Friday, November 18, 2011

Plato's Revenge

Plato smiles as the elected prime ministers of Greece and Italy are replaced with technocrats from global financial institutions. Plato argued that political power should reside with specially trained experts he called philosopher-kings, or in today’s case, economist-kings. This system – ironically developed in Greece and implemented in Italy – is flawed, but presents insights that remain prescient in this time of great turmoil.

On a ship full of sailors, Plato argued, each one will think himself most qualified to be captain. But the one who takes the wheel will not be the person most able to account for the complexities of wind and weather, most schooled in reading the intricate maps and star charts, but rather will be the one who knows how best to exploit the weaknesses and insecurities of the other crew members. Getting elected does not make you qualified for the office. Virtues for effective candidates may be vices for effective leaders.

The troubles with many of the teetering economies (and perhaps not only those in Europe) arose in part from unsustainable structures within the political systems. But austerity of any degree is a tricky sell because it does mean real human suffering. Even when populations acknowledge the need, they will almost universally be unwilling to elect people to do the difficult and painful work. As a teacher, I know how much students cheer the cancelling of a class or assignment. They know that doing the work benefits them, yet they prefer to avoid it. Given the opportunity, the majority will vote for more recess almost every time.

But this does not mean that the people assigning the work or demanding the austerity are necessarily the adults in the room. Plato’s republic was notable for a feature that we see in no contemporary political system, an absolute barrier between wealth and power. Those who seek enrichment are encouraged to do so. Become as rich as you can, have as much as you want; just be aware that you will have no role whatsoever in governance. The merchants will have no power and rulers will possess no property and accumulate no wealth.

But when we look at those who are installing the new leaders in Europe they are not only the ones whose risky investments kicked off the current crisis, but also those who are benefiting most and sacrificing least from the proposed way out. The concern was whether the markets would react favorably to the replacement of Greece’s Papandreou and Italy’s Berlusconi. “The market is demanding seven percent interest on bonds,” we were told and that requires bold action to avoid a bailout. It is the market whose wisdom is being put above that of the people.

Plato dismissed the rationality of the populace, but he also knew firsthand that oligarchies lead to injustice. Giving influence to a small group of wealthy citizens will result in a swelling the ranks of the poor who will become increasingly impoverished. Excess and consumption will be mistaken for ethical superiority. The poor will become beggars, thieves, or thugs with the rich expressing more and more need to repress them, lest they rise up.

In Plato’s time, leaders of the Athenian democracy were replaced by the thirty tyrants, a group that ruled over the citizens of Athens, only 3000 of whom were given legal recognition making the oligarchs quite literally the 1%. Combining the hording of wealth with the accumulation of power results in the suppression of human flourishing, as the classical Greeks witnessed.

While Plato’s sentiments are being echoed nationwide from those in the Occupy movement, he would be equally scornful of their radically democratic approach. So, if we cannot look to the markets or the majority to select the appropriate leaders and we dismiss the possibility of breeding them according to Plato’s vision of political eugenics, where do we find them? Who are the experts we can trust to find us the experts we should trust? Where are the wise and moral leaders we need at this time who can avoid both the perils of popularity and the financial interests of the financially interested? Are Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti the right people to save Greece, Italy, the European Union and the world economy? That’s an empirical question, the sort philosophers have a long history of answering badly. We can only hope that as they walk down into the cave in which the world financial system dwells, that they have indeed basked in the sunlight of the Form of the Good.