Wednesday, April 21, 2010

17th April 2010

Manifesto pledges, arguments, debates: but do any of them discuss the real issue at hand—what makes for good government? Socrates had strong views on the subject.

In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato puts Socrates head-to-head with Callicles, who proclaims the gospel that might is right, and that by effective use of rhetoric a politician can rise above the common herd and get whatever he wants. Socrates was talking in the context of a radical, direct democracy, where all decisions about the running of Athens were taken by male citizens over 18 meeting in Assembly; and he demolishes Callicles’ position by pointing out that he will achieve his ends only by sucking up to the people so that they give in to him. But, Socrates wants to know, is that what leaders of the people are actually for? He now uses analogies from everyday life (e.g. doctors are there to use their knowledge to make you healthy) to get a reluctant Callicles to agree that the job of the leader was to use his knowledge to ensure that citizens made decisions based not on self-interest but on a strong sense of justice, guided by self-discipline. In other words, it is only if leaders make citizens better people morally that citizens stand any chance of making the just, moral decisions that will best serve the state and therefore themselves, resulting inevitably in self-fulfilment and happiness for all.

Socrates does not deny that leaders do have other responsibilities, e.g. state security (‘ships, fortifications, dockyards and so on and so forth’, as he puts it). But that is only the technical aspect of a state’s duties to its citizens. Pandering to the people’s whims, however, which is what Callicles seemed to have in mind, was a recipe for disaster.

In our elective oligarchy, we do not make decisions; our MPs do. So what values do we wish to see in our MPs? Socratic ones, like an orderly, disciplined mind and strong sense of right and wrong? Or just a willingness to do what their leader tells them? What responsibility does our MP have to us? ‘To make a difference’ is the stock answer: but to whom and in what respect, Socrates would ask. If ‘to make constituents fulfilled, happy and contented’, how would they do that? By sucking up to them?

Somehow one cannot see party leaders or MPs debating these rather basic questions. For Socrates, it certainly was not the economy, stupid.

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