UNITE OR DIE: The Worst Form of Government

In the 20th century, the ancient Greek theorist Plato’s famous warning against the seductive allure of demagogues/dictators was updated by the great British wartime leader, Winston Churchill.  Churchill may have had Hitler and Mussolini in mind when he famously quipped: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried from time to time.”

Plato, in his early writings, envisioned a “philosopher king” – a leader who would combine the absolute power to govern with the dispassionate wisdom of a trained philosopher. This is what he proposed in his seminal political tract, the Republic (about 375 B.C.). Often overlooked, however, is Plato’s subtitle: “Concerning Justice.” His ultimate objective was to achieve a just society. 

Later on in his life, Plato came to realize that his philosopher-king concept was unrealistic and, in his last book, The Laws, he proposed a “second-best” alternative in which all interests should be represented, and everyone would be subject to the rule of law. The Founding Fathers of the American republic were students of the Greek philosophers and embodied Plato’s mature ideas in our Constitution, which has lasted for almost 250 years so far.

American democracy is far from perfect. The electoral college provision is a big compromise/constraint, as is the U.S. Senate. There is also the deference paid to the institution of slavery, which culminated in our civil war in the 1860s. And, of course, there is the persisting influence of racial and sexual discrimination, down to the present day. Not to mention deep economic inequities and Gerrymandering – the partisan distortion of election districts.

Today, in addition, there are deeply divisive policy differences among us and a resurgence of anti-democratic, authoritarian leaders.  However, Churchill got it right.  Even authoritarian leaders these days must use lies and sham elections to legitimize themselves.  And they have a very poor record of good governance in the public interest. Is this really what we want? I believe we can do better.

Editor’s Note: To read all of Dr. Corning’s linked essays in this series, please go to Dr. Corning’s website: http://complexsystems.org


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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