Thursday, August 11, 2005

Distraction: Plato

Robin over at Marginal Revolution posted an excellent quote by Plato:

Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; ... And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh ... But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say--carpenter, tinker, ... and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught....

Robin agrees, saying "Our human willingness to have confident opinions on topics where we are poorly informed seems to me a key problem in politics."

I respectfully disagree with Robin and my idol Plato. While I've spent my life studying politics, and desperately wish that more people would spend at least some time learning more about the issues, politics does not require any special knowledge to participate in, nor does ignorance of it cause any key problems, because it is different from other topics.

Politics is about power, the distribution of wealth, and social decision making. If someone in power does something to you that you don't like, you can choose to vote against them. If they raise your taxes or represent the economic interests of a different group, you can choose to vote against them. If they make a decision on a social matter that you disagree with, you can choose to vote against them. It doesn't require any privileged knowledge, you just have to know yourself.

And the organization of our Republic, our representative democracy, with its parties and ideologies, doesn't even require you to know anything about the individual candidate, if you so choose. This is a key difference between our time and the time of Plato.

Since the time of Plato, people have made appeals to education/intelligence the argument against enfranchising women/minorities/the poor/etc. But it's simply not true. Give up the pretension that you're smarter then other people, and that your judgments are better then their own. Trust people. Trust democracy.

This Senator is not smarter then you.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of dumb people in the world. It just means that my democratic choices are no more or less valid or intelligent then the choices of anyone else.

Just saying. Again, nothing but respect for Robin and Marginal Revolution.

Update: Robin made an excellent point in my comments, if you care to read. So does John at No Treason - who for some reason lacks trackback.


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