political societies


OK. Enough about small societies, marriages. What about large societies? Does the same principle apply?

There may be reasons to think not. What?!! Now that sounds strange. If societies are constituted by individuals who are married (small societies), and the functioning principle for happiness in a small society is respect for autonomy, we would think that the same principle should be operative in a large society. What reasons could be given otherwise?

Let’s start the thesis that democracy is an untenable form of government because it promotes leadership by the ignorant with a commonsense example. Let me make the point by using an analogy. Suppose you become ill. You know that you will require some sort of intervention by a third party; you cannot cure yourself. Where would you go for advice? Suppose there are two options. One is the group of friends with whom you hang out. The other is your physician. With respect to the group of friends, what will happen is that they will take a vote on what you should do and the majority’s suggestion is the one which they will recommend to you. If you go to your physician, he will examine you, diagnose the trouble through tests, and will prescribe his recommendation to you in the form of whatever medicines or therapy he deems appropriate. On the one hand, you are getting the advice from many persons, which looks to be a very good thing. “Two (or more) heads are better than one,” is the proverb which comes to mind to verify that tactic. On the other hand, it may be that one head is better than many, especially if the one head knows what the story is. There is no doubt that you would go to your physician. Why? Simply because he has the requisite knowledge to cure you. Your friends may have knowledge, but not the necessary medical knowledge to cure you.

Think about a democracy, our democracy. Do you have the time to become an expert on taxes, foreign affairs, budgets, welfare problems, pollution control and so on. Of course, not. But, you are expected to vote on these matters. What does that tell you? It tells you that much of the rules, laws and customs of our democracy are based upon ignorance. A majority of persons vote on what they are of the opinion is best (for them). More likely than not, that opinion has no more substance than speculation. In other words, the opinion is based on ignorance. That situation can lead to trouble, the same kind of trouble you would get into were you to follow the advice of your friends and not that of your physician. The upshot of the argument, then, is that democracy promotes social conditions which are controlled by the masses which are basically ignorant of the proper means to regulate society. The masses do not have knowledge or the wherewithal to use that knowledge.

The obvious solution in the case of a medical problem is to put in charge the “physician,” the person who knows what to do and how to do it. The obvious solution to the political problem is to put in charge those persons who have a knowledge of political science. Plato called them “philosopher kings.” These persons have the requisite knowledge to straighten out a society when it runs into problems, be they internal or external. The key to Plato’s political thesis is knowledge. Only the few who are trained and brought up to handle political problems should lead. The masses, who are controlled by appetites or “consumer desires” as we would put it today, are lead by their wants. What persons want can often be incompatible with what they really need. Too many times, the ignorance of the masses leads them to decisions in which their temporary wants may be met, but at the loss of a real or long term good. A contemporary version of the point is cigarettes. The masses know that they are truly dangerous things. Yet, their desires for the immediate pleasures overwhelm their limited reason and they spend considerable amounts of money on cigarettes which are clearly detrimental to their health and the health of others. Plato’s leaders would have none of this were they in power. Cigarettes would be banned for the health of the citizens. (Cigarettes wouldn’t be the only thing banned; Plato viewed much of the arts to be corruptive and would have had strict censorship of them.)

There is a word which covers the obligations of the leaders. It is “paternalism.” Paternalism means managing the affairs of others as a father would manage the affairs of his children. We all know the old expression, “Father knows best.” Well, that’s what paternalism means. And, if father does indeed know best (consider the father to be like the knowledgeable physician), he can lead or act in the proper manner. Of course, the children or populous may not like what the leader prescribes, for what he may prescribe may be incompatible with their wants. But, in virtue of his knowledge, he knows best, and they are temperate to follow his advice.

Again, the problem with a democracy is that the leaders are in fact the persons (the masses) who make decisions usually based on desires, not knowledge. Consequently, democracy is an inadequate form of government.


Plato is right. Democracy has its problem with the masses making bad judgments. But, are those judgments all that bad? Probably not. And, could it be the case that the “philosopher kings” could go bad? Probably so. But, let’s take a closer look at these problems before we make a final judgment on democracy.

1. Democracy can lead to a “tyranny of the majority.” The problem of the ignorant masses making political judgments is compounded, in our country, by the nature of a representative democracy. In the United States, individuals elect a number of persons to represent them in the various political arenas. The political problem of our form of government is that the founders never counted on something occurring. The constitution was framed with the purpose of protecting the rights and interests or persons, human individuals who are members of the political community called the United States. Throughout most of early history, the government was reasonably successful at doing that. Representatives were elected to vote the wishes and secure entitlements for their constituents. The purpose of the government is to protect the lives and interests of the persons who are members of the community or nation.

