Archive for the ‘plato’s republic’ Tag

Thom Stark on Centrism   2 comments

In our continuing conversation, Thom Stark and I are discussing what radical centrism means and our view of politics and Plato’s Republic. See last week’s installment here.

My ending volley was: So which type of centricism are we talking about here?

Thom StarkLet’s start with my objection to The Republic. It isn’t its elitism to which I object as much as it is its advocacy of repression as a routine tool to stifle dissent and individuality. In that, it’s much more like the Soviet model of Marxism than Marxism, pura. (I doubt most people have read The Communist Manifesto, or that they know enough about the history of the Soviet Union to understand how far that top-down system of government by an elite political class was from the “spontaneous revolution of the proletariat” that Marx and Engels envisioned.) The elitist notion that philosophers, of all people, are inherently wise enough to rule benevolently is, for me, belied by the very system that Plato proposes: one predicated on ruthless suppression of dissent, the death penalty for non-conformism, a rigid caste system, and a ubiquitous secret police force spying on every citizen.


I’m less of an idealist than I am a pragmatist, but I’m also very much a student of history. It seems clear to me that any system of government that relies on repression and fear to maintain itself in power is doomed in any but the short term, because all such systems are essentially designed to foment dissatisfaction and unrest – not to mention corruption, careerism, and intrigue among the elites.

When I say I believe elected politicians have a duty to protect the rights of the minority, I mean “against the tyranny of the majority.” You’re concerned about minority groups ganging up to impose their will on those who are not members of their coalition. I’m not, because, once such coalitions achieve sufficient voting power to advantage themselves against the remainder of the population, the principle of protecting minority rights should kick in to even the playing field.

Mind you, I’m not talking about a legal duty here. Rather I mean there’s a moral obligation on the part of elected officials to ensure that the laws they make deal fairly with everyone, rather than favoring the powerful and entrenched interests. As an example, the USA began as a slaveholding nation. The law favored the interests of slaveholders over those of their chattels. That changed after the Civil War, not for economic or political reasons, but for moral ones. Holding that all men were created equal and simultaneously blessing the ownership of a significant number of men and women by others was always the very rankest kind of hypocrisy. One or the other precept had to go – and I, for one, am glad it was the former that triumphed.

As for calling myself a “radical centrist”, that’s actually a bit of snark on my part. As I define the terms, a centrist is one who believes that the political solutions that benefit the greatest number of one’s fellow citizens usually emanate from the center of the debate, rather than from its fringes. Meanwhile, a radical centrist is one who’s convinced that public discourse would benefit enormously if the loudest, most hysterical voices on both extremes were lined up against a wall and shot.

Note: I don’t in any way advocate or approve of the use of summary execution to stifle dissent. It’s just my way of calling attention to the fact that the public debate in this country has devolved into a pointless, partisan shouting match – and only the biggest mouths benefit from that.

Bill Clinton is, in fact, a political centrist. Otherwise, for instance, he would never have signed the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. I thought it was a mistake for him to do so at the time, and the events of 2008 proved I was correct about that – which only goes to show that we centrists aren’t some lock-step monolith. There’s as much room for disagreement between us as there is between the extremes. We’d just rather focus on solving common problems than on waving our arms and shouting.

To me, the purpose of government, economically speaking, is to do the things private investment will not do – mostly because they are not immediately profitable enough to attract investment on their own. The interstate highway system is a classic example. It radically changed American life for the better, but it could never have been constructed by private capital. The military is another. Without it, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In the High Castle would have been history, not fiction. But the financial barons would never have spent their money to raise, train, equip, and supply a global, four-year military effort to defeat hegemonic totalitarianism. It took a powerful central government to do that.

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedI think it’s the job of the government – of all three branches of our particular government – to protect human rights. That’s another task that’s simply beyond the purview of capitalism to accomplish. There’s no profit to be made (no short-term profit, at least) in combating slavery, protecting speech, or ensuring religious liberty, so the monied class won’t do any of those things. There are roads to be maintained, crime to be suppressed, traffic to be managed, and so on, and none of those things is best done by private interests. I think making potholes, parking, and policing the province of government is the least undesireable solution to those needs.

My reply next week!

Thom Stark: Lela on Liberty   Leave a comment

Last week’s conversation with Thom Stark ended with him asking me if I’d ever read Plato’s Republic and giving us his take on it. This is my reply. Lela

DSC01494Thom, you and I have agreed on more things than we disagreed so far. For instance, we both view Plato’s Republic negatively. Correct me if I’m misjudging you, but I think you were disgusted by the elitism espoused there. I agree, but I would carry it further. Plato appears to have been the first (recorded) government planner – deciding who will have and have-not and fill what roles in society, regardless of what their personal choices might be. That sounds a lot like Marxian socialism to me. It is a world where individual choice is completely subjgated to the perceived “good” of humanity and so far, real-world examples have always led to totalitarianism because, I think, people just aren’t made to live in that sort of top-down world.

Which is why I hung up on the phrase “elected officials in a democracy have a duty to strive for political solutions that provide the greatest benefit for the largest number of their fellow citizens.” You coated it with some honey by saying “without thereby infringing on the rights of the minority.”

Shouldn’t I be a good American and wax poetic about the rights of the minority? I guess it depends on the definition of minority. I’m definitely all about the rights of the individual as the smallest minority. The idea that you must protect the rights of a select minority group through the infringement of the rights of individuals who are not members of those special groups reads like tyranny to me.

And that’s where I stumbled over your phrase because when people start talking about democracy striving for greatest benefit, I start hearing a voice-over of Leonard Nemoy saying “The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few … or the one.”

