Friday, November 04, 2011

Papandreou vs. Plato: Greece and Democracy

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is in a bad spot. Greece's economy is on the verge of collapse, France and Germany are offering to try to save it if Greece surrenders part of its national sovereignty to them, the Greek people are resentful that they are suffering and told they need to suffer more not believing that the suffering will do any good for them or the country, the opposition is calling for his resignation, and his own party is saying that they don't support him either. So Papandreou, finding himself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, damned if he goes along with the bailout and damned if he doesn't, decided to emulate Solon instead of Odysseus. He decided that if the people are unhappy with the bailout, let them say so and be responsible for the decision -- Greece would once again be the site of direct democracy. This is a matter that concerns the lives of all of the Greek people in a very direct way, so why shouldn't they have a direct voice in deciding the direction?

He received an unbelievable amount of pressure and condemnation for the move, so much that he backed off from the idea yesterday. You are the leader, lead. The people might vote it down, they do not know what is really in the best interest of the country and markets hate uncertainty. It is unacceptable, after all, to make markets suffer, only people. This is not something that should be democratically decided, it is too important.

Plato, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, would agree with this line. Plato was rabidly anti-democratic because he believed the people on average too stupid to rule. Macroeconomics is tricky, technical stuff. It isn't something most people understand. If you put this matter to a vote, a platonic line would go, there is absolutely no reason to believe that you would find yourself taking the most thoughtful, well-informed, rational course.

In this case, does Plato have a point? Was the proposed referendum a good idea? Should large decisions that have both major impact on a population and technical, complex elements be taken to the people or decided by a group of elites that may have been themselves selected by the people?