Uncommon Common Sense – February 2016

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Was Plato Right?


Bill Frayer 2010I was watching Donald Trump on television the other day and I thought of my philosophy class in college when we read Plato’s Republic. I remember being surprised and skeptical when Plato suggested that democracy was a governmental system that would never work.

As I grimaced while Donald Trump reminded us how far ahead in the polls he was, I realized that Plato may have been right, at least to a degree. His argument was that if major decisions were left to the people, they would not be able to reach quality conclusions.  He argued that money would unduly influence how people voted, as what was good for society might require economic sacrifice on the part of the wealthy. He also surmised that people would vote on the basis of emotion, not reason. His warnings sound quite prescient today. 

Unfortunately, Plato’s solution was not very plausible: a guardian king.  He thought a very intelligent man, who had divested himself of all property and was provided with a secure life, could be proclaimed the guardian of society. He would be able to rule without conflict and would act for the good of society as a whole. It was a utopian plan and, like all utopian plans, would not work. So, here we are, left with our democratic republic. 

To be fair, our system has worked rather well over history and has some clear advantages over fascist dictatorships, enlightened monarchies, communism, and sharia law. Nevertheless, we are now seeing some serious problems. Plato was right about the influence of money, and he was unfortunately correct about people making emotional decisions. The Donald Trump phenomenon is fed by anger and fear. Many Republican voters are angered by immigration and fearful of terrorism. Like right-wing nativists across the world, Trump is popular because he appears strong and decisive and wants to protect Americans from Muslims, Mexicans, and any other foreign influence. He will likely not be elected president, but his presence and popularity trivializes the important decisions that lie ahead. 

So is our system of government in trouble? Are we capable of making the difficult, painful decisions that face us in the 21st century? Will politics continue to be dominated by the wealthy few? As resources become scarce and as more people migrate to escape unlivable conditions, will Western nations be as generous as Angela Merckel has been in Germany? I wouldn’t count on it. Nobody minds being generous when it’s easy, when there is plenty to go around. The real test is how will Western democracies react when helping those less fortunate requires real sacrifice like agreeing to an overall lower standard of living? 

I agree with Churchill in his famous observation that democracy is a bad form of government until we compare it with all the other options. Democratic countries have faced tremendous challenges, even existential threats, and survived. The concept of self-government is inarguably sound. But as we face planetary crises like climate change, severe water shortages, and violent religious zealotry, will we be able to find our way to rational, effective action?

Because there are no other plausible systems that seem better positioned to be effective, we are likely to maintain our democratic republicanism. Yet, contemporary challenges will require leaders who are able to convince the public at large that sacrifice by those who can afford to sacrifice will be required for the good of the entire planet. Trump is clearly not that kind of leader. He will likely join the ranks of other failed demagogues.  But who will step forward to save liberal democracy? Stay tuned.

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