Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 2)

            Democracies, by contrast, aim for general prosperity if they know what’s good for them.  In modern history, it is often noted, most revolutions occur in times of rising prosperity, when the majority feel that they are not gaining the economic and political benefits they deserve fast enough.  Aristotle would expect this, and would add that democracies become unstable when people find themselves suddenly poorer.  If the majority has enough now and some reason to expect as much or better in the future, they are generally content.  Also, a democracy is not tied to the welfare of a single individual, or even a small group.  The Clintons or the Bushes or the Trumps could be forever eclipsed, and our democracy would be none the worse; in fact, it would arguably be strengthened.  In a democracy, power rests with the many, so a regular rotation of the particular office-holders is healthy; thus, it is to a democracy’s advantage that as many people as possible have the education and power to participate in politics.  In fact, for Aristotle that is the very definition of a citizen:  one who both rules and is ruled, who both helps make the laws and obeys them.  If one has no meaningful vote, one is not a citizen; in a tyranny where only one person makes the rules, there is one citizen and everyone else is a slave, or if you prefer, a subject. 

            So, for a democracy, the best political strategy is to strengthen the middle class, to provide educational opportunities to as many people as possible, and to promote the general prosperity of all, the exact opposite of the interests of the oligarchy or tyranny.  The democracy will seek to include, perhaps not all the residents, but as many people as possible, since the more voters and participants in the democracy, the more people will feel they have a stake in the welfare of the state and thus the less factional infighting, subversion and crime will threaten social stability. [1]

            Democracies have one other, substantial advantage over other forms of government:  the wisdom of the crowd.  Aristotle says that the best sort of government, if it were possible, would be to have a perfect king, the wisest and most virtuous person, to rule over the rest and lead them in growing morally as well as practically; but such a god among men is at best vanishingly rare.  More often the one or the few who lead an authoritarian state are no wiser or noble than the rest, and too often worse.  But if you have a group, it is more likely that some will be more knowledgeable on this matter, others wiser on that, some more patient, others more decisive, and so on, and the ones who are wiser concerning the matter at hand, or have characters more suited to the situation may be able to persuade the others or at least prevent disastrously bad choices.  As we know, sometimes this “wisdom of the crowd” doesn’t pan out; sometimes the better ideas get shouted down, either by an ill-informed mob or a clever demagogue.  But often the worst decisions, the really world-historical cock-ups come from authoritarians, whether it’s Napoleon invading Russia, Russia invading Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to make the states fight each other for resources to fight COVID-19 or whatever.  Democracies have made atrocious decisions, particularly morally; but again, it takes a number of people and institutions to go wrong at the same time for a democracy to go astray, while an oligarchy may collapse through the failure of a few or one person. 

            Less anecdotally, Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for research that supports this claim.  For example, he points to Costa Rica and Brazil, two countries that had similar cultures and similar GNPs in the 1970s.  Costa Rica was a democracy, however, while Brazil was ruled by a military junta.  As a democracy, Costa Rica had to provide for its people, so it largely scrapped its national army and spent is resources on health care, infrastructure and other things the people wanted.  Brazil was an oligarchy, and only had to please the military elite and a few wealthy backers; so they spent a far greater percentage of their national budget on weapons, on big development projects that make money for the owners of big construction companies, and so on.  The average life span of a Costa Rican was ten years longer than that of an average Brazilian.  Again, remember, there was no meaningful difference between the wealth of the two societies; each had the same amount of money to spend per citizen, but the democracy spent the money in ways that benefited more people.  Sen also researched several modern-day famines, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943.  At that time India was not a functional democracy; power rested with the colonial occupiers, not with the people.  As in famines generally in the modern world, there was in fact food available; it was just too expensive for many people to buy, and the government didn’t care enough to feed them all because it didn’t need to care.  Sen is careful to point out that he is discussing real functional democracies:  those that have not only free and fair elections, but also free markets, a free press, and rule of law.  If the country is hamstrung by corruption, or monopolies allow a few people to control all production, or the press does not provide the people with complete and honest information on which to base their desires and their votes, merely having a vote every few years is meaningless; but where all the institutions are healthy, democracy and the wisdom of the crowd generally lead to policies that are better for the majority and for the health of the body politic.

