The Middle Class is a Prerequisite For True Democracy

By Aleksey Bashtavenko


In the Republic, Plato propounded the Philosopher King thesis, where he argued in favor of the following doctrines. (1) The most intellectually capable of individuals should be in charge of governing society. (2) Private property should be abolished. (3) The individual’s role in society and the degree to which he is rewarded for his contributions ought to be determined by the Philosopher Kings. This argument stems from Plato’s theory of forms, which holds that the true essence of all things is abstract, objective and can be understood through the exercise of one’s intellect. In other words, Plato held that one can understand truths about politics and society similarly to how one does so with regard to mathematics.

To be sure, it makes little sense for a distinguished mathematician to debate the truths of Calculus with an undergraduate student. In Plato’s own analogy, statecraft is similar to seafaring and the Philosopher King should chart the course for social progress just as the captain of the ship navigates the crew’s voyage. Consequently, if the same assumption underlies political thought, the enlightened elites have no reason to concern themselves with objections from their subjects.  Moreover, if the Philosopher King is the knower of all things about politico-economic matters, only he should have the privilege to manage all private property. Therefore, private enterprise and its concomitant market mechanism for setting wages should play no role in a just society.

This rationale leaves out an analysis of the problem concerning the weakness of the will. It may seem that there is a difference between knowing what is right and doing the right thing. Plato addressed this objection by developing the Tripartite Conception of the Soul, which consisted of reason, spirit, and appetite. While ordinary people are governed by their spirit and appetite, the Philosopher King responds only to reason. Therefore, he will be able to resist all temptations to act unvirtuously.

In the aftermath of World War II, Karl Popper published the Open Society and Its Enemies, which he declared to be his war effort.  Therein, he identified the Philosopher King thesis as the basis of totalitarianism and traced this political philosophy to Marxism-Leninism. Less than a decade later, Bertrand Russell noted in his History of Western Philosophy that “Plato’s communism annoyed Aristotle”. Aristotle mounted a two-pronged critique of the Philosopher King thesis which enabled him to reject the epistemic and ethical implications of Plato’s theory. In opposition to the theory of forms, Aristotle coined the distinction between episteme and techne, acknowledging the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how”.

Building on this premise, Aristotle maintained that some types of knowledge are exclusively practical and can be acquired only through experience. Therefore, it is a fallacy of composition to insist that because one can grasp mathematical truths solely through the exercise of the intellect, the same method of acquisition of knowledge is effective in all other crafts. On the basis of this rationale, Aristotle developed the empirical foundation of modern science. In light of the fact that statecraft is an empirical and a practical metier, it bears a closer semblance to science than to mathematics. Accordingly, it is a mistake to conclude that anyone can achieve indisputable knowledge of political matters.

Moreover, to the extent that statecraft is a science, it is a very imprecise one, which is why it bears a closer resemblance to sociology than to physics. Consequently, the process of accumulating political knowledge cannot take place solely in an academic setting as it requires contributions from people with a broad range of worldly experience. Echoing Aristotle’s claim, Friedrich Hayek reinforced Aristotle’s argument against the Philosopher King thesis in his famous essay, the Use of Knowledge in Society.  Therein, Hayek has shown that it is easy to underestimate the volume of knowledge that the government must have at their disposal in order to allow a centrally planned economy to function. Moreover, in addition to economics, the Philosopher King must possess enormous knowledge about a broad range of other socially relevant topics, many of which are substantially more complex than economics.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle also rejected Plato’s tripartite conception of the soul and developed a school of thought in moral philosophy that is now known as Virtue Ethics.  In stark contrast to Plato, Aristotle held that virtue is achieved not through the discipline of rational thought, but through character-building activities. Accordingly, in order to resist self-serving temptations, one must practice self-discipline and self-sacrifice. The degree to which one succeeds in cultivating virtue depends largely on how diligently and frequently one engages in character-building activities. In light of this phenomenon, recent studies have shown that ethicists are not any more likely to act virtuously than people who know nothing about ethics.

In light of the repudiation of Plato’s Philosopher King thesis, one is left with the question of who should govern. The apparent answer is that no specific individual can be trusted to have unlimited power because of the limitations of human knowledge and the weakness of the will. Regardless of who seizes power, they will act in a self-serving manner in ways that will often benefit themselves and people they identify with. Aristotle anticipated this problem and his principle of the Golden Mean sheds light on this remedy. The premise that virtue is the middle-point of two vicious extremes reveals the nature of virtue in statecraft.

Aristotle correctly observed that oligarchy allows the rich to pilfer public resources and depredate the wealth of the polis. Conversely,  if the poor are to have their way, they will oppress the rich. On the other hand, if the middle class were to seize power, they would have no reason to oppress either class. While the members of the middle-class are not any less self-serving than the poor or the rich, they can act as the buffer between the competing class interests. In the interest of creating political stability, it is always desirable to expand the middle class and this should be the key objective of any economic agenda.