Two factors are of interest to us here. The first is pointed out by John Stuart Mill in his essay, On Liberty, which examines the notion that a majority of persons can come into control of a democracy. The problem of majority rule is that minorities are subjugated to the rules designed by the majority; there is a “tyranny of the majority.” To correct for this propensity for majority rule, Mill comes up with a fairly simple rule which applies to the powers of the government. It is that the only reason that a government can restrain the actions of a person is to prevent harm to others. That is, government can only restrict the freedom of action of an individual when it is clear that the action will result in harm to other persons. Otherwise, people are free to do or think as they wish. To a great extent, our country reflects Mill’s rule.

The reason for Mill’s rule is straightforward. In earlier times, the interests of the government were not necessarily those of the people. The king would protect the subject, but he could turn on any one or small group of them, for he had considerable coercive power. With representative democracy, the king is replaced by representatives who mirror or are proponents of the interests of the people. Consequently, since the government was “of, for and by” the people, limits against its coercive power were theoretically deemed unnecessary. Why should the citizens be protected against their own interests?

The answer is that in a democracy, a majority can establish power against minorities. If the majority controls the government, havoc can be reaped against the minorities who have no recourse through the government for protection. Thus, Mill establishes a principle which limits the coercive power of any government. Such a principle is designed to protect the minorities or individuals from antagonistic rules or actions which may be promoted by the majority. Mill’s rule works well to protect individuals, for it establishes rights for individuals. These rights mark the boundaries of governmental intervention. A person has many rights (right to freedom of thought, freedom of tastes, freedom of expression, freedom of association), which rights cannot be trespassed upon save under one condition. and that condition is that the rights may be infringed upon if it is clear that doing so will prevent harm to others.

The other factor concerns what is meant by a person. When the founders of our constitution wrote the document, the concept of a person was rather straight forward --an individual human being who was a member of the community. Since then, a new type of person has emerged, a corporate person. A corporate person is not a human being, but has characteristics like and unlike a human being. It is an individual thing endowed with rights, especially rights to protection of its interests under the law --the same as a human would have. However, unlike a human being, corporate persons can be ongoing; it is not a fact that they will perish. Consequently, corporate persons, such as IBM, Ford, or GE, can become quite powerful. And, they will look out after their interests. The result is that they will put considerable resources into making certain that their representatives in the government protect their interests before the interests of others. This is a new form of the tyranny of the majority; it is the tyranny of the corporate person who has great political power. The net results is that the corporations gain at the expense of the human persons who do not have the political clout to enhance their interests against those of corporations.

2. Democracy and education. There is no question that democracy depends upon two principles. The public must be capable of making informed judgments and the public must practice democracy, they must make those judgments.

Education of the public is crucial to a democracy. The underlying ingredient in a well developed educational system is to make citizens responsible for the decisions they make. Such a system leads them to having as much knowledge about the world and themselves as possible. The problem, of course, is that, as Plato noted, the masses are reluctant to engage in the education process, for, in general, it is a hard task that requires considerable effort. Any democracy will fail if it does not educate its populous; at least that’s what Plato thought. And, he’s probably right.

Moreover, even if a public is educated, it must go on to practice the responsibility of leading itself. Making decisions about rules of conduct and the future of the community is a difficult task, so difficult that most persons want to leave the procedure to others. That is, of course, what a representative democracy is all about. We elect representatives to make responsible decisions while we tend to our own affairs. If we do our homework and elect good thinkers, then we will be reasonably safe. However, if we elect representatives in virtue of “media” presentations, then we are in for a bad time. This is where things can go really bad. The reason is that corporate individuals can give to the candidates financial power to purchase the means to get elected. Through manipulation of the means available to persuade the judgments of individual persons, a corporate tyranny of the majority can take place, only it is the tyranny of the powerful corporations, rather than a majority of individual voters. Big corporate persons can dominate a democratic society through the use of their economic power to influence the judgments of voters. The upshot for a viable democracy is for individuals to pay very close attention to whom they vote for and why. The general rule of thumb which applies is, “Use your political power wisely or lose it.” With a democracy, power will seek those who use it.


There is no question that money is power. Capitalism is an economic system which operates on many factors. The important ones for us are, the nature of an educated public and the power of free enterprise, which includes its effect on social structure.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels speak to the latter point. (See the Manifesto of the Communist Party.) Their basic message, to use a slang expression, is that “Money makes the world go around.” Put in other words, if we want to understand the nature or structure of any social system, it is sufficient to determine the nature of the economic system which underlies and gives rise to that social system. Take our society, for example. What explains the values in it? Marx would say, capitalism. How so?

