Thursday, June 04, 2009

Politics as Fantasy

Tibor R. Machan

It began with Socrates and his pupil Plato who in that world famous dialogue, Republic, set out to discuss human excellence. In the process Socrates used an analogy, the perfect or ideal society. It was easier to study than the individual human soul. (We do this when studying chemistry, for example, and we use huge plastic balls to stand in for atoms and such, tiny entities we cannot study directly.)

One point Socrates is supposed to have made, according to Plato, is that this ideal society they sketched wasn't meant to be some blueprint for people to try to implement. It was more like a model and was supposed to play the same role, as a means to emphasize what's important to keep in mind as one thinks about politics. For example, while Socrates spoke of a philosopher king, that was to stress the importance of human reason in forging policy not the need for some actual super-person, a king.

But that point has been widely misunderstood for centuries--and indeed there is some ambiguity in the dialogue, so disputation on it is to be expected. Too many folks have taken Socrates and Plato to have wanted us all to strive to implement an ideal society. Since, however, their purpose wasn't that at all but ultimately to sketch how human beings should live, what should guide their conduct--namely, careful thought one would carry out sometime (maybe way) before the conduct in question--the numerous attempts to implement the ideal society had to fail.

Indeed, some very sophisticated students of Plato's works defend the position that the main teaching of the Republic is that politics can have only a limited function in making life good for people. What they need to do is to direct themselves--their own lives and those of their fellows who will consult them--thoughtfully and not wait for some king or government to figure things out. The capacity of politics to do good is very minimal by this account.

If this is indeed the teaching of Socrates and Plato, it oddly anticipates the teaching of the American Founders. They also believed that human happiness or success in life must be an individual and social but not primarily or even mainly a political feat. Which is why they wrote that government's role is to secure our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of our happiness, nothing more than that. But this lesson has been rejected by too many people since time immemorial. They keep seeking total salvation from politics and we are back to this again, with the leadership of President Barack Obama. He apparently shares the ideas of The New Republic magazine's erudite modern liberal columnist, Leon Wieseltier, who just recently wrote that "contrary to what [Americans] have been taught for many years, government is a jewel of human association and an heirloom of human reason; that government, though it may do ill, does good; that a lot of the good that government does only it can do; that the size of government must be fitted to the size of its tasks, and so, for a polity such as ours, big government is the only government...etc."

This kind of thinking is extremely hazardous. It exemplifies the valuable but often forgotten cliche, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." It does this with nearly the same tendencies in matters of politics as did the efforts of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and a host of others throughout human history who wanted to implement the prefect plan.

By aiming to do everything for us, by pretending to have the answer to innumerable questions, Mr. Obama is facilitating the ruin of the great project of the Founders, as well as of Socrates and Plato, namely, to restrain oneself when assigning tasks to governments, to bureaucrats, to politicians and to all their eager beaver little helpers at prestigious universities and publications.

Not unless we return to heed to teachings of those folks who knew how limited the capacity of politics is for improving on human life will we have a good chance at a decent life and society.

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