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Is democracy a good thing?

Updated Tuesday, 26 November 2019
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.

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Image of the word 'democracy' in a dictionary. 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. There are a couple of arguments he had against it which have a particular resonance for our times. His first argument comes in two stages. The first is that running a state 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 state. 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 state (488 a-b). 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 state in this way?

What is democracy?

Watch the mini documentary below, as Professor Derek Matravers explains how we may not necessarily get the most competent leaders due to democracy.

PDF document Transcript 73.4 KB

Plato’s second argument is about us; the democratic citizens. Democracy gives us, via our representatives, a say in choosing between complicated and subtle alternatives. To be worthy of having a say, we surely need to have researched these options in depth and come up with robust and considered views. Which of us has the inclination, let alone the time, to do this? Plato took a dim view of democratic citizenry. He thought that once we have pulled ourselves away from drinking and listening to music, following the latest fads and fashions, we start thinking about politics and bounce up and say whatever enters our heads (561 c-d).

The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke thought that democracy should not be about electing representatives, but about electing someone who we trusted to do our thinking for us. 

To rebut Plato’s first argument we have either to reject his claim that it takes expertise to run the state or provide a case that a popular mandate is a good way to decide who is an expert. If Plato’s second argument is right, then the popular mandate is not a good way to decide anything. So should we reject the claim that it takes expertise to run a state?

Do we want the person who is most expert at running the state to be the person running the state? Perhaps we do not. An alternative (not the only alternative) is to think of the person running the state as having the authority to do so because he or she represents our views (whatever they happen to be). Hence, voting is not a matter of selecting experts, but a procedure by which the citizenry’s views are represented. Hence, Plato’s analogy with the ship is flawed. The captain of a ship or a brain surgeon does not represent anyone; they are simply employed to do a job. Running a state is a different kind of thing – it requires representation.

This is perhaps the strongest reply to Plato’s first argument. Nonetheless, that does leave us with his second argument. Indeed, the second argument now seems more pressing. If we, as a democratic citizenry, we are generally uninformed then our representatives are representing generally uninformed views. That does not seem sensible. The Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke thought that democracy should not be about electing representatives, but about electing someone who we trusted to do our thinking for us. Even if we are uninformed, we elect someone to get well-informed on our behalf and govern for us – even if (being uninformed ourselves) we don’t agree with him or her. It has to be said that following this announcement, Burke was voted out in the next election.

Although democracy has its problems, both in theory and in practice, one only has to look around the world to realise its advantages. Among these advantages, and there are many, is that it is a mechanism for getting rid of governments without bloodshed or trauma. Churchill was right; it does seem better than the rest. However, that does not mean it is perfect. And as it is not perfect, we should take full account of Plato’s criticisms and see if anything can be done to mitigate them.



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