Plato’s Republic vs. Democracy
Introduction In this era when individuals are questioning the legitimacy and wisdom of unregulated free markets, issues are raised about the most efficient form of economic activity and the best role for government in an economy. These issues have been discussed at many points in the past, and different societies have come to different conclusions regarding political and economic systems. In the United States, and many developed nations around the world, the view has often been that democracy accompanied by capitalism, offers the best, most efficient use of resources and governments guided by those principles assure the best outcomes for their populations. Other countries have adopted very different governing principles. Communist doctrine, as adopted by some nations, endorses the establishment of an egalitarian, classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production and property (Communism: The failure of an utopian system, 2008). The civilization is governed by an individual, or individuals, whose function is to ensure the efficiency of the society as a whole. As an ideal, the communist doctrine defines a just city as one that eliminates the need for its citizens to wish to exploit each other. History appears to indicate that in practice, however, the communist vision cannot be fulfilled since “absolute power (which is given to the leader) corrupts absolutely” (Martin, 2009). Human nature does not appear to manage total supremacy well.
When authorities are left unchallenged, their characters appear to be altered, inverting their true selves with alter egos incapable of putting the welfare of others before their own. History provides examples of autocrats who brought tragedy and devastation to the people that they governed. Many were appointed in an attempt to bring relief in times of turmoil, but ended up by using their political prowess to dictate and oppress. Adolf Hitler, once a social misfit, became one of history’s most infamous tyrants whose attainment of power spiraled from the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles (Hitler’s foreign policy, 2007). Against the backdrop of these various choices made by different nations throughout history, democracies have viewed the choice of that political system as obviously superior. Current events, however, once again raise questions about the optimal means of governance and the optimal form of economic activity that accompanies it. While the track record of ruling individuals, or classes, is somewhat spotty, the concept of a ruling elite finds a strong proponent in the philosopher Plato. While recognizing the fundamental flaw in humankind so clearly manifested in the “Hitlers” of the world, Plato believed in the appointment of one supreme guardian (the philosopher king), an individual, who with the proper education, was competent enough to decide on legislative policies. In Plato’s work The Republic, such a knowledgeable being determines the laws in the city. Plato believed that the philosopher king was incorruptible since his only desire was knowledge (his thirst for knowledge surmounting that of any vice). In spite of history’s lessons, is it plausible to believe that a society can be governed in such a manner? Or is democracy, “[where] the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Boyle, 2007), the ideal form of governance when the true nature of humankind is considered? Further, given the current and past crises arising out of capitalism accompanied by democracy, could it be true that democracy is no less flawed than those other forms of governance? Plato’s arguments, made so long ago, resonate in the current world in much the same way as they did when they first appeared. Times of crisis remind us of the need for ongoing review of the assumptions we 50
make regarding the best way to govern and the best way to manage those scarce resources available to us. Plato...
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