Plato Got It Right. Tyranny is a Product of Extreme Inequality and Plutocratic Oligarchy

Does democracy inherently lead to tyranny?

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By Jag Bhalla

rebeccaAs readers will know, I’m a fan of co-thinking, so it’s a great pleasure to start a diablog* with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. RNG is a philosopher, novelist, certified MacArthur “genius,” winner of a National Humanities Medal, and likely the closest we can get to Plato being alive in our midst (see Plato at the Googleplex, which wonderfully images what would happen if Plato had to go on a contemporary book tour).

But, to the business:

JB: We’re “too democratic,” declares Andrew Sullivan, while invoking Plato to explain Donald Trump’s rise. Is Sullivan right that Plato feared too much democracy, worrying it led to tyranny?

RNG: Plato is very relevant, but Sullivan is very wrong about why. He takes Plato’s dim view of democracy out of context, draws the wrong lessons, and fatally misunderstands what Plato means by “elite.”

JB: What was Plato really worried about?

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RNG: Sullivan argues that Plato believed democracy was inherently dangerous, so “hyperdemocracy,” which weakens the power of the elites, is even more perilous. Our Founders, who studied their Plato, constructed our democracy so as to insert the power of the elites as a brake on mob rule. Extending voting “far beyond propertied white men,” risked “mobocracy.” But the elite’s safeguarding role has withered, and we’re poised to play out Plato’s dire prediction—democracy begets tyranny. Behold Trump.

JB: Haven’t democracies elected dictators? Perhaps sometimes with “rational” motives (undermining unjust elites)? John Adams feared“Democracy never lasts long… it soon… murders itself.”

RNG: They have, but facing that danger in democracy is different from claiming that the natural path of democracy is towards tyranny. Context is paramount. Plato makes these claims during a real downer of a discussion, a plunge into political fatalism made all the more depressing by Plato’s having just laid out a blueprint for his ideal state—The Republic—an aristocracy in its original sense, namely rule by the best, the most virtuous citizens (from arête), who, schooled in philosophy, are single-mindedly devoted to the common good. In Plato’s eyes, they alone qualify as elites, and alone can be trusted with power (precisely because they don’t want it. That’s what an education in philosophy is supposed to do to you).

JB: Indeed, “republic” literally means “public interest,” and aristocracy only got its hereditary sense ~1570s. But few now see philosophy as a qualification for leadership.

RNG: More’s the pity. In any case, the qualification of “propertied white males” is a grotesque distortion of what Plato had in mind. His elites aren’t even permitted to own private property, a disincentive to those who seek power for the wrong reasons.

JB: Interesting fix for tricky, ever-present leadership motivation problems. Those whose leaders are public-spirited (vs. greedily, self-interestedly ambitious) are fortunate.

RNG: Plato was not a hopeful guy and, immediately after imagining his ideal state, he describes its downfall. In his descending determinism of decline, the rule of “lovers of virtue” (aristocracy, in original sense) yields to those who love honor and personal status (timocracy), then those who love wealth (plutocracy), then to democracy, followed by tyranny (worst of all).

JB: Tyranny meaning any rule “not for the good of those under it.” Many forget the first listed justification for American Independence was “the public good.”

RNG: The only kind of democracy that Plato forecasts will inevitably evolve into tyranny is itself evolved from plutocracy. In this scenario, injustice is already built into the fabric of society. Severe inequities mean that there are, in effect, two separate city-states—that of the rich and that of the poor, “at war” with one another.

JB: Short of “war,” economic changes are worsening rich vs poor “tensions.”

RNG: The degraded denizens of the city of the poor rise up in fury. Ideas of justice have long been forgotten in the long decline from the republic that, for Plato, offered the very definition of justice. It’s only this kind of democracy, driven by the swoon-inducing, wealth-worshipping values of a plutocratic oligarchy, that Plato predicts will beget tyranny. A canny politician will read the desires for material gain with cunning accuracy, since he’s in thrall to the very same desires, and, unimpeded by any inconvenient scruples, he’ll promise the people everything. Perhaps he’ll offer to teach them the art of the deal.

JB: Dealing with mass anger has one billionaire, Nick Hanauer, afraid the “pitchforks are coming” to their gleaming gated communities.

RNG: So yes, there are unsettling analogies between the Trump phenomenon and Plato’s darkest views about democracy (The Republic Book VIII). But one doesn’t get at the accurate analogies by going on about “too much democracy,” while ignoring the economic inequalities that generate Plato’s pessimism. Plato’s relevance is nothing to do with dreaming of restoring an “elite” such as once ruled America, defined by race, gender, class, and wealth. Those men had about as much in common with Plato’s trustworthy elites as Trump University has with Plato’s Academy.

JB: Ha! You’ve summarized Plato’s position in five words—“The perfect state defines justice.” Visible fairness and justice are needed by any state, no matter how imperfect, to avoid Adams’ feared—“soon… murders itself”—fate. Perceived inequalities matter (see Meritocracy Within Democracy).


