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Trust the People

by Rick Lewis

“Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No-one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried.” (Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 11th November 1947)

This must surely be democracy’s golden age. Across Eastern Europe, South America and much of Africa, ex-dictators cool their heels in jail or in peaceful retirement while colourful diversities of parties and politicians vie exuberantly for votes. Now is the winter of our discontent turned into glorious summer by these sons of Locke! What better time to take a critical look at the nature of democracy? Several articles and a book review in this issue do just that. We kick off with a piece by Stuart Greenstreet, reminding us of Plato’s critique of democracy. To put you out of your suspense, I’ll tell you straight away that the co-founder of Western philosophy was not a democrat (sorry) and that he criticised democracy in his greatest work, the Republic. Greenstreet argues on Platonic lines that the inherent nature of democracy mean that we will never tackle global warming in time, and that consequently, we’re all going to fry.

The following piece, by Paul Gregory, is not anti-democratic but is an attempt to point out some serious flaws in the way democracy generally operates at present, and to suggest a radical way of overcoming those flaws. Gregory is a reformer; he wants to make democracy work better both in the sense of generating better decisions, and in the sense of ensuring that those decisions better reflect the views of the voters. His proposals may or may not be practical, but I think they are at least worth seriously considering.

If we consider Plato’s point that the voters in a democratic system are bribable, susceptible to flattery and unqualified to judge between the competing politicians, I would say (a) that it isn’t completely true and (b) even if it was true, the alternatives are much worse. Plato thought that either philosophers must become kings or kings must become philosophers, but the emergence of any true philosopher kings by either route seems unlikely. And even if there was any prospect of philosophers ruling, the disagreements between philosophers are such that it seems hard to imagine that the best decisions would necessarily result.

Of course, there have been a few notable examples of philosophers-turned-politician, including Confucius, Balfour, a recent Mayor of Venice and Rudolph Giulliani. However, Plato’s own attempt to bring philosophy to bear on the practical problems of running a state, as advisor to King Dionysus of Sicily, ended with him being sold into slavery, which some might regard as a bad omen.

Besides, if we did entrust the management of the state to philosophy, and philosophers became enmeshed in the web of daily problems, messy compromises, pork-barrel politics and so forth, then what effect would that have on philosophy itself? After watching the first atom bomb test, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer commented sadly “We have killed a beautiful subject.” If involvement in weapon-making could tarnish the innocent beauty of physics, might involvement in practical politics kill the beauty of philosophy?

Maybe all of this is taking Plato too literally. He said that the state should be run by experts, who have studied the problems involved. In his day, that may have meant philosophers. In ours, it might simply mean economists, people who have studied administration and so on. If so, it could be that Plato would have approved of the system that the French have, whereby special colleges such as the École Normale Supérieure train an elite from which are drawn most of the top politicians and civil servants. The voters are thus selecting mainly from a pool of experts. In principle this sounds good, but the results don’t seem markedly better than those elsewhere in terms of good administration or the avoidance of corruption, and in addition many complain about the remoteness and arrogant paternalism of the elite.

Perhaps the best alternative (or the least bad, as Churchill would have put it) is to trust the people. Not because all the people are always worthy of trust, but because trusting them usually has better practical consequences than not trusting them. In addition, there is surely a moral right to participate in making the decisions that affect one’s own life. If that right wasn’t granted, it would be hard to see why we should cooperate with the state at all.

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