“There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
- Plato, 'The Republic'
For aeons people have considered the following questions to be the primary problems of organising a society:
- How should we make large-scale decisions?
- What system of governance should we use?
- What/who should have power?
As loose thinking on the subject accumulated into the field of political philosophy, many ideas converged on a fantasy: power should be bestowed upon the wisest, what is optimal should be considered and decided by the best thinkers. In this light, a political system is judged on its tendency to select for the best politicians. A king may not be wise, but the elected can be. And in order to avoid the biggest follies of humans - conflict and self-interest - we should all have equal say. Voilà, democracy.
But there are fundamental misconceptions in that story. The above are actually secondary problems of organising a society. The primary one is not how we should make decisions, but rather how we should move on, once bad decisions have been made.
Moreover, Plato is wrong in implicitly idealising an end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself. As far as this end exists, it is completely undesirable. Such a situation - with no troubles - could only occur in lifeless stagnation. Life, if it is joyful, vibrant, and creative, is riddled with problems. I’m using the word problem in a wider, Deutschian sense here: a conflict between ideas. This can be culturally counterintuitive because the common meaning of the word fixates on an unwelcome or harmful situation. Some problems are indeed bleak by nature, just as some ideas are, but in the wider sense, the existence of problems is good in principle.
The richer the world of ideas becomes, the more problems arise. Thus solutions create more (better) problems. The true assessment of a political system is contingent on how effectively it allows a society to transition between different problem-solving attempts. In essence: we try something, we fail to some degree, we are unconstrained to try something different.
This is why, in the tier-list of political systems, democracy stands alone. Not because when given group choice ‘the people’ will exercise collective wisdom. In fact, they often won’t. The wisdom of a group tends to be less than the wisdom of individuals within that group (because ideas within groups converge). But this is not a significant flaw for society and for the democratic process.
The most crucial function of the electorate is to rightfully and peacefully remove the old government, after allowing it to make its own problem-solving attempts. The mark of a competent democratic system is serving this function well even during turbulent times of great and rapid societal change. Conversely, non-democratic systems obtain political power to thwart change, and don’t deeply account for transitioning from one problem-solving attempt to another. Therefore, a democracy’s errors tend to be appropriately scrutinised and kept in check, even if there might be more of them. A non-democracy’s errors tend to be fewer but far more catastrophic.
The roles of criticism and self-determination are vital for maintaining the occurrence of many different small errors. Individual corruption is a substantial but secondary concern. The elected don't need to be incorruptible philosophers (and they can't be), so a framework which first tries to guard people from selfishness is working backwards. Self-interest is the least unethical political building block, because the interest of the group can't be sufficiently coherent. In so far as groups can think and speak, they can't think and speak more clearly than the people within them.
Primarily, a healthy society allows critical opposition, fuelled by the will of the individual. In order for new problem-solving attempts to occur, institutional incentives must be aligned so that individuals can transparently assign fault onto ideas which have already been tried and onto the politicians tied to those attempts. Infallible attempts are impossible and all attempts involve errors, but that's irrelevant for progress. Recursive freedom to criticise, express, and enact political ambition is sufficient.
The spirit of democracy is to continually allow conjecture. The philosopher king and the rule of the many are subsidiary to that end, not the other way around.