Plato contra Popper on ‘Who should rule?’

I want to correct a basic misunderstanding of Plato’s political philosophy. Here is one version of the most common misreading:

Plato was the theorist of an aristocratic form of absolute government. As the fundamental problem of political theory, he posed the following questions: ‘Who should rule? Who is to govern the state? The many, the mob, the masses, or the few, the elect, the elite?’


Once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is accepted as fundamental, then obviously there can be only one reasonable answer: not those who do not know, but those who do know, the sages; not the mob, but the few best. That is Plato’s theory of the rule by the best, of aristocracy.


It is somewhat odd that great theorists of democracy and great adversaries of this Platonic theory – such as Rousseau – adopted Plato’s statement of the problem instead of rejecting it as inadequate, for it is quite clear that the fundamental question in political theory is not the one Plato formulated. The question is not ‘Who should rule? or ‘Who is to have power? but ‘How much power should be granted to the government?’ or perhaps more precisely, ‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’ In other words, the fundamental problem of political theory is the problem of checks and balances, of institutions by which political power, its arbitrariness and its abuse can be controlled and tamed.  — Karl Popper, from In Search of a Better World (The emphases in bold are mine.)

The only thing about Plato that Popper got right is that the question “Who should rule?” is fundamental to his thought. That Popper thinks that he can elide that question is problematic and ultimately self-contradictory. For in Popper’s own statement of the fundamental political question (‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’) simply leaves unstated who this “we” is. Is it the representatives of a democratic majority? Is it some enlightened cadre at the University of London or Zurich? Who is the “we” who is asking the question, who is going to actively “develop” the institutions, who is free from the “incompetence and dishonesty” of the rulers “we” would check, who see the way to “controlling and taming” the proposed government’s “arbitrariness and abuse” without itself being arbitrary and abusive? Popper has not at all asked a fundamental question capable of displacing the Platonic one. Plato’s is more fundamental, however sympathetic I am to Popper’s aim of restricting the worst totalitarian excesses. No “we” can act politically without deciding on a ruler, even if “we” decide “we” are the proper ruler.

Plato’s question is really one of asking who can justly rule and his answer is the one who is him/herself just. (Pretty obvious, isn’t it?) And justice turns out to be “minding one’s own business” — in other words, avoiding rule in situations where one has no competence to rule. Justice is a form of humility, of modesty, of lack of pretense to rule where a better ruler is present. If the baker knows/cares more about baking, then in situations of baking the baker should rule — even the President. To overreach, to rule in situations where one lacks situational competence, is unjust, unwise and demonstrates a lack of self-control. It is tyranny in embryo. (See my previous discussion of tyranny here.) For Plato, the one who is most equipped to rule is the one most aware of his/her lack of competence and most unwilling to overstep the bounds of his/her modest competence. In a situation of general incompetence, only the one who is aware of his/her incompetence will be sufficiently cautious.

What in the resume of Presidents Bush or Obama or Garfield or Hayes qualified them to assume rule over healthcare or education or Middle East politics or sugar subsidies or immigration policy or high finance or etc.? How foolish are “we” to think that democratic majorities will be modest in their aspirations to rule over every nook and cranny of their neighbors’ lives? What good are constitutional checks “we” put in place when the voters and rulers lack the requisite self-constitutions to give them heed? And are “we” willing to consider that the nation-state may be essentially corrupt in its presuppositions, that its sheer size is an impediment to both justice and decency?

It is exceedingly odd that Sir Karl Popper has made Plato the poster boy for the totalitarian temptation. Yes, Plato thought that experts should rule — but only when they are in fact experts. Plato was very quick to deny that there was anything like a “general expert, which is why his ideal ruler is the one most likely to deny such expertise in him/herself. Would that our rulers would follow suit!


What is tyranny?

The original meaning of tyrannos is not bad/oppressive rule, although it did come to mean that, but rather rule by someone foreign to the jurisdiction in which he governs. Not coincidentally, the word itself seems to be a foreign term ingested into the Greek language, perhaps during some epoch of occupation by a foreign power. To cite one well-known example of this relation between tyranny and foreignness: Oedipus Tyrannos isn’t given that epithet for being evil but for being raised outside of Thebes — Oedipus for the most part seems to have been considered a good ruler. So how does the word “tyrant” come to mean what we now take it to mean? (more…)