Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Plato and the Spell of the State

Academic journal article Libertarian Papers

Plato and the Spell of the State

Article excerpt

I. Plato's Austrian Enemies

The VIEW OF PLATO as an APOLOGIST for totalitarianism has become something close to orthodoxy in the Austrian wing of the libertarian tradition. The purpose of this essay is to contest that view and thereby reclaim Plato as an ally in the age-old struggle against the state.

Appropriately enough, there is something distinctly Platonic about a reclamation project such as this one. For Plato, to mistake a true friend for an enemy is to have no wisdom greater than a dog's. (1) A misplaced hostility toward Plato, however, dogs a great many libertarians of the Austrian persuasion.

Carl Menger, for instance, considers Plato an early proponent of the statist theory of money, according to which its origins are to be found in law, that is, in an act of political fiat. (2)

Ludwig von Mises, who correctly perceives Plato's antipathy to democracy, (3) nevertheless argues that he "elaborated a plan of totalitarianism." (4)

Friedrich von Hayek identifies Plato as one of the chief "theoreticians of the totalitarian system" and goes so far as to equate Plato's political philosophy with "the racial doctrine of the Nazis or the theory of the corporative state of Mussolini." (5)

Murray Rothbard, although he credits Plato with important contributions to economic science, (6) nevertheless concurs with Menger that Plato "called for a government fiat currency" (7) and he echoes Mises and Hayek in proclaiming Plato's thought "statist... to the core" (8) and his Republic a "classic apologia for totalitarianism." (9)

Proto-Austrian libertarians are occasionally more sympathetic.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, for example, confirms "Plato's thesis that democracy naturally evolves into tyranny" (10) and reads Plato's Republic as "an exact description of the transition from the Weimar Republic to National Socialist tyranny." (11)

Frank van Dun finds Plato more concerned with investigating justice in the individual than promoting the total state. He observes that, "despite its title, we very soon find that The Republic is a book of moral rather than political philosophy." (12) But even van Dun later succumbs to the more standard view, according to which Plato "rhapsodied about perfect unity under the supreme authority of a Philosopher-King" and his Republic envisioned "the construction of an absolute power-base ... [and] a new kind of men, unconditionally loyal to their ruler...." (13)

Likewise, Franz Oppenheimer compares Plato to Marx, unfavorably even. "Plato and the followers of Karl Marx endow the State with omnipotence, making it the absolute lord over the citizen in all political and economic matters; while Plato even goes so far as to wish the State to regulate sexual relations." (14)

Roderick Long contends that, for Plato, the Athenian polis allowed its citizens "too much freedom," a condition that could be remedied by imposing a regime dominated by a small cadre of experts and elites. (15) Long recognizes Plato's animosity toward politicians, whom he regarded as "untrustworthy" because "improperly brought up," but he contends that Plato wished to grant politicians vastly increased control over the process of education. (16) According to Long, "Plato was convinced that if this power [to educate the youth] were taken away from the arbitrary and ill-informed decisions of parents and transferred instead to the state, so that future leaders could be subjected from birth to a rigorous program of moral training and indoctrination, the problem of untrustworthy politicians would be solved." (17)

Against this view, we will contend that totalitarianism is not at all Plato's proposed solution to the problem of untrustworthy politicians. His mistrust runs too deep for that. Far from advocating the totalitarian state, Plato opens it up to the light of truth, exposing it as an unjust and literally unnatural breach of the convivial social order. …

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