Philosopher Gary Gutting writes that America doesn’t have a democracy, but a “mutlarchy”–a system that includes elements of the five types of government delineated by Plato in The Republic. These are
—aristocracy: “rule by the ‘best’, that is, by experts specially trained at governance”
—timarchy: “rule by those guided by their courage and sense of honor”
—oligarchy: “rule by a wealthy minority”
—democracy: “rule by the people as a whole—a ‘mob’ as Plato saw it”
—tyranny: “rule by a despot answerable to no one but himself”
We don’t have a single form of government, but “a complex interweaving of many forms of government.” Gutting says that the political task is not to eliminate any of these elements, since they are probably unavoidable, but finding the appropriate balance among them. This means we should avoid superficial slogans like “less government”:
Much of our current debate over this challenge focuses on the question of whether we have “too much government,” where “government” means the federal bureaucracy. Our “Platonic” analysis suggests that this is at best a gross oversimplificaton. The question, rather, is precisely how should we calibrate the relative strengths of all five elements of our multocracy. Current calls for “less government” actually mean less power for elected leaders and for the bureaucracies that serve them and more power for the “oligarchy” of millionaires and corporations. Such calls also imply less power for the people (the democratic element), since, while elected leaders are directly responsible to those who vote, those whose power is based on wealth are not. In fact, many of us who bristle at any government interference with our freedom and privacy, accept, as an economic necessity, similar interference from the companies we work for or do business with.
What we need is an integrated debate about all the powers that govern us, along with a recognition that all of them have essential roles but also pose dangers. In particular, “How can we recognize legitimate corporate interests while avoiding plutocracy?” is as essential a question as “Is the federal bureaucracy a threat to personal freedom?” Those worried about the evils of Big Government need to look not only at the executive branch in Washington but also at the executive offices of our major corporations.
I think this is a helpful analysis. It shows that we define “freedom” too narrowly if we understand it simply as freedom from (federal) government interference. These other “governments” can limit people’s freedom in ways that are just as harmful.