Wednesday, September 5

Are We a Democracy?

Dear son

Here is an interesting way to evaluate democracies based upon an ancient Greek measure first drawn up by Plato. 

While there have been instances of democratic thought earlier than the ancient Greeks, the western and modern civilisation's basis of liberal democracy is heavily based upon Greek, roman and then European enlightenment. 

I don't like governments mainly because of the constraints it brings but I'm also cognisant of the fact that states require governance. Some element is always required. 

But our societies are getting complicated and complicated. It is a far cry from the Athenian days that all voters (only males with property please) could get together and then vote on all matters. 

The trick is to recognise the sea you are swimming in without losing yourself in it son. You cannot avoid the political parties, the encroachment of the state into the private sphere etc etc but be aware of what's happening. 

So for example, the current government is putting in place policies at this moment which is pretty much going to define whether or not you get a job in 6 years time. Do you see why you need to think about what this government does, which your father and mother helped vote in? 

So son, read the newspaper every day. The best defence against tyranny and overbearing government is a well informed citizenry. 



Are We a Democracy? -

The Stone is featuring occasional posts by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, that apply critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.

Americans strongly support democracy both at home and abroad.  But we are ambivalent about referendums (often in California, recently in Mississippi and in Greece), which put major decisions to the people as a whole.  We don’t fully trust “the people” to make legislative decisions.   Those who remember their civics classes will note that we have not a direct but a representative democracy (or a republic).  But many Americans don’t think we are really “represented” by the people we elect, and, recently, the suspicion has grown that we in fact live in a plutocracy — a nation governed by the wealthy.  But there are clearly also other elements that exercise  political power over us.

Plato, in his still provocative “Republic,” proposed that there are five types of government: aristocracy (rule by the “best”, that is, by experts specially trained at governance), timarchy (rule by those guided by their courage and sense of honor), oligarchy (rule by a wealthy minority), democracy (rule by the people as a whole—a “mob” as Plato saw it), and tyranny (rule by a despot answerable to no one but himself).  Plato’s categorization is a good starting point for thinking about the nature of our government.  Although we don’t fit precisely any one of these type, each seems to express an element of our political system.

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