Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Philosopher Kings Are Pretty Thin on the Ground: Why Liberal Democracy Isn't Dead

A good part of the last couple of days was spent struggling with The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by two Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide and Smith is a “lawyer and philosopher” according to his bio.

Their idea is that given the environmental challenges facing the world, liberal democracies will be manipulated by special interests so that they do little to address the big issue of climate change. What is needed, they say, is government by specially trained, environmentally aware specialists who have the power to enforce whatever solutions they find to our problems.

This would be nothing like Soviet-style Communism, they say, but in line with Plato’s ideal of government by philosopher kings.

I first heard of the book when Le Devoir carried an article called “The Temptation of Green Dictatorship”. One of the things mentioned was a decree by the Chinese outlawing plastic bags which is supposed to go into effect this June. No liberal democracy has been able to do that so swiftly and completely: more of this kind of action is necessary, runs the book’s argument

Hmmm. Certainly watching the Harper and Bush governments stumble around, choosing very bad paths to follow, is discouraging. And I also am an admirer of many of the things accomplished in Singapore during the 40 years when Lee Kuan Yew was prime minister. I agree with Nicolas Kristof that he comes as close to being a philosopher king as we have seen in the last century.

But Harry Lee is an exception, and absolute power does corrupt. I have no faith that the technical wizards Shearman and Smith would put in power would do as well. Better, I am almost certain, to stumble along, making imperfect decisions with the will of the people entering into the equation in some measure. The democracies we have are very imperfect, but what they have done is better than what dictatorships have, on the whole.

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