Basically, our society has upper, middle and lower class stratification. There are the persons who occupy positions of power and wealth, there are the managers and engineers who make the modes of production run, and there are the workers who labor at producing goods and production services. Those in positions of power and wealth own and control the means of production. Also, they reap the benefits of their intelligence (profit) when they adapt their products and production to the marketplace. The worker who actually produces the product does not have a claim to the profit, for he has sold his product (his labor) to the capitalist already.

Let me try to make Marx’s claim a bit more clear. In a primitive economic society (consider a small 15th century village) there were, for the most part, a collection of interrelated workers. There were blacksmiths, barrel makers, cobblers, weavers, farmers and so on. Each worker owned his own tools (the means of production) and when he produced his product (the nails, barrel, shoes, cloth, beans and so on) he owned the final product. As villages grew and demand for goods outstripped supply by overburdening the means of production, someone had the bright idea of combining certain workers under one roof. For example, if a shoe was being made, there would be a person to cut the soles, another to sew the soles to the upper parts, someone to make the shoe laces, and on down the line, literally. Now, a strange thing happens when the system becomes socialized in this manner. The individual workers sell their labor to the fellow who built the factory. Their labor becomes a commodity or product which can be bought and sold just as shoes, beans and the rest. In selling their labor, they become part of the means of production which the factory owner, the capitalist, owns. Since he, the capitalist owns the entire means of production, he is rightfully the owner of the finished product. When he sells the product, he is entitled to any “surplus” or profit which accrues.

What’s the difference between the village system and the manufacturing or capitalist system? Two things, both related. First, there is socialized production in the manufacturing system. Many persons make one product. These persons own their means of production initially, their labor, but they sell it to the capitalist. Now, he owns it. A person who owns the power by which something is brought into being can usually claim a right of ownership to it. Here is the second point.

Let us take a labor theory of private property. (For more on this theory, see a philosopher named John Locke.) How is it that anyone can claim something to be his/her private property. Well, take an example. Suppose we were all marooned on an island. I see a banana tree nearby. I climb the tree and get myself a bunch of bananas. I sit down under the tree and begin to eat one. You come up and take a banana and begin to peel it. I shout, “Stop, those are my bananas. If you want one, you’ll have to give me something in return!” What establishes my claim to the bananas as my private property? The answer is straight forward. If I own anything privately, it is my own body. Part of my body are my actions and labor. When I mix my labor with the bananas by bringing them down from the top of the tree, I have literally mixed a part of me in with the bananas. My labor (or me) is in the bananas. If I am in the bananas, then you have no claim to my being. Consequently, you have no claim to the bananas without my permission. The bananas are “part of me” as a product of my mixing my labor with them.

In the capitalist manufacturing system, a worker’s labor is the product itself. Thus, when the worker sells his labor, he sells the claim to the product of the labor. In a manufacturing system, the worker cannot lay claim to the final product, for he has not mixed his (unpaid) self with it. Who owns the product? The capitalist. What socialization of the means of production and a labor theory of private property do is to set up the prospect for smart entrepreneurs to accumulate incredible amounts of private property. Private property in the form of money is capital, or economic power.

Here’s the beauty of capitalism. With the advent of massive energy systems to drive factories (steam engines), capitalists found that the workers did not need to be skilled. The old village system required a skilled worker, someone who knew how to make the parts and put them all together. The socialized manufacturing system only requires workers to operate the machines which make the parts and put them all together. Consequently, the value of a product is dependent upon its supply. Given that the capitalist needs only persons smart enough to learn how to pull levers, the supply of workers is great, for the capitalist needs only unskilled workers whom he can train on the job in short time. The net result is that direct costs for the capitalist go down; he does not have to pay for skilled labor. If the price of the product is developed by astute marketers, then the product has good sales. The “surplus” or profit goes to the capitalist to use as he wishes --to upgrade his factory or buy himself mansions (They did both.) The capitalist gets all the goodies, while the worker struggles with minimum wage.

What happens to the worker? Well, Marx says that the condition of the worker is bound to get worse, worse to the point that the economic system of capitalism will collapse. How so? A key factor Marx points out is overproduction, which is another way of noting that the money flow is not properly distributed. Basically, there are too many people who do not have enough money to pay for the goods which are being turned out by the factories. Since no one buys the goods, the capitalist is between the rock and a hard place. If he continues production, he must continue to buy the goods produced by the workers, their labor. But, his cash flow is depleted because no one is buying his goods. What to do?

