© 3 Jan 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Some thoughts from Aristotle.


One of the most influential books I have read is Aristotle’s Politics: A Treatise on Government. I do not necessarily agree with all of it, but the journey is fascinating. One thing that becomes unavoidably clear as you read is that governance is not an easy thing to get right.

In the Politics, there are three degenerate or corrupt governments: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Being raised in a culture where “‍democracy‍” is used as a stand-in word for the entire idea of “‍good government,‍” the idea that it might be one of the bad governments is a bit odd.

Now a tyranny is a monarchy where the good of one man only is the object of government, an oligarchy considers only the rich, and a democracy only the poor; but neither of them have a common good in view.

The above quote encapsulates the problem with any government: “‍neither of them have the common good in view.‍” I cannot recall ever hearing someone suggest they are voting for someone because “‍I like policy X; it will hurt me, but it’s good for the state.‍” That would mean each policy would go to the majority benefit which would become the “‍good of the poor‍” given the 80-20 rule, except we vote for package deals (representatives). This gives demagogues power to spin the parts of the package that people vote on.

Aristotle has much to say about demagogues, seeing them as the flatterers that sway popular vote, the worm-tongue behind the throne. However, in our culture they have become instead the oligarchs, for it is the money that makes a voice heard in a communication-technology age and that money can also pay for flatterers to create the message.

This leads to a peculiar tension not present in the public square discourse of ancient Greece. The rich try to convince the poor that the good of the rich is also the good of the poor. Often this is done with misdirection, hyping up the argument over issues of no oligarchical interest and sliding the fiscal measures in under the radar. Hence monstrosities like the Sonny Bono Act get passed, despite the fact that nearly all voters would have opposed it, simply by not including the voters in the debate.

Aristotle posits the potential for a polity, a governing body consisting of people who desire the common good. It is not clear to me that such a governing body can long exist. The present rich/poor tension in representative democracy seems to lie outside his universe of discourse. I wonder if it might not prove to be in the common interest.

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