Prior to the modern era, politics was not something the common man thought about. Indeed, in the late 18th century, Prussian king Frederick the Great remarked, “a war is something which should not concern my people.”
Political philosophy evolved from musings on the human condition, particularly morality and its exercise in a societal context. Unsurprisingly, the writings of political theorists have often been in reflection of the times in which they lived.
Political philosophers typically put forth arguments to rationalize their own biases. With exception, political theories are premised upon simplistic or even fictive assumptions about human nature and sociality. 15th-century diplomat and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli was exceptional in appreciating that political men are creatures of cunning, their capacity for clear-headed reason warped by passion and materialism.
From the ancient Greeks we inherited the concepts they used to talk about politics. The terms politics, republic, democracy, aristocracy, and tyranny all descend from ancient Greek political theorists. Moderns share many ancient Greek ideals, including freedom, independence, and self-government.
Ancient Greek theorists, including Plato and Aristotle, carved the bed for the river of political thought that has run strongest: the idea of natural law. Natural law is a philosophy of justice supposedly based upon the nature of humanity, and therefore presumed universal. Natural law aims to connect ethics with human nature as a basis for determining what rights should be inalienable, and for adjudging the justness of laws.
In the 4th century BCE (before the common era) Plato perceived political philosophy as an architectonic science of society. Plato argued that the right kind of government was an exercise in rationality.
Democracy theoretically assumes some kernel of rationality in individuals. Utterly absent is the hope that government can be rationally ordered. Democracy proposes the precise opposite: a proclivity to corruption, and hence the need for checks and balances, beginning with public consent.
Plato’s vision may be contrasted with the heyday of laissez-faire over 2 millennia later, when the ideal of a highly trained political class, dedicated to public service without personal gain, had little appeal. Government, like the capitalist economy and society in general, has been naïvely assumed to be largely self-regulating machinery. The less government the better. The opinion of early American patriot Thomas Paine about government remains a popular sentiment. Paine opined that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx revived the Platonic perspective of government as properly being an exercise in rational allocation of resources. Marx perceived how capitalism was an engine of exploitation that was ruinous to societal well-being. Marx’s insightful analysis proved prescient.
Marx had hoped that the lower classes would revolt against their economic oppression and institute an equitable socialism. Here he underestimated the fecundity of capitalism in producing a middle class that struggles with aspiration, and so succors the system that is the source of its struggle. Marx also overestimated the ability of the lower classes to revolt against a plutocrat police state, which the moneyed overclass invariably puts into place to insure their investment.
In the latter 20th century, American linguist and political commenter Noam Chomsky was as cynical about modern democracy as Plato had been of the ancient variety. Chomsky saw the natural alliance between the economic and political elite: plutocracy in the guise of democracy. Chomsky perceived that a wealthy minority controls the key social and political institutions, including mass media and the financial system, in most countries. That control ensures that modern society functions to favor this powerful elite, which endeavors to maintain its privileged position. Chomsky considered the political machinery of the United States to have converged into a support system for the corporate status quo. The ascendancy of Donald Trump and the policies that have issued from that have been a resounding confirmation of Chomsky’s analysis.
Only as an undercurrent have political theorists proclaimed the gullibility of the masses. But that concern has been paramount even when unspoken. America’s founding fathers feared mob rule. They did not want a democracy, but a libertarian regime run by sensible men, letting such men do as they please, including owning slaves.
Thomas Jefferson saw universal education as “necessary” in “rendering the people guardians of their own liberty.” While Jefferson viewed public education as the only effective defense against tyranny, others were more concerned with the potential for anarchy and violence by ignorant masses. American politician DeWitt Clinton said in 1827: “the right of suffrage cannot be exercised without intelligence.”
The gross economic and legal inequities in modern democracies such as the United States, and the environmental destruction which has gone unchecked, shows that Marx and Chomsky were correct, as were the fears of America’s founding fathers about the prospects for democracy.
Democracy fails because it depends upon a knowledgeable electorate which does not exist. It is too much to ask the populace to understand the issues of public policy and the intricacies of international relations. It has proven unreasonable to ask voters to choose wisely among the lies posed as promises told to them by politicians.
It is too much to expect that any politician would sincerely look to the interests of the lower classes when electability depends upon monies which can only flow from the upper classes. Money talks. The only voice poverty can ever have is in revolt – always a risky proposition.
The abiding inequities and destructions wrought by capitalism become political problems. Until the 20th century, economics was called political economy theory.
In that government is invariably an exercise in resource allocation through taxation and outlays which redistribute wealth, economics and politics have always been entangled.
A system of government should be evaluated by its outcomes in societal well-being and its embrace of morality in terms of fairness. This has been the core of ethical consideration in natural law, and an integral aspect of Stoicism, which espoused the idea that virtue consisted of acting in accordance with Nature. 3rd-century BCE Hellenist philosopher Zeno of Citium founded the Stoic school of philosophy.
The idea of natural law evolved into natural rights, which blossomed in European thought in the 12th century and was fully developed as a theoretical construct by the end of the 14th century. All political philosophies since are reflections of natural law and its concomitant consideration of civil rights.
Concern with property rights has been the focal lens for the idea of entitlements. This is what natural law devolved to by mercantile men from the 16th century on. With environmental quality worldwide rapidly disintegrating, this deficiency in political theory is apparent.
As early as the 4th century BCE, Greek physician Hippocrates had stated that “everything in excess is an enemy of Nature.” By the early 3rd century in the common era, Christian theologian Tertullian observed that “One thing is sure. We’ve become a burden to our planet.”
Yet the idea of an obligation to Nature spilled no ink among political theorists, nor earned a place in any constitution. The tendrils of environmentalism implicit in Stoicism never took root among men in awe of the pursuit of wealth and the freedom which may attend from it. In manning the battlements of entitlements, the war for survival is being lost as Nature takes revenge for its rape.