Plato once said, “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
Actually, that’s not quite what he said. It’s a summary that’s floating around on the internet. He really said:
But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do, and then they go to it not in the expectation of enjoyment nor as to a good thing, but as to a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves or to their like. For we may venture to say that, if there should be a city of good men only, immunity from office-holding would be as eagerly contended for as office is now, and there it would be made plain that in very truth the true ruler does not naturally seek his own advantage but that of the ruled; so that every man of understanding would rather choose to be benefited by another than to be bothered with benefiting him.
In Plato’s city of good men, the virtuous compete to avoid political office. Nowadays, our virtuous men compete to be as independent of politics as possible. They may call themselves “independent”, “moderate”, “skeptical”, “centrist”, or “altruistic.” They avoid political office, they avoid voting, and they even attempt to avoid thinking about politics.
If more virtuous men participated in politics, would politics get better? Is this the implication of Plato’s quote? No, the political problems in our current age are due to incentives from the political system, not just due to a lack of good men. Placing virtuous men in a bad political system eventually corrupts them.
Good men are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for good government. Although they may not be effective as political leaders or voters, they could be effective as political thinkers, if they could get over their aversion to political thought.
Plato’s quote may not imply that we can improve politics by sprinkling in a few virtuous men here and there. Politics is too broken for that. But the quote does imply something else:
Ignoring politics doesn’t make it go away.
When good men attempt to opt-out of politics, they do not actually avoid politics. They are still in a polity, a polity run by bad men. Now they are subjected to the bad politics of bad men. In our case, these are people like politicians, journalists, bankers, bureaucrats, professors, and social engineers at the big foundations.
You can’t opt out of politics.
If you are the kind of independent, moderate character that I am speaking to, then it may mildly aggravate you when I make pronouncements like this. However, I think it’s quite likely that some of the observations I’m about to make will resonate with your experience.
This article is for the independent thinkers of the world who are tired of getting pushed around by politics, and who are tired of living in a world that seems to suddenly be going crazy while they don’t understand why.
Why not just ignore politics?
When virtuous thinkers first see people rolling around in mud of the political playing field, their first instinct is to run as far away as possible. We could call this the “ostrich heuristic.”
But sticking your head in the sand doesn’t work anymore. Many independent thinkers are discovering that even if you aren’t interested in politics, politics is interested in you.
Although you might try to avoid it, politics has a way of worming itself back into your business and decreasing your quality of life. Even if you try to ignore politics, it will get into people around you in your community. It’s getting harder and harder to have sophisticated, nuanced conversations about controversial matters, thanks to politics.
Politics puts different tribes of people at odds with each other. Politics divides family members. Politics whips up your friends in culture wars. Politics hijacks your organization.
Our independent, moderate-minded intelligentsia has been trying to ignore politics, but it’s getting harder and harder to do so. You would have to ignore all politicized information sources and politicized people, which would require being a hermit.
Because you are not a hermit, trying to ignore politics inevitably fails, because you eventually encounter some form of politics. And when you do, you don’t have any defenses. Paradoxically, trying to ignore politics makes you easily influenced by politics because you have no political immune system. The first bacteria that get into your system have a heyday.
Let’s switch to another analogy. In driving school, they teach you about “defensive driving.” We could say that “defensive politics” is the study of politics for the purpose of defending yourself from other people’s atrocious politics. Defensive politics would include resisting any political attempts to emotionally browbeat you, to confuse your understanding of the world, to poison your community, to take over your organization, to beat you in zero sum games, or to otherwise harm your interests and people you care about.
Politics has gotten a little bit out of hand. It’s time to face politics and figure out what the heck is going on.
Why does politics matter?
The study of politics is the study of human power and agency. By claiming that politics matters, I am arguing that power is powerful. Agents exercise agency.
This sounds like a tautology, but the independent, moderate, altruistic crowd fail to grasp it, because they think in terms of reason, utility, and humanitarianism, not in terms of agency, incentives and power. We could say that they are “power-blind,” like a form of mind-blindness.
Non-elite, powerless people pursue ideals like truth, justice, or altruism (at least, they believe they do). The politically powerful are different. They pursue power. That’s how they got power in the first place and how they hold onto the power they have. There is nothing inherently wrong with this behavior. It is best to view it as amoral rather than immoral. Of course, politics is full of moral language, and powerful people are perfectly capable of parroting humanitarian language when it suits their goals, but it’s important to note that this moral posturing is often empty.
If you want to understand the world, if you want to do good, if you want to have an impact on the future, then you cannot afford to ignore politics. You cannot afford to ignore power. Politics touches everything.
The state of a society at any given time is a function of the powerful agents in that society. If you want to understand a society and get anything serious done inside it, then you will need to understand the political actors and factions in that society. You will need to understand their goals, incentives, and history.
You will especially need to understand the conflicts of political forces, because political conflict damages society, alienates friends, tears apart families, exacerbates ethnic tensions, and causes nations to fund weapons development. Once you understand competition over power, then you have begun to understand politics.
By studying human agency, you will become more powerful yourself, even if you just use that power for defensive politics. By studying the history of the exercise of human power, you will greatly improve your model of the world by learning to sniff out propaganda and spin. You will become much better at resisting all the moral posturing in politics instead of getting browbeaten by the latest campaign.
What should you do?
What should you actually do about politics? Should you vote? Should you run for office? Should you support other people running for office? Should you donate to some political cause? Should you go to a march? These are the actions that most people associate with politics. But they are mostly ineffective.
What most people should do about politics is play defense.
When you don't have responsibilities that touch the political arena, and when you don’t have sophisticated political goals and a plan to achieve them, then there is nothing constructive to do as an individual. Play the game of passive resistance to avoid being sucked in. Political ambition without understanding will only make things—and you—worse. Go with the flow, mime the social signaling of the masses around you, and try not to think too hard.
What if you do have goals or responsibilities, like a decision-making position in an organization or community? Then your defensive politics can become even more active. You can’t fix politics, but you can resist political forces that would seek to conscript you into conflicts, and you can avoid jumping on bandwagons. You can protect your organization, community, and family from ideological hijacking, or at a minimum, you can refrain from saying “faster, comrade!” and burning them down for the sake of political signaling.
If you have goals that demand actually understanding the world, or you are cursed with burning curiosity, then what? Then there is another useful thing you do: understand political theory. You have to understand how politics works if you want to discount its corrosive intellectual effects. If you study politics in a deep way, then eventually you may be able to make your own contributions to political theory.
Although we can’t fix politics by getting a few more virtuous men involved in holding office or voting, we do need virtuous men involved in political thought to figure out how to fix our rapidly decaying political system. If virtuous men don’t engage in political theory, then they will be ruled by the political theory of worse men.