Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Revising Plato's Ship

Plato is known for promoting governance by philosopher-kings rather than direct democracy.  He say corrupt, debased men casting votes for a society should be ruled, and he saw these same men kill his beloved Socrates, and so it is not surprising he favors autocracy by the those with the most merit.

When arguing his point, Plato (Book VI of The Republic) uses the analogy of a ship and the decision of who will command the ship.  One option is to allow the captain, who has spent his life studying navigation and gaining years of actual experience.  Another is the mass of sailors guiding the ship by mob, voting or even fighting to decide whether to turn the rudder or trim the mast.  Certainly, you want the captain in charge, and the sailor subordinate to him.

Plato is making the case for central planning...or is he.  Is he instead talking about the formation of laws?  That is, is the captain a metaphor for a central planner or an enlightened lawmaker?  I doubt Plato believed the philosopher-king should set prices, or should he?  I don't know, but I think the ship-metaphor can be deciphered a number of ways, and to support a variety of politics.

Someone who wanted to study Plato and write something interesting could recast the ship-metaphor, making it reflect much of the elements of the calculation debates (calculation, meaning how can you plan without market prices to guide you?).

And tell him he is quite right in saying that the finest philosophers are useless to the multitude; but tell him it is their fault for not using them...
--Plato, The Republic, Book VI

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