Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Aristotle: Citizenship and Constitutions

We're talking about Aristotle's The Politics , starting here, because it's useful to go back to first principles and get a long view of our political and economic problems.


One matter which has attracted attention in social democratic circles in the last few years is the notion of citizenship. (I have a recollection of a long discussion in David Held's Models of Democracy, but haven't read it in a while.)

In general, however, our conception of citizenship is now very confused and unclear. It mostly tends towards simply residence, or miminal civic inclusion, rather than any common ethnicity or values or beliefs. Multiculturalism has become the ideal on the left, as well as sectional rather than national identity. We have had an immense shift in the last fifty years from ideas of national self-determination and decolonization to purely civic membership, with no obligations except to obey the law and pay taxes.

Aristotle ( who spent much of his life as a foreign resident in Athens) is adamant that citizenship is not just residence. Instead,

What effectively distinguhes the citizen proper from all others is his participation in giving judgment and in holding office. p169

A citizen must be capable of meaningfully participating in deliberation. So is the good man and the good citizen the same thing? Not quite. For one thing, it will depend on the kind of consitution a citizen lives under.

Not that good ruling and good obedience are the same virtue - only that the good citizen must have the knowledge and ability both to rule and to be ruled. That is what we mean by the virtue of a citizen - understanding the governing of free men from both points of view. p182

You cannot, on this perspective , really be a citizen by simply asserting rights or claims against the whole, rather than also seeing the perspective of those who must meet those rights and claims and comsequences.

And the virtue of the ruler and the citizen are not the same. The virtue of the ruler is mostly practical wisdom, or phronesis, which is neither theoretical nor technocratic, but skilled ability to judge particular situations. The virtues of the private citizen are wider.

Strikingly from our perspective, as a rule he also believed anyone who works as skilled craftsman or works for wages for others cannot be a citizen...

for it is quite impossible, while living the life of a mechanic or hireling, to occupy oneself as virtue demands. p184

That perhaps vanished as a sensible view with the increased scale of organizations with the industrial revolution. But the notion that one must have time and energy to reflect still stands, perhaps.

The common good

He then separates good from bad constitutions. The notion of a good constitution is very clear:

It is clear that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong. p189

Looking to simpy private advantage, "be it of the one or the few or the mass" is a deviation, when the interests of one section of the community take precedence over the others.

This has contemporary relevance as well. Seeing politics as simply a matter of demographics, of sectional interest and redistribution and faction, obscures and denies the common good. I think this is where the Democrats, as a coalition of minority and special interest groups, usually go wrong, and where the GOP is joining them with its increasingly libertarian tone. Assembling enough sectional coalition elements to get to 50.1% is not the same as advocating for a view of the common good.

It also prefigures much contemporary analysis, such as the notion of "inclusion" in Why Nations Fail. Small groups often focus on dividing a small collective pie to their own advantage, instead of making the pie bigger.

Of course, there can be different views of the common good. But you need some conception of the good. And you need to go beyond the shallow Pareto optimality of welfare economics to have any real insight into the common good. We will come back to this later.

So Aristotle distinguishes six kinds of rule: monarchy, and its deviant twin tyranny; aristocracy (in the old sense of rule by the aristoi, or the best and most virtuous men, not traditional European landed upper classes) and its deviation, oligarchy, typically the rule of the few or the wealthy; and polity, which is "political control exercised by the mass of the populace in the common interest" versus its somewhat deviant twin, democracy, which is rule only "for the benefit of the men without means." , ie the poor. p190


Expert Judgement

Although he is against giving power to those with little or no time to reflect or use their reason, he is nonethless very supportive of wider participation. Almost 2300 years before the rise of the middle classes in Europe, Aristotle emphasizes wide deliberation and the importance of the middle sort. For one thing, a wider group often makes better decisions.

For it is possible that the many, no one of whom taken singly is a sound man, may yet, taken all together, be better than the few, not individually but collectively, in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is better than one supplied at one man's expense. p202

Interestingly, this is a little different from 'many chefs spoil the broth' or the cult of leadership. This too prefigures what we find today, such as the greater accuracy of aggregate economic forecasts that we were looking at the other day.

He has a dietary analogy: it is actually preferable to include "rougher" classes in discussion with the powerful:

By thus mixing with the better sort, they render good service in their states, in something like the way that a combination of coarse foods with refined renders the whole diet more nutrtious than a small amount of the latter. p204

So, says Aristotle, democracy is "the most moderate of the deviations" p239. And polity, the ideal, " is a mixture of oligarchy and democracy." p259

Similar comsiderations apply to experts, according to this author who spent twenty years in the original Academy. There are some things in which they should be judged by their peers. But in others, users are much better judges than expert producers.

.. that provided the mass of the people is not too slave-like, each indiviudal will indeed be a worse judge than the experts, but collectively they will be better, or at any rate no worse. Secondly, there are tasks of which the actual doer will be neither the best nor the only judge, cases in which even those who do not posses the skill form an opinion on the fnished product. .. So too the user of a rudder , the helmsman, is a better judge of it than the carpenters who made itl and it is the diner not the cook that pronounces upon the merits of a dinner. p205

This reminds me of William F. Buckley's assertion that "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University ."

Expert judgement has its limits, according to one of the first experts.


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