Posts Tagged ‘Political Philosophy’

Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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A political platform for Americans

April 9, 2014
  1.       Form a more perfect union
  2. Establish justice.
  3. Insure domestic tranquility
  4. Provide for the common defense.
  5. Promote the general welfare.
  6. Secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

Hat tip to Carol Avedon and her friend Jack.

http://avedoncarol.blogspot.com/2014/04/clip-joint.html

http://avedoncarol.blogspot.com/

Competition: its benefits and its pitfalls

January 7, 2014

four-arenas-competition1Science fiction writer David Brin wrote recently society works best when there is competition—competition in the marketplace to make the best products at the lowest price, competition in elections to see which politician can best serve the aims of the public, competition between scientists to make new discoveries and argue for new theories, and competition between lawyers to make sure all sides of a case get a fair hearing.

That is a great ideal.  The problem is to make it work as intended.

A society such as he describes is something new in history.  Most complex civilizations in history were organized from the top down—with government monopolies, hereditary monarchs, religion (or political) dogma and no such thing as impartial law.

Jonathan Rauch in his 1992 book, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Modern Japan, noted the contrast between the USA and hierarchical Japan:

It was [John] Locke, followed by Adam Smith and others, who first built the theory of liberal social mechanisms – public processes, like voting or trading or performing experiments, in which no one gets special personal authority (no kings, no dictators, no high priests or oracles) and no one in particular gets to control the outcome.  In the liberal scheme of things, no matter who you are, your vote is just a vote, your dollar is just a dollar, and your experiment had better work when anyone else tries it.  Moreover, there is no last election, last trade, or last hypothesis.  America is John Locke’s country.

The problem is how to create the conditions in which competition works for the benefit of society.  As Brin noted, the kind of competition he described can take place only within a legal governmental framework that gives protection against fraud and force.  To say that rules and regulations are incompatible with the free market is the same as saying that referees are incompatible with basketball.

Rules and regulations do not work unless a majority are willing to obey them.  Unenforceable laws are not merely useless, they are harmful.   Laws are no substitute for a basic ethic of honesty and fair play.

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Should you be a liberal or conservative?

May 17, 2012

Should you be a principled old-fashioned liberal who takes up for the common people against corporate power and wealth, or should you be a principled old-fashioned conservative who takes up for the individual against the abusive power of government?

My answer is: Yes.

The left, the right, libertarians and Ron Paul

January 9, 2012

As I look at this Venn diagram published by Mother Jones magazine, I see myself in the middle of the Left circle, but I don’t see many national political figures on the circle along with me.

I’d put Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership in the Right circle than the Left.  President Obama claims the right to commit acts of war without authorization of Congress, and has acted on that claim.  He claims the right to imprison people without trial, to sign and execute death warrants without due process and may well be authorizing torture on as wide a scale at President Bush’s administration.  He supports NAFA-style treaties with Colombia and South Korea.  His administration is deporting unauthorized immigrants in larger numbers than the Bush administration.  He does not support reproductive rights.  He does support repeal of the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, but as part of a package of economic austerity and cutbacks in the social safety net to taxation of the middle class.

President Obama and the Democratic leadership did enact the Affordable Care Act, which may turn out to be a net positive, and repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which I agree with, but not at the price of endless war and suspension of basic Constitutional rights.

All this makes me more open-minded about the Libertarians and Ron Paul than I otherwise would be.   Even though I can’t agree with them on important  matters of policy, they at least support the core values of American freedom and democracy.  I admired the way Al Gore and Howard Dean spoke up against abuses of power during the Bush administration, but they have nothing to say about the equal or worse abuses of power going on now.

The great merit of the Libertarians, and of Ron Paul, is that they have principles that are not held hostage by any political party or powerful vested interest.

Click on The Venn of Ron Paul and Other Mysteries of Libertarianism Explained for the source of this diagram and background on Libertarianism in Mother Jones.