            If an oligarchy wants to stay in power, it must weaken the people, keep them ignorant and poor, and frightened.  Nothing makes the school tighten up like a shark.  So the autocrat wants the people in constant fear; nothing aids a tyrant as much as a crisis.  But for the most part, a real problem demands real solutions, which the autocrat has little interest in providing and generally little competence; so instead the oligarchy or tyrant seeks to gin up class hatreds, religious bigotries, racism, conspiracies and so on.  Once the monsters of the people’s imaginations are unleashed against them, a faux savior can step forward and say, “I am the only one who can fix this.”  If Capt. Bligh could have kept his crew constantly on the lookout for sea monsters, H.M.S. Bounty would doubtless have returned to England with her cowed, obedient crew, some even grateful for having been saved from the imagined terrors.  Instead, they saw the warm, welcoming islands and the people who lived without floggings or scurvy, and mutinied against their true enemy.

            A democracy (or better, a polity, to use Aristotle’s term) is most safe when the people are happy.  It depends on as many citizens as possible feeling invested in the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Its leadership does best if it can demonstrate competence.  The leaders of a democracy know that would-be tyrants are always lurking in their midst, ready to seize power by presenting themselves as the people’s only savior.  Hobbes’ leviathan always seeks to overthrow the promised land where every one sits under their own fig tree.  So the leaders of democracy have little motive to panic the people with bogeymen, and every reason to solve the real problems—or at least the problems the people feel are real. 

            To put it bluntly and in today’s context:  the tyrant, oligarch and would-be autocrat will seek to ignore or cover up dangers such as climate change, pollution, a threatened epidemic or other such threats that would require a collective response, as this would mean empowering experts to plan, and the people to implement the plan, dispersing power away from the autocrat.  The tyrant seeks to divide the people, make them loathe and fear their neighbors, so the tyrant can step forth as the only one who can protect them.  The tyrant creates the monsters and then promises to slay them, for the small price of your soul.

            By contrast, the democratic leader, the public servant, needs to keep the people happy rather than afraid or angry.  Such a would-be “good shepherd” needs to find and solve real problems, so that things continue to go as comfortably and steadily as possible.  And such a leader needs cooperation and buy-in from the people.  It is not an accident or genius that Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change we seek,” while Trump said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  This is the essential difference between the democratic (small “d”) and autocratic forms of government:  one seeks to both please the majority and to move it to solve its problems, while the other requires only passivity from the masses while it sees to the desires of the leaders.  That is why one party frets about climate change and the associated droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, increased epidemics and other disasters predicted by An Inconvenient Truth and increasingly prevalent today, while the other worries about CRT, mosques, trans people and whether the parental rights of rapists are being properly respected.

            If you want a government that at least attempts to provide prosperity for the majority, at least tries to identify real problems and real solutions, and mostly supports a stable legal system, you have to fight for democracy.  The alternative is a government that actively seeks to harm, impoverish and oppress, that makes actual problems worse while manufacturing others in addition, and which twists the legal and economic systems to benefit its leaders.  Aristotle told you over 2500 years ago, so don’t act all surprised.


[1] Aristotle is practical about this; he does not favor “open borders” without qualification, and mentions as an example one city-state that let a large group of immigrants settle in its borders who later overthrew the government.  In Greece in his day, there were multiple Greek-speaking states, each with its own distinct political culture and values; if you were a Spartan with a long history of ascetic militarism in reverence to the war god Ares, you wouldn’t want a bunch of merchants from Aphrodite-loving Corinth moving in and demanding the laws be changed to accommodate their more hedonistic lifestyle.  It was not uncommon for there to be communities of resident aliens, who did not have the rights of citizens even though they were expected to obey the same laws, just as there are today in most wealthy democracies.  Before a foreigner became a citizen, you would want to make sure they accepted the values and traditions of your society; and in the relatively small states of the day, you would likely want to limit the numbers of new citizens coming in at one time lest you literally change the demographics, and thus the society itself overnight.  One thing the United States does better than just about any other nation is turn immigrants into citizens, who often have more knowledge of the national heritage and more devotion to the national project than many so-called “native sons.”  But even in this “melting pot” we have some border controls, and a system one must submit to if one wishes to become a citizen.  Aristotle would say that we are broadening our democracy and thus giving it a more stable foundation, but he would also approve us not just allowing any resident to vote who had not first learned what it means to be a citizen of this nation, and shown their willingness to accept our key values.  Aristotle says the purpose of education is to train citizens in the knowledge and virtues they need to support the state; thus a democracy must teach democratic virtues, an oligarchy must teach oligarchic virtues and so on, and a state that brings in new citizens faster than it can properly educate them is bound for instability and ultimately for collapse.

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