To Vote or not to Vote: Socrates & Intellectual Democracy

Published on 15 February 2021 at 10:57

In 399 BC, Greek philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and the citizens of Athens voted to sentence him to death by hemlock poisoning. In an ironic twist, Socrates refused and offer of help to escape Athens. Whether this was his own criticism of the uninformed masses making decisions, or respecting and standing by his values, the take-away from the vote on his death is that majority opinion does not equal truth.


Technocracy is a political system where the experts are in control. Technically skilled people from academia, economics, and finance among others take positions in government to put their expertise to work and fix the issues of the day. They are usually former advisors and hold non-political backgrounds. Their educational and career experiences make them ideal governing towards a successful future.


Technocracy is prevalent mainly in communist countries. Former Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev was a metallurgical engineer and current Chinese president Xi Jinping comes from a Chemical Engineering and Law background.  


Mario Draghi, former head of the European Central Bank, is now the prime minister of Italy, meaning Italy now has a technocratic government similar to the one formed in 2011  following and Euro crises. Greece formed a similar government in order to tackle the impossible task they faces at the time.


Draghi doesn’t have very long in his term to complete his work; the next general election is in 2023. Thankfully for Draghi, technocracy doesn’t require a lot of time to be useful, as it does away with the traditional political debates, loyalty to constituents or riding on short term successes as they grow unpopular because of the tough decisions they make. 


Criticisms of technocracy focus on the lack of insight many technocrats in government have, the lack of political favours to call on and generally poor execution of policy agendas due to being novices to the political system that require backroom deals and calling in favours. This has resulted in technocratic governments being both short term and less successful than their more traditionally democratic counterparts.


However, democracy is not without its flaws. While technocracy certainly has its drawbacks, democracy has its fair share as well. Democracy can be over-politicised, corrupt, inefficient, unproductive, and uninformed. The Democracy Index of 2020 recorded a 70% decline in overall score in democracy as an institution crucial to their nationhood. A poll conducted by Pew found that technocracy was the second most-favoured form of government (with democracy coming first). Unfortunately, the successes of technocracy so far are limited to short term governments and caretaker roles.


Socrates was the father of western philosophy. While he never had any writings that we know of, his student Plato wrote “The Republic” and attributed its key ideas to Socrates. In book six of the Republic, he details Socrates criticisms of democracy. Athens, the home of democracy, was also the home of the criticism of democracy in every form.


In his allegory, Socrates spoke of a ship that needed to sail. There were the owners, sailors, and a navigator. While the owner knew nothing of seafaring and the sailors laughed at the navigator, there needed to be a captain. As the sailors fed the owner wine and flattery, they landed them with the decision to vote on a captain, which from their flattery would be a sailor and not a navigator.


The allegory warns of demagogues who appeal to prejudice and emotion over rational argument. The educated skill of choosing a captain would suggest that those who knew the rules and how-to seafaring would be best equipped with voting for a captain. Demagoguery devalues democracy into an endless promising match and targets the less informed. It continues to see success in the modern-day with Brexit, the election of Trump, and the Tory victory of 2019. 


The fundamental issue raised by Socrates and the technocracy of today is intellectual democracy versus birth right democracy. Is it fair that, by being born, one has an automatic right to vote, to be persuaded and manipulated through the practice of demagoguery? To be naïve to the issues and challenges facing a political climate?


An intellectual democracy promises an efficient society based on wisdom and rationality, where voters are educated. Socrates argued that voting was an educated skill and not an institution and should be taught systemically to people. Those best educated on subject matters who could see the big picture past the appeals to emotion were best equipped to make informed and long-lasting right decisions.


The technocratic dream of the big picture being painted by those skilled and with an intellectual understanding often falls before the well of democracy. In our post-truth world, the adage ‘poisoning the well’ may be out of date as we may be drinking from a swamp, long spoiled by those promising to fulfil our desires. Democracy will always be fragile and requires many safeguards to protect the majority from making decisions with long-lasting and horrific outcomes.

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