*Footnote: A diablog is a dialog on a blog, designed to encourage co-thinking while countering one-sidedness. Good dialogs are rare in life, rarer still online. Debates abound, but they’re usually framed as combat, the goal is for your side to win. Better results come from building not battling (assembling from materials that include the best ideas of others). To get past your own biases and limits usually means working with those who have different biases.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

Cross-posted here.

2016 July 7

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  • Duncan Cairncross

    So the “hypothesis” is that “Democracy leads to Tyranny”

    We have up to 4000 years of history over about 200 nations – lets have a look at that prediction

    I can think of many occasions where democracies have been conquered from outside
    Or subverted by the aristocracy or plutocracy

    But I’m damned if I can think of any occasions where Democracy has led to Tyranny
    There must be some
    But it does not appear to be a very common occurrence – certainly NOT a “rule”

    • Derryl Hermanutz

      Rome’s law-bound Republican Senate began as an oligarchy (democracy among the owning/ruling class) then devolved into a plutocracy (rule by owners) then an Empire ruled by an Emperor.

      After 10 years of The Terror, and a brief democratic Republic, post-Revolutionary France fell under the “tyranny” of one-man rule: Emperor Napoleon. “Tyranny” literally means rule by one man. Plato was imprisoned by “the tyrant of Syracuse” — the man who ruled Syracuse; when Plato and the tyrant’s son tried to implement Plato’s Republic in that City-State.

      There can be benevolent tyrannies, if the ruler is wise and beneficent. In ancient Greece, when a catastrophe threatened the City-State and democracy proved incapable of agreeing on how to address it, they appointed a “dictator” who was given broad powers to do whatever he could think of to avert or alleviate the catastrophe.

      The whole Taoist/Confucian school of political philosophy is based on something like Plato’s philosopher-kings: rule by a morally and technically educated class who possess the aptitude to implement The Mandate of Heaven — harmonious society. Individual ego and ambition is subordinated to the social good of the whole body. Plato’s philosopher-kings lacked the ego and ambition to “want” power, which is the moral aptitude that suits them to “wield” power for the public good.

      Hayek’s Road to Serfdom observes that “the wrong kind” of people want power: people driven by ego, greed, ambition to impose their will, the hubris to believe they are wise enough to know what is in “everybody’s” best interest. But Hayek myopically limitied his critique to “political” power, and ignored equally egregious financial, economic, military and other forms of power.

      The idea of democracy and individual liberty and economic free markets is that people act as “individuals” — not as corporate bodies ruled by a single person’s brain or a small governing or managing elite’s brain. Nobody has “power”, except over their own lives and actions. As soon as some people have power over other people’s lives and livelihoods, you have “rulers”. Then the fate of the whole corporate body depends on the moral character and the governing skill of the rulers. And rulers tend toward ego, hubris, greed, and self-serving.

      • Duncan Cairncross

        I do not accept either the Roman empire or Revolutionary France as examples of “Democracy leads to Tyranny”

        In the Roman case an aristocracy fell into tyranny

        In the case of France it was much more an anarchy that fell into tyranny

    • Jan de Jonge

      Hitler was elected on March 5 in 1933. These were the last elections in the short existence of the Weimar republic.

      • Duncan Cairncross

        Hitler was close – a possible example although he was initially a tool of (and elected by their money) the Junker aristocracy

        That could be ONE example – after a democracy was ravaged by outside forces it slipped into tyranny

        • Jan de Jonge

          Duncan. Hitler could count on a large range of support. Determining perhaps was the support of the army. Many officers were Junkers. But from this same aristocracy came the attempts to assassinate him in 1944.

  • We possibly agree that trial and error, varied experimentation and ’empirical feedback’ are important elements in dealing with complex, uncertain situations. Democracy tries to use at least varied experiences, opinions, i.e. perspectives, into a weighted, more differentiated decision making. However, the quality of perspectives and the acceptance of different opinions in stressful situations matters.

    The social and political system is today less good in accepting the self-reflective, critical examination of one’s own (and others’) opinions as well as accepting uncertainty as part of an ‘open future’. This seems based in a loss of critical, liberal traditions of education and the psychology of deciding under stress.

    I hold Plato and his worlview partly responsible for this. There is neither an ideal state of affairs (but a lot of conflicting tradeoffs), nor is an elitist ruling class (however ethically ‘good’ it may be), associated with a strong and exclusive hierarchical structuring of society well suited to process and evaluate complex, contradicting information, as it limits the inputs into decision-making through filtering based on pre-conceptions, education, and traditions.

    The history of the recent events leading to calls for more autoritary, autocratic, simplistic models of guru leader type decision-making shows the failure of established ‘elites’ to lead by providing a vision of where to go and how to go there in an inclusive way that cares about the concerns of the varied interests of the constituency, the people.