Monday, August 22, 2005

The ghost of Plato

Over at Marginal Revolution, Robin Hanson approvingly quoted this section of Plato's Protagoras:

Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; when the question is one of shipbuilding, then the ship-wrights; and the like of other arts which they think capable of being taught and learned. And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh and hoot at him, until either he is clamoured down and retires of himself; or if he persist, he is dragged away or put out by the constables at the command of the prytanes. This is their way of behaving about professors of the arts. But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say-carpenter, tinker, cobbler, sailor, passenger; rich and poor, high and low - any one who likes gets up, and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught.

Plato later built on this idea in The Republic to argue that rulership was a skill like any other, and that therefore we should be governed by experts. And he's been quoted approvingly by those who imagine themselves to be experts ever since. The problem is that this fundamentally misconstrues the nature of politics - politics isn't about finding the best solution to a predetermined goal, it's about deciding what that goal is. It's about ends rather than means, interests rather than management. The reason everybody is free to have a say is because everybody has interests, and nobody is qualified in any way to decide for others what those interests ought to be.


True, but not just that. In many fields, the novice is the most likely to observe when the emperor has no clothes.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/22/2005 02:29:00 PM

I still think you're quite fundamentally mistaken about this. The State does have a pre-set goal, and that is enabling humanity through the promotion of substantive freedom.

Contrary to your illiberal suggestion, the proper end of government is not decided by popular vote. If the mob decides that it wants to oppress a minority, that is not a legitimate end.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: rank populism is not liberalism.

So which do you really care about?

Posted by Richard Y Chappell : 8/22/2005 08:52:00 PM

I care about human freedom - which is precisely why I oppose the Platonic idea of rule by experts. That's not just about establishing a liberal framework (which you can get simply from consistency arguments - or alternatively, a balance of terror); it's about forcing people to be free in its very worst sense.

Democracy is a long way from a perfect system for resolving conflicts between people's interests - but it's a damn sight better than what Plato was advocating, and his modern day disciples continue to advocate.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/22/2005 09:48:00 PM

*shrug* It's an empirical question what form of government will best achieve the desired goal of liberalism. I think the answer is probably some form of democracy similar to our own. So democracy has instrumental value in this respect. But that's a very different argument from the 'populist' one you make in the main post.

There is no strictly logical connection between civil freedom and political power, as explained in my linked posts. By conflating these two, you end up making a completely illogical argument. Here it is made explicit:

1. No-one else should have power over us. [liberalism]

C. We should have power over others. [democracy]

It's just bad reasoning.

Now, if you meant instead to defend democracy on instrumental grounds, that's fine -- I'm with you there. I just wanted to point out that there's a blatant contradiction between your liberal foundation ("nobody is qualified in any way to decide for others what those interests ought to be") and populist sentiments ("politics isn't about finding the best solution to a predetermined goal, it's about deciding what that goal is"). If you wish to retract the latter, that's fine by me :)

Posted by Richard Y Chappell : 8/22/2005 11:00:00 PM

I'm not trying to argue that democracy is unlimited - as a liberal, I think that there are areas the state has no damn business interfering in. But I'd also argue that the same respect for autonomy and equality that demand that we leave people free to follow their own interests also support democratic decision making in pursuing collective projects (from a school play to the state) - and count against Platonic expert rulership.

As for my "populist sentiment", I agree that the state ought to enable humanity - but that goal is rather "thin", and allows for wide scope for other goals as well. "Enabling humanity" for example doesn't tell us whether we should seek alliance with the Persians or send an expedition to Syracuse. It doesn't tell us whether we should fund a symphony orchestra or pursue a sustainable environmental policy. Liberalism is only a basic framework - not an all-encompassing solution (despite what the Libz think). And that's not even getting into the question of multiple acceptable liberalisms...

In your post, you say that the freedom to make mistakes in the private spehere does not extend to imposing those mistakes on the rest of society through the use of political power. But what constitutes a mistake is radically underdetermined and thoroughly contestable. Are National's tax policies a mistake? Are Labour's? What about the Kyoto protocol, the anti-nuclear policy, free trade with China? The only way we're going to find answers to any of these questions is the hard one.

At best, all we can say is that we should respect people's freedom. Everything else, though, is up for grabs. The goals aren't predetermined; it's up to us to decide them.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/23/2005 01:24:00 AM

No matter how difficult it is to discern in practice, presumably there is some fact of the matter as to which policies would have the best consequences, so far as increasing people's real opportunities in life are concerned. These facts determine the goal of good government.

We only get to (legitimately) decide on our individual goals. The collective goal is set: do what is best for all those individuals. If, in fact, tax cuts would have the best consequences (in terms of real freedom, etc.), then we are simply mistaken to oppose them. Even if 90% of the country opposed them, they would simply be wrong about what the government ought to be doing.

If the majority decides on a course of action that will decrease the real opportunities available to people, that does not make their choice the best or correct one. The goal is not "up for grabs". What we are (or should be) arguing about is how to achieve it.

(Though I do have some sympathy for collective projects. I'll have to think more about where their value fits in. Engagement in such activities might be one of the individual goals that make our lives more worthwhile. In which case, it would then be promoted as one of the "opportunities" for individuals mentioned above.)

Posted by Richard Y Chappell : 8/23/2005 11:35:00 AM

I think politics does decide what the goal is but one can choose "experts" who are both better at facilitating this and better at determining the policies that will achieve those goals (particularly where the public wants contradictory goals - which is usually the case).

Means without regard to ends is as bad as ends without regards to the means - worse in my oppinion. Rather like saying we should burn all the carbon on earth because it represents freedom.

the problem is how we are defining expert. I dont just want the guy with the highest IQ I want the people with the traits that are the means to the ends of creating good policy. Some of this is personality or morality etc.

I may or may not be able to pick that person, but there must be a system where I can achieve a better way of deciding who is an expert or who can pick the expert or even just determine the information I need to pick them.

There are too many examples in history of the public basically voting to do the wrong thing or not having the fortitude to do the right thing anyway.

Posted by Genius : 8/26/2005 09:01:00 PM