The Reading Room
In The Reading Room with Plato, and Some Politicians
In previous columns, I’ve discussed Plato’s grand allegory of the city-that-is-the-soul. If we imagine a city of perfect justice, and figure out what would have to be true of it in order for it to be just, then we’d have an idea of how to cultivate justice in ourselves as an individual virtue. That many things in his description of the city are unrealistic turns out not to have any damaging effect on the lessons the allegory imparts about how we can live better lives. So that fact that, for instance, we aren’t likely to find rulers who are perfectly wise and just and who care only about justice and truth doesn’t mean we as individuals shouldn’t strive to be lovers of wisdom, lovers of the real as opposed to the apparent or superficial. The fact that it’s hard to imagine literally everyone both loving their job and being excellent at it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to moderate our passions and cultivate a measure of rational self-control.
Nevertheless, many of the observations Plato makes about the political side of the analogy are worth considering as we try to organize real-world polities. He suggests, for example, that both the rulers and the military should be given dormitory-style accommodations and living expenses but prohibited from accumulating vast wealth. Students generally get a laugh out of this, since literally every ruler they’ve ever heard of enjoys great wealth and luxury. Kings of old lived in grand palaces, and even today, heads of state enjoy private planes, chauffeured limos, bodyguards, plush accommodations with servants, and so on. They frequently are able to continue many aspects of this lifestyle even after leaving office, thanks to pensions, board memberships, book deals and so on. What’s the point of being king if you aren’t living like a king? But Plato has a point about the nature of incentives. Why seek political power in the first place? One reason might be that, like the ideal rulers Plato speculates about, you truly love wisdom and justice and seek nothing more passionately than their realization. Another might be that you simply enjoy having power over other people. A third might be that you see political power as a pathway to riches. Plato’s point, which is surely correct, is that if you seek power for the wrong reasons, there will certainly be a conflict between what you’re directed by and what you claim you want. If you were forbidden to become wealthy through the acquisition of political power, then people whose primary aim is self-enrichment would not seek political power. Similarly with the soldiery. Martial conquest can be very enriching. But Plato thinks those charged with defending the city ought to have as their primary passion the defense of the city. If they are instead driven by wealth, they may use their power for aggressive conquest, or even to extort their own city.
Plato doesn’t seem to object to people in the productive trades accumulating wealth, perhaps because the incentives align much better. If I’m a baker, I ought to love baking more than money, but if I am an excellent baker, I’ll also make a lot of money. So loving to bake and being great at baking and making money as a baker can all go together, in a way that really doesn’t work in the cases of the rulers or the military. If I’m a lousy baker, I won’t make a lot of money. But if I’m a lousy ruler, I can still live high on the hog, as history has shown innumerable times.
Even if it’s “unrealistic” to hope for a society where rulers are forbidden to accumulate wealth, the point is a legitimate one: the ruling class responds to incentives just like everyone else. While this might not be enough to get us rulers who literally don’t care about money, it can at least get us to de-romanticize our notions about people in the real world who claim to have no agenda but the public welfare. In the real world, we should keep in mind that people who seek power may have some other motivations. This explains why politicians so often say one thing and do another.
The idea that politicians should be constitutionally constrained from exploiting their power for personal profit is surely a sensible one; the question is how to do so. One suggestion that came up both in the ancient world and in the early 18th century is that if we were to restrict access to power to those who were already wealthy, there’d be less worry that they’d try to use their position to become wealthy. While there’s some intuitive sense to this, it overlooks two key objections. First, an avaricious person doesn’t find satisfaction very easily, so merely being wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t seen further enrichment. This is actually a point Plato makes himself: the person with immoderate zeal for wealth will always seek more. Second, on the off chance that we might actually find anyone seeking power in an attempt to do good things, it’s not helping the odds to restrict the pool on the basis of criteria such as family wealth. This seems like an objection only a liberal would make, but this too is a point from Plato: all positions in the ideal city he describes are to be filled on the basis of merit, not of parentage (nor, surprising for the times, on the basis of gender).
Looking for meritocracy, though, is more complicated in some realms than in others. I can lack the baker’s skill and knowledge but still know whether I’m eating good breads and cakes. I can lack the cobbler’s skill and knowledge but still know whether I’m wearing comfortable and durable shoes. But how can we know whether legislators are making good laws that benefit the community as opposed to making self-aggrandizing moves? Since the function of the social order is facilitating our living together in peace and prosperity, the test would be whether the laws actually do that or do not. But here, it seems, people can be more easily misled. So the philosopher’s work is never done, it seems – another point Plato would make.