Saturday, 9 April 2011

Political Renewal - A Philosophical Approach - Socrates

I have been thinking a great deal about political philosophy in recent times.

Following May's Election defeat, Labour is searching for renewal. The philosophical basis on what this will be based on is currently unclear.

Traditionally political parties have based their philosophy on writers such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman and others. A thought occurred to me - What would Socrates make of current politics? How would Nietzsche view things?

I have looked at the position Labour finds itself in, and how the great thinkers might just have seen it. I will begin with Socrates

The Socratic Method

Socrates believed in the application of logic. Every policy would be examined to see what hypothetically it was intended to achieve. He would then ask questions about the assumptions present, and see if those assumptions are actually correct. Socrates was clear that many ideas that are considered to be common sense by the majority are based on incorrect assumptions that are taken for granted without a rigorous analysis. Contradictions would be eliminated - if the stated aim  was improve the incomes of those at the lowest levels, reducing income tax at the same time as increasing VAT would fail the test.

A practical upshot of this is that the well considered view of an expert, even if a minority view, should carry more weight than the unconsidered view of the majority. He would strongly support Quangos that are expert bodies advising the Government.

For instance, with regards to the Health Service, he would consult widely amongst Doctors and Nurses and others who directly deliver the service. He would no doubt have very little time for Civil Servants and Treasury Officials.

He would also give short shrift to Dogma. Any policy aimed at delivering an ideal that not evidentially provable as beneficial would soon be seen off.

Self Development not Material Wealth

He believed that we should aspire to self development, and working entirely for material wealth alone was not good for the individual or the community. Possessing wealth is not virtuous in itself.

Financial gain would need to lead to improvements in the person and the community for it to virtuous. I think that he would be keen to see the earnings of the very wealthy being directed to improvements for everyone, via better funding for education, housing and health care. Whether this would be achieved via philanthropy or taxation would probably be less important.

Policies that redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor would surely be Socratic. The value society places on education would also be enhanced. For instance, policies that broadened education, such as tertiary education for all regardless of background, would in his manifesto.


A Socratic approach to politics would be a technocratic meritocracy in my view. The view of the mass media would not hold much sway. The views of 1 million tabloid readers on a technical subject would probably be discarded for the small committee of experts. One could conclude that a Socratic Government would care less for listening to the electorate and more  for doing something well.

Whether such an approach would meet the modern democratic ideal is doubtful.

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