Athens and Sparta, two of the most powerful Greek city-states, had fought as allies in the Greco-Persian Wars between 499 and 449 BCE. The half-century following the Persian Wars Athens grew as a maritime power and prospered. As Athens grew more powerful, tensions grew with Sparta, escalating into almost three decades of hostilities called the Peloponnesian War. Plato was born during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. In the end, Sparta won, leaving Athens bankrupt and demoralized. Sparta installed the thirty tyrants that lead to further chaos and accelerated the decline of the Athenian Empire. Living in Athens during these uncertain times had an effect on Plato’s thinking and influenced his writings.
Plato claimed the health of the community is the overriding principle in all spheres of life. He identified selfishness and egotism that characterizes individualism as the enemy of the system. Reason was to rule over the passions – over the empirical world of desire, appetite and ambition. Only under the rational freedom that Plato sought can human beings fully realize their human purposes (when reason reigns over opinion). This can only be achieved in unison – individuals working together with each other rather than apart and against each other. It was about achieving a just state; each individual has a specific set of duties, a set of obligations to the community, which, if everyone fulfills them, will result in a harmonious whole.
Plato observed, the maximum of individual freedom is the maximum of unchecked pursuit of individual self-interest. The consequences of this unchecked activity are the ruination of public life to the detriment of all individuals. This individual freedom reduces the freedom of the community (group) leading to the ruination of public life. This makes justice the founding principle of the political community. Individual justice is the source of happiness. This allows individuals to reach their full potential and achieve happiness.
Plato argues that it is natural for individuals to pursue self-interest without regard to others. Justice is simply a question of convenience (not a loss of freedom). Under this system, to do wrong is a desirable thing; yet to suffer wrong is undesirable. In the dialogues, Glaucon (from the Republic, Plato’s older brother) offers the explanation: “Consequently, when men have had a taste of both, those who have not the power to seize the advantage and escape the harm, decide they would be better off if they made a compact neither to do wrong nor to suffer it…justice is accepted as a compromise and valued, not as a good in itself, but for lack of power to do wrong.”
Men only practice justice against their natural inclination. Two men, one just, the other unjust, are given full license to do as they please. The just man, Glaucan says, will pursue his own self-interest the same as the unjust man “until forcibly turned aside by law and custom to respect the principles of equality.”
After the Second World War the gradually expanding economy created prosperity throughout Canada and the United States. The 1950s saw the shift of population from suburban to suburbs. Housing increased dramatically, the automobile industry took off and electronics grew by leaps and bounds. At the same time, the middle class expanded dramatically. Social mobility drove the American dream. In the 1970s and 1980s, labor unions won long-term employment contracts and other benefits for their members. In the 1980s the economic model of small government and deregulation went mainstream under the administrations of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. They embraced the ideas of (individual) freedom espoused by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
Friedrich Hayek claimed that human cooperation, social order, and economic prosperity are only possible where human freedom is maximized, subject to the restraints of a legal and moral code. These ideas are incorporated into the ideology of minimal governments and deregulation of the past five decades. This worldview shares the concepts of order and tradition envisioned by Plato’s ideal community, but deviates greatly thereafter. Milton Friedman claimed, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.” The consequence of five decades of regressive taxation and deregulation is a weakened economy that no longer reliably and consistently transmits productivity gains to workers. Extreme individualism triumphed – selfishness won. The last decade has been the lost decade of the middle class in Canada and the US.
Plato voiced his concern, “the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day…the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly…in an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly difficult to create a new one.” John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who warned of the dangers of deregulated markets and corporate greed observed, “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”1 Today the same issue that consumed Plato, the consequences of the lack of restraint on the selfishness in the system that results in increasing inequality are apparent. The last fifty years are about the hollowing out of the middle class and the loss of social mobility. The increased poverty associated with the sense of social exclusion, and a loss of control over events leads to an individual’s loss of freedom to reach their potential. Failure to ensure a healthy community in the first decade of the 21st century is linked to the lack of economic opportunities for individuals to reach their potential. Unchecked selfishness is undermining the health of our communities.
1 Horsman, Greg. Objectivism Lost and an Age of Disillusionment, pp 147.