Let’s imagine ourselves to be capitalists. What should we do? Clearly, the answers are to reduce direct costs and increase sales either through redevelopment of the old product or establishing new markets. Best ways to do those things are to lay off workers or make them accept lower wages, and to expand markets. Laying off workers is not too hard to do. Nor is it hard to get them to accept lower wages. Why? Because usually in situations of overproduction, there are plenty of other unemployed workers who will scramble to get a job. New markets are harder to develop, but not that hard. Take cigarettes. When man stopped buying them, the shift was to women. When the market for women became saturated, the shift was to young persons. Now that the young person market is beginning to dry up, the shift is to overseas. For the tobacco industry, such a shift is on the money, so to speak; American tobacco cannot be duplicated (pirated) as can many of our other products.

Since we are imagining ourselves to be capitalists, let’s go the full route. We must establish ways to control the feelings of injustice or alienation which the workers feel. Two ways to do that. The first is to establish a strong religious system. The purpose of the system is to make the workers think that their feelings of exploitation and injustice are NOT caused by capitalism, but by their own sinful natures. If the workers are feeling depressed or angry about their poverty, make them think that they deserve such a condition. They are sinners, and as such, deserve whatever punishment comes their way. The capitalist is not to blame. They are the cause of their own misery.

The second way is to establish a method by which the workers can “let off steam” in a socially acceptable way, in other words, a way which will not endanger the capitalist mode of society. Organized sports is the ticket. Workers can go to sports arenas and cheer for their team to win. The more brutal the sport, the more the relief --that is, if the team wins. Even if the team does not, there is always someone to blame for the misery felt. More importantly, when the team wins and the “combat” is vigorous, the workers can freely associate their anger towards the opposing team. Their frustrations and anger are spent upon the game and are not directed towards the capitalists and their organizations. In fact, the smart capitalists are praised for “purchasing” the team for the area or city where the workers live and work.

Of course, sooner or later there will be some trouble. Here is where Marx has an interesting idea of the purpose of government. Since, as we noted above, corporation persons can become a controlling majority in a democracy which has a capitalistic economic system, it is expected that the prevailing government will reflect the interests of the majority. Or, as Marx would put it, government in a capitalist society has the purpose of protecting and enhancing the interests of the capitalists, the ruling class. If the workers become counter productive to the interests of the capitalists, the government and its forces will correct the problem.

So, it looks as though capitalism has a straight and easy road to follow. Keep up production, control the masses, and the capitalists will live well.

Maybe, not so well. And this leads us back to the theme we began with, how will capitalism destroy itself? The answer Marx gives is again about cash flow. Since capitalism involves being the biggest with the best, the accumulation of capital will be in fewer and fewer hands. The result will be that the few rich simply will not be able to return the necessary cash into the monetary system to keep the system functional. The few rich will get so rich and the many poor so poor that the system will collapse and with it the government. The poor will take over and eliminate the condition for capitalism, wage labor and private property. Since the conditions for capitalism will not exist, there will not be the rich and the poor (tow classes), but only one class, the working class. Since there is one class, there will be no government, for the purpose of government is to enhance the interests of the haves over the have nots. What will be born, Marx notes, is a communist state, a pure economic system in which there is socialized means of production AND socialized ownership of the product. Everyone owns everything.

Sounds fair? Seemingly; no one will end up being exploited. That’s what Marx or ideal communists would like to think. But, the fact of the matter is that human nature will find another way to appropriate goods privately. That appropriation may not be in the form of money, but power, information, influence --your guess is as good as mine. But, the idea that an ideal communist state could even begin to function given the nature of man, is wishful thinking at the best, foolhardiness at the worst. People are motivated to a great extent out of self-interest. Communism cannot provide the rewards or economic feedback persons need to be motivated.

So, where does this leave us with our capitalist democracy? There is no question that we have some of the problems which are pointed out by communists. The critical problem is to have and economic system, capitalism, and also a viable democracy --one that does not exploit its constituents unnecessarily. By unnecessarily, I mean that it is recognized that the nature of capitalism is to exploit ignorance. If the masses of people in a democracy are unable to make sound judgments due to ignorance, the capitalists (who are not dummies) will exploit that ignorance to their benefit. Capitalist systems will swing back and forth from oligarchies to enlightened systems (ones which through laws and taxes prevent the working class from poverty) as the shoe of ignorance pinches.

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