My brother studies politics and economic history, so sometimes we get into discussions about how governments should be structured. Yesterday we had an interesting discussion, so I thought I’d write something about it.
Anarchism and the problem of greed
We started by discussing anarchism. Now if you didn’t already know, anarchists aren’t proponents of chaos, they’re just not fans of some people having power over others. Rather, the goal is to have a community where everyone has equal power. Unfortunately, I think the idea of anarchism appeals to us western people mainly because we have been taught to worship at the altar of self-autonomy, and what could go more against your autonomy than someone having authority over you? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anarchism is a bad or ungrounded idea, I just think that that reason for it is pathetic. A better reason is greed: on the Christian worldview man is fallen, meaning we are selfish and greedy. And you don’t need to be a Christian to agree with this: just looking over history of the last century, or seriously examining your own heart will reveal the brokenness and greed within. In my opinion, it’s the people who think we’re fundamentally good that are naive, not the people who think we’re fundamentally broken. Anyway, the point is that when people are put in authority other people, their greed turns to corruption and their corruption turns to abuse of power, which is usually at the expense of the people they have authority over. The anarchist suggests a solution to this “problem of greed”: remove hierarchy. No hierarchy means no power, and no power means abuse of power for corrupt ends.
It’s at this point, however, that we need to introduce a caveat, which we’ll achieve by making a distinction: the difference between “power for” and “power over”. Imagine you’re part of an anarchist community (of workers, say) that needs to enter into some kind of negotiations with another community (like, for wage increases). Of course, if your community is too large it’ll be impractical to send everyone. Rather, what you do is nominate a representative an give him the power to barter within certain constraints at the negotiations (for example, giving him a range of acceptable wage options). Here the representative has power for the people, but not power over them. The decisions he makes can only be in line with the will of the community. In cases where someone has power over a community, their decisions can be against or without the will of the community. Now, strictly speaking, the anarchist only really has a problem with power over, since in power for, the representative is in no position to abuse the power they have.
Right, so the anarchist solves the problem of greed by jettisoning power over; and this is the solution my brother is inclined towards. I tend to lean a different way. You see, my concern comes in when decisions are being made in an anarchist society. I tend to think that having an educated few make a decision is a better idea than letting the uneducated masses do it. I’m sure we all know of cases where people just aren’t in the position to know what’s best for them, and this is usually because they are misinformed or ill-informed. And if we can’t speak from personal experience, we can at least appreciate where I’m coming from. Now, if the educated few are making decisions, power over is unavoidable and the anarchist’s solution is not open to me. So how can I address the problem of greed? And what exactly would this system look like?
Plato’s reluctant philosopher-king oligarchy
To see a possible answer we go all the way back to Plato. A while back I was reading his work, “The Republic”. It’s a dialogue in which the character Socrates is engaged in a discussion, part of which involves the best way to organise the power structures in a society. The solution offered by the character Socrates in the end involves an oligarchy of reluctant philosopher-kings. To quote Wikipedia, an oligarchy “is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people”. It’s no coincidence that Plato’s oligarchy of philosopher-kings parallels my suggested “educated oligarchy”. If memory serves, Plato suggested that we breed the elite thinkers (the philosopher-kings) to govern the society, picking only the best and most capable. He wasn’t unaware of the problem of greed either: that’s where the “reluctant” part comes in: if I understand him correctly, Plato figured that if there was a cost to being in power, the reluctance to be there (as well as the pure love of wisdom that the philosophers would have) would mitigate the potential for corruption.
A regent nomadic educated oligarchy
Now, I don’t really like Plato’s solution to the greed problem. It seems to me that it ultimately relies on the idea that we can partially overcome it, and I’m not too optimistic about that (or at least not for any meaningful length of time). So how would I solve it? When discussing with my brother, I realised that in order for corruption to take place the people in power need to be able to reap the benefits of their abuses of that power. This, in turn, means they need time and stability in their power over. So instead of having a fixed oligarchy, why not have a temporary one? On this model, there is no single persisting oligarchy making decisions. Rather, for any given decision an oligarchy of relevantly educated individuals are convened to make it and then they are disbanded (I call this, perhaps unhelpfully, a nomadic oligarchy).
Of course, there needs to be some way to facilitate all of this. To address this issue, I suggested introducing another group of people, called the regency, who either only have power for (imbued by the people), or a severely limited power over. Their job is to address issues facing the state which are raised, either by the people or by themselves, by choosing a temporary oligarchy of individuals educated in the relevant ways to make decisions relating to the issue. This oligarchy then handles the issue and once this is done they go on with their usual lives.
An example could be the following: imagine the state we’re considering doesn’t have a national health system, and the regency decides that it might be about time that one is established. They will convene an oligarchy of scientists, philosophers, economists, doctors, and maybe even representatives from relevant sub-communities (and whatever other relevant education I’ve left out), to hash it out and come to a decision. This oligarchy will either decide that such a health system is a bad idea at the moment, or they’ll come up with a plan to implement an effective one tailored to needs of the state. In the former case, they might even suggest a re-evaluation in a number of years.
Because the regency don’t actually make the decisions at the end of the day, their power over (if they have any) is too limited to be of much use. Of course, some system for election would need to be put in place so that it cannot be abused, as well as addressing the question of how (and how often) the regency is selected. But these seem like that can be addressed without too much hassle. There’s also the question of how we gauge how educated an individual is, and how relevant they are to the issue at hand. These questions seem much harder to address, but not impossible!
UPDATE: My brother, reading this post, noted that it is possible that the oligarchy, though nomadic, could unfairly reap the benefits of their decisions when they go back to being citizens. Whether this concern would be addressed by sufficiently good answers to the questions I raised at the end is unclear to me at the moment. More pondering will be needed 🙂
- The “without” bit there is important. In usual practice we have representatives that make decisions for us, and even if those decisions are not against what we would have wanted, the fact that they were not made with us means the representatives have power over us. I had planned on referring to “power for” as “representative power” until I realised this nuance.
- This dichotomy of the educated few vs. the uneducated many actually arose in discussions with my brother about jury systems. I later came to realise that it applied on much larger scales too.
- My brother does, even though he doesn’t agree with my solution 😛
- As a side note about this, I was absolutely astounded when my analysis of the primary functions of the mind/soul (intellect, volition, and emotion) amounted to pretty much to the one Plato lays out in The Republic, with a few tweaks here and there.
- Of course I’m not equating “philosopher” with “educated”: philosophy in the days of Plato encompassed more than it does today (science, for example, was referred to as natural philosophy). Philosophy nowadays is simply one part of “educated”.
- It’s actually unclear to me whether the oligarchy would simply decide whether to implement one and then disband, or decide and then call in others to help them develop it, or just stay as they are an develop it.