In the “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy“, Barrington Moore observed “no bourgeoisie, no democracy”. In so doing, he has supported Aristotle’s argument against Plato’s Philosopher King thesis. In a similar vein, modern political scientists Acemoglu and Robinson published the “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy“, showing that the emergence of the middle-class must precede the onset of democracy. Vice-versa puts the cart before the horse and deprives society of the opportunity to achieve either objective. It is worth noting that the U.S constitution does not mention the word democracy and in the strictest sense of the word, such a regime did not exist anywhere in the Westernized world until several countries achieved industrialization.

Conversely, countries that have prioritized democracy over economic growth have regressed to autocratic forms of left-wing populism. Venezuela, Cuba and Argentina under Peron are striking cases in point. Nonetheless, every rule has an exception and Allende’s Chile constitutes the only example in the history of civilization where a socialist has been democratically elected. Nonetheless, Chile’s democratic institutions were fragile, political polarization ran rife, economic discontent was rampant and the stage was set for a military coup. Even in the absence of the U.S intervention, it seems unlikely that Chile would have blossomed into a genuine democracy.

Nonetheless, the left categorically rejects the primacy of bourgeoisie over democracy and pertinaciously cites Sweden as the counter-example to this argument. Yet, Barrington Moore cited the medieval Sweden as a key example in support of his theory, showing that Sweden never had a serf-class to the extent that many other European societies did. Likewise, in the “Scandinavian Unexceptionalism” Nima Sanandaji chronicled the economic progress of Sweden, showing that the nation maintained a free-market economy long before the wave of economic liberalization engulfed other European societies. Despite this, Paul Krugman maintained that the European politico-economic model is preferable to the American because “it is easier to be poor” in Europe.  In other words, the modern American left seems to be more concerned with alleviating the hardships of the indigent than with expanding the middle-class.

In response to this contention, the left often claims that the middle-class has been shrinking since the neo-liberal reforms began taking place in the 1980s. However, this argument hinges on the specific definitions of the middle class. In many cases, the distinctions between upper-middle-class, the lower-middle-class, the poor and the rich tend to be vague. The left-wing narrative about the diminishing middle class holds true only in the sense that a larger portion of middle-class homes can now be considered upper-middle class. In light of the fact that two-thirds of Americans who left the middle-class have become more prosperous, there is little evidence to support the left-wing narrative that the underclass is rapidly increasing because of the wealth disparities.

Moreover, the vagueness of the narrative concerning the diminution of the American middle-class becomes evident in light of the apparently arbitrary metrics that are used to define it. The notion of the middle-class corresponds to the median income in the nation, but it does not always reflect the financial well-being of the citizenry. For example, the middle class of most European societies is larger than it is in the U.S, however, the average citizen of a Western European country is less affluent than the average American. Moreover, considerable evidence exists to suggest that the quality of life many of the underprivileged Americans enjoy today is comparable to that the middle-class took for granted in the 1970s.

Freedom from class antagonism is a prerequisite for a truly democratic society and this objective can be reached through the expansion of the middle-class. However, this is more than merely a matter of distributing the nation’s wealth in a way that allows more citizens to claim an income that is close to the national median. Class tensions arise when the underclass expands and its members suffer from severe destitution. Despite the shrinking middle class in the United States, the socio-economic trends have pointed in the opposite direction. The poor enjoy a higher standard of living than they did several decades ago and conversely, more members of the middle-class are now likely to be regarded as members of the upper-middle class.

In stark contrast, a reversal of these trends is evident in many Western European societies that are considerably more egalitarian. For example, Spain’s unemployment rate was as high as 25% until very recently and these developments have substantially contributed to the nation’s political instability. The government responded in a hardline manner by suppressing the rebellion, which is a testament to the nation’s weakening democratic institutions. Likewise, the economic woes of France created the political climate in which a far-right candidate who is much more radical than Donald Trump had a considerable chance of becoming president. Even more disconcertingly, if Sweden is to maintain its egalitarian economic policies, the Nordic nation is likely to become a “third world” country by 2030, with palpably disastrous consequences for one of the oldest democracies on the continent.

All three of the aforementioned nations were committed to wealth redistribution and these developments diminished the health of their respective democracies. Although the economy of the United States is substantially healthier, virtually no nation has escaped the financial crisis unscathed. It is not a coincidence that after the living standards plummetted, Barack Obama was able to only pay lip-service to those who condemned the authoritarian manner in which the Bush administration governed. He proceeded to curb the civil liberties of Americans in the form of expanding NSA surveillance and acted undemocratically by waging unpopular drone warfare in six different nations. These trends exacerbated in light of the fact that the two politicians who intended to succeed him no longer had the need to spout spurious rhetoric in defense of democracy.

While the left has legitimate grounds on which to criticize Trump as an enemy of democracy, Hillary Clinton routinely implied herself to be above the law and defended her privilege to have “private opinions” which made her impervious to public scrutiny. It is a well-documented fact that when the standards of living decline and the middle class shrinks, the general public becomes more open to dictatorial solutions to society’s problems. This is partly why at the apex of the Great Depression, FDR issued more executive orders than all of his predecessors did. There is no antithesis between democracy and economic growth, the two go hand in hand. However, the former is a vital prerequisite for the latter.








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