Plato’s Republic and the 1% phenomenon

Paul Krugman reflects on the works of Thomas Piketty in explaining ‘Patrimonial Capitalism’, not that an oligarchy has only recently existed in the US. Krugman identifies we now live in a “high ‘r’, low ‘g’ economy,” where our idea of ‘capital’ has been skewed towards the ideologically flawed Gordon growth model which assumes a perpetual growth rate, g. While I haven’t read Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the Economist claims to have summarized the book into four paragraphs, and you can read over Piketty’s March 2014 presentation.

In my current reading of Plato’s Republic (internet copy available from MIT), I have been amazed at the similarities between today’s society and the issues Plato pursues after the issues lies at the heart of Socrates’ life and death. It is amazing to read dialogue from around 400 BCE that describes investment banking, multilateral development banking, and our ‘1% phenomenon’. A brief summary of the latter two descriptions is highlighted as follows (please note that words below are those translated by David Gallop, while the material provided by links is translated by Benjamin Jowett:

From Book II, on multilateral development banking, “[373b] Then we shall also have to enlarge our city, for our first or healthy city will not now be of sufficient size, but requires to be increased in bulk, and needs to be filled with a multitude of callings, which do not exist in cities to satisfy any natural want… Then must we not cut ourselves a slice of our neighbor’s territory, if we are to have land enough both for pasture and tillage, while they will do the same to ours, if they, like us, permit themselves to overstep the limit of necessities, and plunge into the unbounded acquisition of wealth? [374] Once more than, my friend, our city must be larger and not just by a small extent, but by a whole army, which must go forth and do battle with all invaders in defense of its entire property, and of the things we were just now describing.

From Book IV, on the ‘1% phenomenon’, “[428d] What is this knowledge, and in whom does it reside? It is the science of guardianship, and it resides in that ruling part, whom we just now called our perfect guardians. Then in virtue of this knowledge what do you call the city? I call it prudent in counsel and truly wise. [428e] Which do you suppose will be the more numerous class in the city, the smiths, or these genuine guardians? The smiths will far outnumber the others. Then will the guardians be the smallest of all the classes possessing this or that branch of knowledge, and bearing this or that name in consequence? Yes, much the smallest. [429] Then it is the knowledge residing in its smallest part or section, that is to say, in the predominant and ruling body, which entitles a city, organized agreeably to nature, to be called wise as a whole; and that part appropriately is to partake of the knowledge which alone of all kings of knowledge is properly called wisdom, is naturally, as it appears, the least numerous body in the city.

In Piketty’s concept of ‘Patrimonial Capitalism’, it appears that there is no natural order to which knowledge (fortune: the science guardianship, residing in the ruling part) is held between generations, and lacking the much needed value that it deserves. Reminiscent of the scene in Cloud Atlas where Hugo Weaving tells Jim Sturgess that “there is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well,Book III of Plato’s Republic similarly describes a natural order “[415] Therefore, inasmuch as you are all related to one another, although your children will generally resemble their parents, yet sometimes a golden parent will produce a silver child, and a silver parent a golden child, and so on, each producing any… [415b] And if a child be born in their class with an alloy or bronze or iron, they are to have no manner of pity upon it, but giving it the value that belongs to its nature, they are to thrust it among artisans and farmers; and if again among these latter a child be born with any admixture of gold or silver, they will honour it, and they are to raise it either to the class of guardians, or that of auxiliaries, because there is an oracle which declares that the city shall then perish when it is guarded by iron or bronze.

In the East, we now see a society (more relevant to China) that has children born of iron or bronze but endowed with gold, as the YouTube video (below) shows: 

In the West, thanks to our favorite words ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy’, the level of inequality has gradually become so great that some should question whether a true reflection of today’s society using the Lorenz curve could bend toward the y- and x-axis. 1024px-Economics_Gini_coefficient2.svg

Thus, those of you endowed with the opportunity to ask yourselves whether you have the redistributive capacity to make this world a more inhabitable place for those less endowed, ask yourself whether you would like to value your time on earth as a perfect guardian.

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