Saturday, September 11, 2010

Aristotle: Politics - What is democracy?

We often hold our democratic form of government as the most successful and fairest form of administration, the natural evolutionary endpoint of hundreds of years of failed states.

Democracy has its roots in the Greek world, (dêmos) "people" and κράτος (Kratos) "power", so it is quite appropriate to read Aristotle's thoughts as he compares democracy with other forms of government.  A true democracy, as Aristotle states, gives each citizen an equal voice in the government.  But, as Aristotle quotes Homer, "it is not good to have a rule of many". Even a relative contemporary, Winston Churchill, acknowledged that, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"

The first problem with democracy is that it can be very difficult to reach a consensus.  In addition, many opinions will come from inferior minds lacking experience, knowledge or ability to contribute effectively.  In a true democracy, everyone participates in government so citizens "elected" to office must be chosen at random.  What would this be like today?  First off, anyone could be a senator, a judge or even president!  The multitude of people in the US, many without college or high school degrees and no political experience, could ascend to positions of great power.  It would be a true democracy, but also chaotic, capricious and probably destructive.    Democracies are also very susceptible to demagogues, popular leaders who appeal to the masses.  They often play toward common feelings of inequality against the wealthy, the educated and other notable classes of society.  Demagogues have been a threat to many governments (think Hitler, Mussolini) and have been shown to be a destabilizing factor even recently.  Concluding, Aristotle lists many failed democracies throughout the Mediterranean including: Thebes, Megara, Rhodes, Syracuse and others.  It seems that even the inventors of democracy did not think it was perfect. 

Essentially, democracy is a monarchy of the multitudes.  It marginalizes the rights of the few (wealthy, highly educated, noblity, etc) for the benefit of the many (poor, less well-educated, no birth right).  In contrast, an Oligarchy is rule by the few over the many.  Aristotle points out that this can be favorable since only a few individuals will be truly "virtuous", educated and experienced enough to run the government.  Of course this can disenfranchise the multitudes who would have had power in a democracy.

In the US we have a combination of both an Oligarchy and a Democracy.  Everyone has a vote and everyone has the potential to hold office.  In reality, it is largely the elite of society who hold political positions.  Many politicians represent corporate interests, come from wealthy well-educated families and political dynasties.  I'm not saying this is a bad thing;  Aristotle would agree that "notables" should run the government rather than less qualified individuals.  However, by the strict definition, we do not live in a pure democracy.

The universal and chief cause of revolution is inequality, says Aristotle.  A democracy is not truly equal, since wealthy property owners are stripped of their superior position.  Similarly an oligarchy, like our government, is not equal to the majority.  Aristotle says that an oligarchy can mitigate this disparity by treating the majority well. 

Ultimately, Aristotle says, the chief aim of any government is the preservation of that government.  That seems short-sighted and self-serving but it is manifestly true. Everyone involved in the government (e.g. "elected officials") will do everything possible to preserve the status quo.  This reminds me of what Karl Marx said when he decribed police as "heavily-armed thugs" whose purpose was to protect the rights of the ruling class.  Police are essentially agents defending the government from dissention and supporting its policies and values. Aristotle also goes on to say that the size of the military should be large enough to support the policy of the state "commensurate with the scale of her interests".  This would include maintaining the status quo.

The last few books of "Politics" regard the education and employment of the youth.  Aristotle states that, "All paid employments absorb and degrade the mind", by which he means we should all be self-employed.  I can agree that working for someone is essentially degrading since we work largely for a paycheck.  In contrast, being self-employed frees us from payday and grants us a unique self-interest in our work. 

Similarly, Aristotle elaborates that learning for the sake of others is menial, servile and reflects an illiberal character.  We are responsible for our own education and we should ensure that we are learning for our sake and not to be used as a tool.

Finally, as an aside, Aristotle says that the ideal state should be entirely visible at a glance. This seems practical to the city-states of ancient Greece (Athens, Thebes, Sparta, etc) but he probably did not imagine a state as large as the USA. However, if we consider that all politics are local, then the governing of a large country is merely a matter of organization and scale.

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