Cameron’s Cabinet – Plato’s Ship of Fools

I observed on twitter that the recent reshuffle reminded me of Plato’s ‘Ship of Fools’ critique of democracy. And that I would blog why…

Philosophy Now had a recent article on why Plato didn’t like democracy:

Imagine a sea-voyage on which all who are travelling feel entitled to claim the helm. Though the captain is a good navigator, he isn’t good at convincing the others that he is, and those who shout the loudest and make the most confident claims, though they know nothing of the skills of navigation, will get a go… Jonathan Wolff in his Introduction to Political Philosophy summarizes Plato’s argument like this: Ruling is a skill, like medicine or navigation. It is rational to leave the exercise of skills to experts. In a democracy, however, the people rule, and the people are not experts…

The reference to experts may make people both nervous and critical. Siegel and Kotkin write with concern about the “clerisy”, an elite comprising academia, the prestige press, and leaders in IT, finance and culture, assuming a superior position and holding the population in contempt. They paint the idea of rule by experts as unattractive, and of course anti-democratic, though this seems to be the position Plato would favour.

The immediate reason for my linking the latest reshuffle in my mind with Plato’s ‘Ship of Fools’ critique was this post, which set out among other things that:

It was already well-documented that Cameron’s appointment of Chris Grayling as Lord Chancellor represented the first Lord Chancellor for hundreds of years not to be legally qualified. Now, the new Attorney General while at least a lawyer, has limited relevant experience; the new Solicitor General has an adverse misconduct finding recorded against him. The senior legal posts seem singularly devoid of authoritative lawyers, notwithstanding that a core function of a legislature is to make laws. That lack of expertise seems to me troubling rather than reassuring. That is to say, I find myself concerned more along Plato’s lines, that I would like my ship steered by an expert in navigation, my law-makers steered by experts in the law, the various branches of my government steered by experts in their respective areas, than with the clerisy critique.

Now historically, there have been at least two ways to integrate expertise with a democratic mandate. One of these involved people with expertise putting themselves forward for democratic election, then being appointed to positions consistent with their experience. In other words, they have the authority both of their expertise but also of their democratic mandate. On this measure the appointments highlighted above are singularly concerning. Maybe people with expertise are no longer putting themselves forward for election, maybe there is an insufficient pool of expertise for the Prime Minister to be able to make appointments of people who understand and care about their portfolio. Or just maybe understanding and caring about the portfolio is perceived as a disadvantage on this Ship of Fools?

The second way to integrate expertise with a democratic mandate involves checks and balances on the legislature. Montesquieu’s ‘Separation of Powers’ thesis explains why:

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.

There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.”

Thus, instead of seeing a democratic mandate as bestowing a superior right to govern, the idea here is that checks and balances upon the exercise of democratic power might be an essential feature of a mature democracy. Remember how civil servants in ‘Yes, Minister‘ sought to curb the policy enthusiasms of their ministers? One way of perceiving such scenes is that they represent the thwarting of a democratic policy mandate. But another is that the Executive having practical experience of giving effect to policy, is properly exercising checks and balances on otherwise unfettered and unwise policy-making, consistent with Montesquieu’s ‘Separation of Powers’ thesis.

It is possible to make out that expertise in government is unattractive, because it is undemocratic. Here, I have tried to make out three cases to the contrary, that we need expertise in government.

The first is that democracy is not a perfect system, simply the least-bad system, as Churchill observed. So seeking to address some of the downsides of democracy is no bad thing. The second is that a democracy which attracts those with experience and expertise into the legislature and/or accepts checks and balances on democratic powers, is able to make the superior claim of expertise and democratic authority – it need not be one or the other.

But finally, there are worse things than government by an elite of experts; surely government by an elite of non-experts is one of them.


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