Plato's Laws VI

The sixth book of the Laws contains an important argument on the need to maintain equality versus the need to ensure that not just anyone is given a public office with great powers. The last book showed us limits on how much equality human beings are really prepared to accept, with the Athenian nevertheless advocating for taking it as far as possible -- the ideal society absolutely abandoning any idea of property or ownership per se, and the second-best society at least trying to impose a kind of proportionate equality. Neither one was really workable, but we're going to proceed 'as best we can' with the second-best society. 

(Note that the Athenian promised us a third-best kind of society, and then said he'd get back to it later.)

In this book, though, the Athenian himself is suddenly pointing out how important it is to set limits on equality. Equality of wealth may be fine and dandy, but equality of power is really dangerous. Power should only belong to those who have been carefully trained and taught how to wield it in accord with society's values and constitution. If it should fall into the hands of people who don't understand the value of the society's laws and existing order, they'll run things up on the rocks. 

I'm going to skip nearly all the discussion about the proper offices, since they pertain to a kind of social organization we won't attempt. I'm going to focus instead on two points: who the proper voters are, and who the proper officials aren't

This is going to be a kind of representative democracy, with officers like magistrates elected by voters. The Athenian wants voters who will make good choices, but he thinks that it takes time to see the value of a set of laws. The thing to do is to reserve the right to vote, then, to only those who "have been imbued with them from childhood, and have been nurtured in them, and become habituated to them." These will choose officers, it is hoped, who will use the power entrusted to them to support the constitutional order and the values of the state. Until that class has had time to develop, the original founders of the colony will serve as trustees. 

That class of voters turns out to be a subclass of citizens, but not just anyone who grew up in the new colony. They're going to be veterans: nobody gets to vote who has not served in the infantry or cavalry (a surprising and pleasing addition, given the earlier discussion of the worth of the infantry vs. the marines -- who were like the cavalry in the way the Athenian criticizes). They also have to have continued their service for as long as the law permits, i.e., they can't stop showing up for drill and duty and retain the power to vote. 

Now this will not be an expeditionary army, but a defensive one. So we are not talking about committing to endless tours of war, but about remaining part of the defensive force in the city -- somewhat akin to being qualified to vote by being a member of a volunteer fire department, or the citizen's militia, or the National Guard, or the police. Those citizens, who put their lives on the line and do the hard work of being on call to protect the city, are the ones qualified to elect officers.

There is no secret ballot. There is the opposite of a secret ballot. You have to put your nominee's name on a tablet with a list of all your ancestors and relatives. Then there is a process of multiple ballots, so that if anyone objects to any of the proposed magistrates all your ancestors and relatives can be asked to discuss the matter with you before you vote again. Only after this process has occurred three times is the selection final. 

Note that the voting is a sacred process, done in the most revered sanctuary, but the objections and disputation about who is a fit officer is moved to the marketplace. It interests me that this ties the whole of the public spaces of town into the process and allows for hot disputation, while emphasizing the sacredness of the duty to vote wisely. 

Who are the right officers to elect? Obviously, at this point in the dialogue, you know the answer:  the right officer is the person who has the right virtues for the job. Virtue is worthy of honor. A just society rewards that virtue by assigning the person who has it an office that is an honor, and also allows that person to exercise their virtue in a way that benefits everyone. There is a very nice reflexivity between the virtues you have and the duties and honors you receive. 

Who are the wrong people? Just as obviously, those who lack the right virtues for the job. But there's a problem: people who lack virtue may also lack humility, and be unwilling to accept (or unable to recognize) that they aren't the best person to be entrusted with power. 

There's another problem: this recognizes a basic inequality between the citizens. Some are good and worthy, and others are not. This society is supposed to be based on equality, to the point that the Athenian is striving to create mathematical equalities as far as possible. Yet at the root of the politics, if it is going to work, they need good officers and not bad ones. The truth is that not everyone is equally fit to wield power. 

What this is likely to produce, says the Athenian, is a demand from the unworthy for offices to be assigned randomly -- so that they will not miss out, or be treated as lesser men by their society. The problem, of course, is that they are lesser men. Not treating them that way is very perilous. 

Ath. The mode of election which has been described is in a mean between monarchy and democracy, and such a mean the state ought always to observe; for servants and masters never can be friends, nor good and bad, merely because they are declared to have equal privileges. For to unequals equals become unequal, if they are not harmonized by measure; and both by reason of equality, and by reason of inequality, cities are filled with seditions. The old saying, that "equality makes friendship," is happy and also true; but there is obscurity and confusion as to what sort of equality is meant. For there are two equalities which are called by the same name, but are in reality in many ways almost the opposite of one another; one of them may be introduced without difficulty, by any state or any legislator in the distribution of honours: this is the rule of measure, weight, and number, which regulates and apportions them. But there is another equality, of a better and higher kind, which is not so easily recognized. This is the judgment of Zeus; among men it avails but little; that little, however, is the source of the greatest good to individuals and states. For it gives to the greater more, and to the inferior less and in proportion to the nature of each; and, above all, greater honour always to the greater virtue, and to the less less; and to either in proportion to their respective measure of virtue and education. And this is justice, and is ever the true principle of states, at which we ought to aim, and according to this rule order the new city which is now being founded, and any other city which may be hereafter founded. To this the legislator should look-not to the interests of tyrants one or more, or to the power of the people, but to justice always; which, as I was saying, the distribution of natural equality among unequals in each case. But there are times at which every state is compelled to use the words, "just," "equal," in a secondary sense, in the hope of escaping in some degree from factions. For equity and indulgence are infractions of the perfect and strict rule of justice. And this is the reason why we are obliged to use the equality of the lot, in order to avoid the discontent of the people; and so we invoke God and fortune in our prayers, and beg that they themselves will direct the lot with a view to supreme justice. And therefore, although we are compelled to use both equalities, we should use that into which the element of chance enters as seldom as possible.

This is an interesting philosophical move, one that tries to preserve the idea of equality while admitting blatant inequalities -- 'gives to the greater more, and to the lesser less.' The basic idea is that the same rule is being applied to all parties, and those who are found by the rule to be more worthy are given more. They're held to the same standard, and gain more honors (including especially the honor of being assigned power) if they prove worthier. 

So why not just say, "Look, people aren't really equal, so let's stop pretending and give the better people more power"? According to the passage, that leads to sedition among the worse; and sometimes that sedition grows strong enough that even the best kind of society can't help but distribute honors at random, or anyway according to some scheme that makes sure they're more available to the less worthy. That should be minimized, the Athenian suggests, but it can't be expected to be avoided. 

Note again that this is about power, not wealth. The same society is going to enforce some proportionate limits on wealth, at the same time it tries to assure inequalities of power as much as it can. If successful, the inequalities of power won't cause corruption in the wealth equalities because virtuous people will be given the power, and they won't use it to dodge limits or enrich themselves. But we know it won't be successful: sometimes powers have to be assigned by lot, or in another way to ensure the less worthy have offices. Thus, corruption is sure to arise at least insofar as less virtuous people are elevated to positions of power. 

Aristotle viewed this approach as unlikely to be workable anyway; as he says in the first book of the Rhetoric, it's always best to give as little power as possible to even carefully-chosen magistrates because even the best people tend to use it to help themselves and their factions and families. It's a human weakness. Yet for the Athenian, the only hope of maintaining a successful equality of wealth lies in an unequal distribution of power he admits is impossible to maintain. 

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