Plato, Aristotle, Democracy, and the Quality of Political Decisions

A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. Plato
Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. Aristotle

I’m with Aristotle here. Plato is well known for his aversion to democracy (see here; Aristotle is more moderate in this respect). With this quote, Plato initiated the long tradition of juxtaposing rule by experts (or meritocracy, aristocracy or whatever) and rule by the people (majority rule in a democracy). This tradition is, of course, intuitively attractive. Politics is a profession like any other. You wouldn’t have a popular vote on the best design for a bridge, so why on government policy and legislation? Better give political power to those who know what they are doing. (In Plato’s case philosophers, but I guess his contemporary followers would prefer other types of expertise).

I accept part of this argument, but I include the need for popular control of experts, thereby safeguarding democracy to some extent. What I want to do now in the current post, is go a step further, and claim that the quality of political decisions doesn’t necessarily or always depend on expert knowledge of the matters at hand, but rather on mass participation in the decision process, and hence on democracy. Or, more precisely, on a democracy that isn’t just about electing and controlling experts but also about large numbers of people participating in the determination of policy and legislation. The important thing here is the element of MASS participation, of numbers.

What’s interesting in the Plato quote above is the implied opposition between knowledge and numbers, typical of Plato of course. But we can turn this around, and say that knowledge DEPENDS on numbers. The equal participation of large numbers of people in a democracy results, perhaps not in more knowledge stricto sensu, but at least in better decisions compared to the political inequality that goes with rule by experts. The opinion of the people, as established through democratic decision procedures, is – potentially at least, and given certain preconditions – better than any other opinion (which does not mean that the people are infallible).

Why is this? In ideal circumstances, the opinion of the people results from an inclusive, widespread and free discussion, guaranteed by human rights, among large numbers of people who all have an equal say. A discussion in which as many people as possible participate in an equal way contains the largest possible number of arguments for and against a proposal. Such a discussion, therefore, makes it more likely that false arguments are refuted and that good arguments are recognized and are widely tested. Two heads are better than one, and 4 better than 2 etc.

A group of individuals is more intelligent than the sum of the individual intellects. Massive participation means massive criticism and this improves the quality of a proposal which can survive this massive criticism.

Political equality is a value because it improves the quality of decisions. This idea is also behind John Stuart Mill’s defense of equal political participation rights for women:

The inequality of the sexes has deprived society of a vast pool of talent. If women had the free use of their faculties along with the same prizes and encouragements as men, there would be a doubling of the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity. The injustice perpetuated against women has depleted the human condition: every restraint on freedom of conduct of any of their human fellow creatures … dries up pro tanto the principal fountain of human happiness, and leaves the species less rich, to an inappreciable degree, in all that makes life valuable to the individual human being. John Stuart Mill

Excluding or neglecting certain opinions or certain people from political decision procedures does not only harm the interests of the people concerned but also harms the thinking process of the community and the quality of common decisions. The best decisions – on average – require the equal participation and activity of as many persons as possible.

Elitism has always been very popular, both at the right and at the left of the political spectrum. Decisions of the “common people” are said to be stupid by definition. The people are not qualified to rule and are perhaps, not even qualified to choose their rulers. An elite must rule the people and this is in the best interest of the people. The people must be protected against their own stupid decisions. Only an elite has the necessary qualifications to rule. It knows better than the people what the people need and it knows better how to achieve the real goals of the people. That is the legacy of Plato.

However, an elite is more likely to make wrong decisions because it does not know all possible arguments and it does not have to submit itself to criticism. Large scale discussion is not an obstacle for action; it is a necessary condition for wise action.

The majority of the plain people will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller body of men will make in trying to govern them. Theodore Roosevelt

Be that as it may, how do I explain the phenomenon of demagogy or the often very irrational, unreasonable and emotional reactions of the people (lynching, for example, or voting for Hitler)? Of course, nobody in his right mind would maintain that the people are always reasonable, rational or infallible. The quality of the decisions of the people can only be good in the setting of ideal democratic procedures in which discussion, deliberation and argumentation take a prominent place. This setting is an ideal but many existing procedures come very close to this ideal. If the right institutions, mentalities etc. are given, then the ideal can become a fact.

Besides, individuals or elites are often just as unreasonable, emotional or irrational as large groups of people. It is even easier to excite a small group than it is to excite a large group, because it is more difficult to have a unity of feeling in a large group. There are more conflicts and contradictions in large groups than in small groups, which makes it unlikely that a large group of people gets excited in the same way.


11 thoughts on “Plato, Aristotle, Democracy, and the Quality of Political Decisions

  1. Incidentally, I have written a bit on democracy and I think we agree on many things with regards to an ideal democracy (I do not think there should only be a discussion, though–I think this discussion should also influence decisions). I hope you also agree with me that American democracy does not meet this ideal. That, in fact, it falls miserably short.

    Maybe you’re not very familiar with American democracy, I don’t know. But it has roots in the type of elitism on you which speak. It functions as a polyarchy (see works by Robert Dahl), and not a participatory democracy. This is what James Madison called protecting “the minority of the opulent against the majority.”

    1. Hi Benjamin, your judgment on American democracy is valid for all major democracies. I don’t know of any present day democracy that’s really participatory, at least not on a national level. The US has the historic precedent of the New England town hall democracy, which was very vibrant, even if not very inclusive… The federal system, however, was never intended to reproduce this experience. The structure of representation on the federal level – with the Senate system for example – isn’t even true to the ideal of “one man one vote”, and neither is the districting system.

      I recommend Benjamin Barber’s “Strong Democracy”.

  2. Well, when I speak of participatory democracy, I’m not speaking about direct democracy, per se. I’m speaking about a democracy where government is responsive to the people, where the electorate has a meaningful say in policy formulation, where the the citizenry are participants rather than just mere spectators whose only role is to occasionally “lend their weight” to a small choice of the “responsible men” (Walter Lippmann). That is, it is a democracy that follows the will of the people.

    I think Bolivia is a good example. Their movements toward decentralization have been, in my opinion, remarkable. And perhaps their biggest achievement in this movement has been the election of Evo Morales in 2005. I think it has been a manifestation of the indigenous imagination based on autonomy, community, and solidarity. It’s ushering in a truly “new Bolivia”

  3. HI: Interesting thoughts here. I would love to see a citation for the quotation from TR that you used above in your next blog. I have found it to be true, though not, of course, always true.

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