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Friday, March 29, 2013

Plato's right-wing collectivist utopia

Plato's search for a hierarchical, collectivist utopia found its classic expression in his most famous and influential work, The Republic. There, and later in The Laws, Plato sets forth the outline of his ideal city-state: one in which right oligarchic rule is maintained by philosopher–kings and their philosophic colleagues, thus supposedly ensuring rule by the best and wisest in the community. Underneath the philosophers in the coercive hierarchy are the ‘guardians’ – the soldiers, whose role is to aggress against other cities and lands and to defend their polis from external aggression. Underneath them are to be the body of the people, the despised producers: labourers, peasants and merchants who produce the material goods on which the lordly philosophers and guardians are to live. These three broad classes are supposed to reflect a shaky and pernicious leap if there ever was one – the proper rule over the soul in each human being. To Plato, each human being is divided into three parts: ‘one that craves, one that fights, and one that thinks’, and the proper hierarchy of rule within each soul is supposed to be reason first, fighting next, and finally, and the lowest, grubby desire.
The two ruling classes – the thinkers and the guardians – that really count are, in Plato's ideal state, to be forced to live under pure communism. There is to be no private property whatsoever among the elite; all things are to be owned communally, including women and children. The elite are to be forced to live together and share common meals. Since money and private possessions, according to the aristocrat Plato, only corrupt virtue, they are to be denied to the upper classes. Marriage partners among the elite are to be selected strictly by the state, which is supposed to proceed according to the scientific breeding already known in animal husbandry. If any of the philosophers or guardians find themselves unhappy about this arrangement, they will have to learn that their personal happiness means nothing compared to the happiness of the polis as a whole – a rather murky concept at best. In fact, those who are not seduced by Plato's theory of the essential reality of ideas will not believe that there is such a real living entity as a polis. Instead, the city-state or community consists only of living, choosing individuals.
To keep the elite and the subject masses in line, Plato instructs the philosopher–rulers to spread the ‘noble’ lie that they themselves are descended from the gods whereas the other classes are of inferior heritage. Freedom of speech or of inquiry was, as one might expect, anathema to Plato. The arts are frowned on, and the life of the citizens was to be policed to suppress any dangerous thoughts or ideas that might come to the surface.
Remarkably, in the very course of setting forth his classic apologia for totalitarianism, Plato contributed to genuine economic science by being the first to expound and analyse the importance of the division of labour in society. Since his social philosophy was founded on a necessary separation between classes, Plato went on to demonstrate that such specialization is grounded in basic human nature, in particular its diversity and inequality. Plato has Socrates say in The Republic that specialization arises because ‘we are not all alike; there are many diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations’.
Since men produce different things, the goods are naturally traded for each other, so that specialization necessarily gives rise to exchange. Plato also points out that this division of labour increases the production of all the goods. Plato saw no problem, however, in morally ranking the various occupations, with philosophy of course ranking highest and labour or trade being sordid and ignoble.
The use of gold and silver as money greatly accelerated with the invention of coinage in Lydia in the early seventh century BC and coined money quickly spread to Greece. In keeping with his distaste for money-making, trade and private property, Plato was perhaps the first theorist to denounce the use of gold and silver as money. He also disliked gold and silver precisely because they served as international currencies accepted by all peoples. Since these precious metals are universally accepted and exist apart from the imprimatur of government, gold and silver constitute a potential threat to economic and moral regulation of the polis by the rulers. Plato called for a government fiat currency, heavy fines on the importation of gold from outside the city-state, and the exclusion from citizenship of all traders and workers who deal with money.
One of the hallmarks of an ordered utopia sought by Plato is that, to remain ordered and controlled, it must be kept relatively static. And that means little or no change, innovation or economic growth. Plato anticipated some present-day intellectuals in frowning on economic growth, and for similar reasons: notably, fear of collapse of the domination of the state by the ruling élite. Particularly difficult in trying to freeze a static society is the problem of population growth. Quite consistently, therefore, Plato called for freezing the size of the population of the city-state, keeping the number of its citizens limited to 5 000 agricultural landlord families.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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