or 100 years ago. So I'm not sure its fair to say that modern western society is really so strict and "Plutocratic" as the one envisioned by Plato.

"The only sin Plato committed was to think that social expectations—which after all are strong enough to make a man sit through a three-hour seminar in exquisite abdominal pain rather than disturb the audience by leaving the room or simply relieve himself publicly—were capable of convincing people to behave altruistically. I think Marx made the same mistake. Come to think of it, so did Jesus."

The mistake Plato made was "I know most of my friends are good people and like to do good for society and do what is expected of them etc, therefore social expectations must be a good basis for government."

The problem with that is that even strong social expectations have a high failure rate (a failure rate which is probably disproportionately high among the politically ambitious). And absent any other contraint on behavior, failure of leaders to conform to social expectations of ethical behavior has disasterous implications.

The Federalist Papers often make the argument that they aren't trying to avoid failures of ethical behavior by leaders (which they see as part of the variety of human nature etc) but to mitigate the damaging effects of those failures by imposing institutional constraints.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"The problem with that is that even strong social expectations have a high failure rate (a failure rate which is probably disproportionately high among the politically ambitious). And absent any other contraint on behavior, failure of leaders to conform to social expectations of ethical behavior has disasterous implications."

There's nothing a good, old-fashioned shunning can't fix :)

But seriously, I agree with you. You've made the point several times and I haven't acknowledged it yet: the biggest problem with relying solely on social expectations of good behavior is that when things DO go bad, they really go bad. No doubt that is the essence of why Congress was designed so it could do almost nothing at all.

The Law Talking Guy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Law Talking Guy said...

Judge Learned Hand famously wrote, "I should not like to be governed by a bevy of Platonic guardians, even if I knew how to choose them."

Dr. Strangelove said...

He also wrote, "A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few." And also, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right..."

What a quotable guy. And you gotta love the name.

online2u said...

Free Online Mortage Quote!

Call Center said...

Hi just surfing and discoverd your blog. Very nice. If you are a marketer looking for big savings in advertising regarding mortgage leads, you may want to visitmortgage leads at http://www.pennypercall.com. Thanks.