The Case for Philosopher-Kings

Aren’t we in a pickle now.

I mean seriously.  There’s no probable outcome of the November elections that looks good for the United States.  Jill Stein, the only candidate with anything resembling a humane platform, is polling at two percent.  This might be because the media are kind of ignoring her the way they did Bernie, or it’s maybe because polls are actively excluding millennials from participating, but either way it doesn’t look good.  Meanwhile, Drumpf and Her Majesty the Queen-Pretender are in a dead heat, so if you ignore the fact that he’s working for her then it looks like it could go either way, and each of them is somehow worse than the other.

Then there’s the down-ticket races.  Berniecrats managed to do pretty well but the House isn’t going to flip thanks to all the gerrymandering.  Dems might win the Senate back, which would be nice, but state and local governments are still going to stay largely in the red.  For all our revolutionary fervor, in 2016 the machine is going to plod along as it always has.  Corrupt crony corporatists are going to get themselves into office and pass legislation that favors the rich, we’re going to keep treating non-whites in the US and around the world as slave labor, we’re going to keep extracting fossil fuels from the ground, we’re going to keep bombing the Middle East…

Basically all we’re deciding in November is whether or not women and gays get to keep being people.  An important question, to be sure.  But somehow I find myself unimpressed that this is what we’ve been reduced to — will we be Diet Evil, or full-flavor Evil Classic?

Smarter men than I have pointed out that we’re in one of democracy’s hidden failure modes — the corrupt have grabbed hold of the system in such a way that renders it all but impossible for the system to be seriously challenged.  In order to be elected, you need the support of a major party and major donors.  Said party and donors are not going to support you unless you’ve shown you can be counted upon to play ball.  While the occasional pretender from the unwashed masses is able to make inroads, it’s a rare thing — and Bernie is only going to live so much longer.

The problem with letting the hoi polloi participate in the political process is that people are stupid.  We’re lazy, we’re uninformed, we’re easily manipulated, we’re subject to confirmation bias, and we only have the emotional bandwidth to specifically care about a hundred or so other people.  These characteristics, entertaining as they may be, are incompatible with the governance of a nation of three hundred million and 3.8 million square miles.  It doesn’t help that this era’s unprecedented access to information has actually made the problem worse.  Once upon a time, twenty or thirty years ago, you had the papers and the evening news, and that was all you had to follow (indeed, it was all you could follow) to stay informed.  Now there is a news source tailored for every political preference, and who gives a damn how factual they are as long as they feel true.

(This is true of the left as well as the right, by the way — the left have just as much a tendency to fall down the rabbit hole of pseudoscientific conspiracy theories as the right does, and it’s just as harmful.  And really, who among us takes the time to properly vet our news sources?  I certainly don’t have the time or attention span to cross-reference every article I read; the best I can do is identify sources that seem to have it together and proceed from there, but that’s a process that’s more laden with confirmation bias than a psychic calculating their success rate.)

Perhaps it was once possible, back in the days of the Athenians, to have an informed, educated populace running things.  Perhaps it was possible to maintain a career and also have time to keep abreast of current events and issues.  Of course, in Greece, news traveled on foot and the citizens of Athens had slaves to help them maintain their careers, so there would have been both less to learn and more free time to learn it in.  These days?  Fuggeddaboutit.

People have proven that they will not meet their civic responsibilities.  We need a better solution.  Fortunately, Plato offers one.

If you’ve read the Republic you’ll know about the myth of the metals.  I’m not going to go into detail about it here, but suffice it to say that Plato identified the ideal form of government as one conducted by intellectuals whose material needs were provided for by the state; in effect, a permanent Supreme Court, to put it in modern terms.

I bring up the Supreme Court because much of what Plato suggested is implemented there.  Lifetime terms, to insulate them from the concerns of politics; a salary paid by the state, to shield them from corruption; and a rule that they must recuse themselves when presented with a conflict of interest.  While the Supreme Court is (probably) not entirely free of corruption, when compared to the rest of the Federal government it shines like a beacon of intellectual purity.  A perfect starting place for our hypothetical new system.

I envision a council of perhaps five hundred people, all PhDs of various disciplines, selected to represent the demographics of the United States as closely as possible.  These people would hold their offices for life, would be forbidden from owning property or making investments, and would be provided a salary and expense account by the state.  This council would be tasked with performing all of the functions of government — making laws, assessing taxes, signing treaties, fighting wars, serving as the high court — with an overarching responsibility to make the greatest good for the greatest number.

Checks and balances?  Okay, if you insist.  First off, the expense reports of each philosopher-king would be publicly available.  Each individual philosopher-king would be subject to recall if the people determined they weren’t meeting their responsibilities adequately.  I could also see a place for an elected “Council of Five,” made up of one person each from the military, agriculture, sciences, skilled, and unskilled trades, with veto power over the decisions of the philosopher-kings.

I have no idea how we’d select these philosopher-kings.  Plato would have them groomed from birth for their role, which I’m not a fan of.  Perhaps all eligible and willing candidates could put their names in a hat and we could draw them by lot?  I’d suggest having the full council make selections when a philosopher-king needed to be replaced, but that’s one of those things that could turn corrupt real quick, so maybe just pick a new name out of the hat.

Bottom line, while democracy may be a functional system, it only functions well when people do their civic duty — not only voting, but staying informed, staying critical, keeping an eye on their elected officials, and not electing them again when they turn out to be corrupt.   In the Age of Information, this is frankly too much to ask.  We need professional politicians, people whose job it is to do all of these things and make decisions accordingly, and it’s in our interest as a country to have these decision-makers, these professional politicians, be the smartest and most thoughtful people we have available.

The current system is broken and leading us to ruin.  It’s time for something new.  It’s time for philosopher-kings.

Leave a Reply