Chuck that! It’s a great-sounding death scene in a sci-fi movie, but it’s also the argument of tyrants everywhere. I like democracy in theory, but in practice it is more often than not two lions and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. It never works out well for the lamb. We can say we’re instituting some infringement of individual liberty for the protection of this or that group, but it really comes down to a coalition of minority groups (thus forming a statistical majority) subjugating the individual to its voter-approved will. Tyranny by any other name is still a steaming pile of stink. Explain what you mean by the phrase and we may find we agree and it’s all a matter of semantics.

Thom StarkSo, when you used the term “radical centrist”, I was thinking centrist in the left-right spectrum manner of speaking (ala Bill Clinton), sort of forgetting that libertarians use the phrase to mean “liberal” in the classical sense — in a nutshell, the consistent presumption of liberty in human affairs. I would not chose to be a centrist in the left-right spectrum because it would mean constantly shifting between ideologies of tyranny, but I definitely have strong libertarian and voluntaryanist viewpoints. Some would say that’s an ideology of the right, but I think it may actually stand outside of the left left-right spectrum.

So which type of centricism are we talking about here?

Thom Stark on Radical Centrism and Plato’s Republic   Leave a comment

When Thom Stark and I finished our conversation last week, I finished with this salvo. Lela

I look forward to exploring how a centrist who believes in the “common betterment of the greatest number of fellow citizens” can reconcile a civil libertarian stance. We’ll come back to it next week.

Thom StarkAgain, I think its probably a propos here to point out that my political views are different than those of William Orwell Steele. On the issue of civil liberties, though, I think his position and mine are pretty closely aligned. What puzzles me is your apparent belief that my more-or-less Utilitarian philosophy is somehow incompatible with impassioned advocacy of civil liberties – because I see them as perfectly complementary.

Recall that I said I believe elected officials in a democracy have a duty to strive for political solutions that provide the greatest benefit for the largest number of their fellow citizens, without thereby infringing on the rights of the minority. In my view, that last bit is every bit as important as the first part. If you can’t come up with a political solution without stepping on the minority’s rights in the process, you haven’t managed to achieve an acceptable solution at all. Of those rights, I hold the most important to be free speech, and preserving that right is of the highest importance to me, personally. That’s not in aid of some vague, selfless crusade, either. As a writer, the freedom to write about whatever I wish is central to my identity. Without the freedom to point out that the Emperor isn’t wearing pants, you, me, and every other aspiring scribbler on the planet is relegated to the status of mere entertainer – a jester in the service of le roi, fit only to lampoon the foibles of his most risible chamberlains, but never, ever to impugn the dignity of the king himself.

Screw that.

I completely agree with that.

The freedom to say what you please – and to act as you please, too, so long as no other person is harmed by your behavior without their explicit, advance permission – is key to what it means to be an American. It’s built into our self-image; a part of our cultural DNA. That’s why I was so apalled at my fellow citizens’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks: it seemed like they were lining up to abandon the Bill of Rights in exchange for the mere illusion of greater personal safety from terrorism. The rise of civil asset forfeiture as a routine butress to civic coffers, granting the NSA and the FBI sweeping exemptions from the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, prosecuting journalists for disclosing classified information, serious, chronic, widespread prosecutorial overreach under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, increasing militarization of civilian police forces, the warrantless use of law enforcement facial recognition and license plate databases, have all exploded since September 11, 2001. But, as the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated, none of these Constitutional transgressions has done anything to make us safer from terrorism. They have merely added to the climate of fear and oppression in this country, without providing any demonstrable benefit to society as a whole.

DSC01494I also totally agree with that. Here in Alaska we’ve had several federal prosecutions of people whose only “crime” appears to have been venting about the federal government. 

As a radical centrist, I’m convinced we need to roll back these infringements on civil liberties, before we become too accustomed to them. That’s an essential element of preserving the rights of the minority: pushing back against the curtailment of civil liberties, and embracing greater, rather than lesser liberty of speech and action. The Westboro Baptist Church bigots sicken me – but I’m grateful that my nation sees the importance of allowing them to speak, regardless of how hateful their speech is. There’s a saying among the Ancient Internauts: “The proper response to distasteful speech is more speech, not less.” I’m all about that. You don’t defeat a philosophical opponent by forbidding him to talk – you beat him by allowing him all the rope he requires to hang himself in the court of public opinion.

As a Baptist myself, I wince every time the Westboro Baptists do anything. I’m embarrassed as an American and as a Christian by their existence. They are not representative of what Biblical Christians, Baptists or fundamentalists believe. They give all of us a bad name and reflect badly on the God they claim to believe in. What they believe does not have a basis in God.

I assume you’ve read Plato’s Republic? It made me want to take a bath – and it wasn’t so much the staggering conceit of his proposal that “philosopher kings” would somehow magically be wise and benevolent rulers, as it was his complete contempt for civil liberties that made me want to wash off the slime. A police state, with poetry as a capital crime, rigidly-enforced social immobility, and a total lack of regard for human aspiration as a central governing tenant – and that philosopher king governance model – sounded a lot like Soviet socialism to me. I think we both know what a profound failure that experiment was. The thing is, while economic central planning was key to the Soviet collapse, I think the Politburo’s restrictions on social mobility and free speech were at least equally responsible for the fall. Governments are like Tinkerbelle. When the people they supposedly govern stop believing in them, they simply go away.

I try to keep posts in this conversation to 1000 words, so I’m going to break it here and post my response next week. Thom has given me much to think about. Lela

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