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Society, Politics & Law

Is democracy a good thing?

Updated Monday 27th April 2015

Is democracy the best way to select who runs our country? Is it unequivocally a good thing? Professor Derek Matravers discusses Plato's argument against democracy.

Image of the word 'democracy' in a dictionary. Creative commons image Icon Radub85 | Dreamstime.com under Creative-Commons license We are used to thinking that democracy is unequivocally a good thing. But is it? Even Winston Churchill, who frequently spoke in favour of the system, stigmatized it as the worst form of government (apart from all the others that have been tried). The great Greek philosopher, Plato, was no fan of democracy. The argument he had against it is worth considering; in fact, some might even find it convincing.

The argument comes in two stages. The first is that running a country takes expertise. Not everyone is suited to do it, in the same sense as not everybody is suited to being the captain of a ship. Captaining a ship requires physical and intellectual stamina; it also requires mastery of the science and art of navigation. If that is true of the relatively simple task of captaining a ship, it is surely much, much, more obviously true of ‘captaining’ a country. The second stage concerns the procedure for selecting such experts. A democratic selection procedure is to find the person who is most popular. However, and this is Plato’s point, there is simply no reason to think that being expert at making oneself popular is at all the same thing as being expert at running a country. We would not think to appoint the captains of our ships, or our brain surgeons or any other sort of expert in this way so why should we appoint the captain of our country in this way? Plato’s argument can be found in his book, The Republic, on p. 488.

The force of Plato’s argument is particularly apparent at election times. At such times, politicians will be faced with the stark choice of doing what is best of the country or doing what is best for getting themselves elected or re-elected. Of course, there might be occasions where there is no choice; doing what is best for the country is also doing what is best for getting elected or re-elected. However, that will not be the case on every occasion. It simply seems part of democracy that the policies we get are not those that would be best for us; they are those which make those who enact such policies popular. One does not have to look very far to see instances of this: various parties trying to outbid each other as to how many civil servants they will sack; how many tax cuts they will make; how much they will reduce various budgets. It is clear that the primary thought is not what is best for the country; the primary thought is what will appeal most to the electorate. Put simply, democracy is bad for us.

To rebut Plato’s argument we have either to reject his claim that it takes expertise to run the country, or provide a case that a popular mandate is a good way to find an expert. One could try the second: that (a) the electorate is always in a position to judge what will in fact be best for the country and (b) that they will always vote for what is best for the country regardless of what is in their own selfish interest. One does not have to be Plato to think that someone who holds both (a) and (b) is desperately, implausibly, optimistic. So what about the first?

Do we want the person who is most expert at running the country to be the person running the country? Perhaps we do not. An alternative (not the only alternative) is to think of the person running the country as having the authority to do so because we have delegated that authority to him or her. Hence, voting is not a matter of selecting experts, but a procedure for our delegating the authority we have over ourselves to some other person. Hence, the second stage of Plato’s argument is simply not relevant. We do not delegate authority to the captain of a ship or a brain surgeon; it is more that we employ them to do a job. Running a country is simply a different kind of thing – it is the delegation of authority.

The delegation point is perhaps the strongest against Plato’s argument. There are a number of other concerns one might have. There are psychological facts about human nature; the permanent possibility of being voted out keeps politicians (somewhat) honest. Nonetheless, one does not have to be rabidly Platonic to find oneself, during election campaigns, wondering if there might indeed be something in what he says. To quote E.M. Forster, perhaps we should raise only ‘two cheers’ for democracy.

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