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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lamenting the lack of Philosopher Kings

I very much enjoy Peggy Noonan's column every Saturday. Today's piece resonate's particularly with me. There was one specific paragraph which was particularly insightful:
But the overwhelming fact the book communicates is that our candidates for president are emotionally volatile, extreme personalities. They spend a lot of time being enraged. They don't trust those around them. They desperately want power and want to be celebrated, but they don't know what they want to do with power beyond wield it, and they seem incapable of reflection about why they need to be admired. Most seriously, they show little interest in, or even awareness of, the central crises of their time.

The insight here is not actually unique but it is timeless. Since people's ideas have been put down on paper, great thinkers have recognized this basic human flaw and how it translates into complex human systems and governance. Those most interested in power are the ones least likely to exercise it in such a way to benefit the governed. The barriers to rising to a position of power are sufficient to cull out all but those with ambitions and narcissism so extreme as to preclude having the skill sets to govern wisely.

Where does that leave us? Plato proposed the role of philosopher kings. A noble idea but a denial of human nature. This is not so say that there are not individuals who, when placed in leadership positions with  substantial power, will actually act nobly and not totally driven by narrow minded self interest. George Washington comes to mind. However, over time, centralized power will always attract the worst element. Fredrich von Hayek eloquently details this in his classic books the  Road to Serfdom and the Fatal Conceit.

We are left with systems which have decentralized power and all the inefficiencies and imperfections which come with them. In order to stymie the ambitions of the power hungry, we must also accept imperfect systems of governance that are incapable of assisting all those in need. I think it is well worth the trade off.

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