A good idea from ... Plato

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The Independent Culture
FORD RECENTLY launched a new car called the Focus, so named because many of the key decisions on what it should look like were taken after consulting focus groups. These groups are all the rage with people facing big choices. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are keen on them, as are manufacturing and service industries. In a sense, our attraction to them is only a natural extension of the democratic ethos of our political system, which suggests that the way to reach a right decision (about what the government should do, or what a car door should look like) is to ask a great number of people what they think and then follow the will of the majority.

There has been one famous dissenter from this assumption. Born in Athens in 429BC, Plato questioned the idea that the verdict of the majority should necessarily be equated with what is correct. Ninety-nine per cent of people can agree on something, and be completely wrong. In The Republic, his description of the ideal state, the philosopher ridiculed the democratic notion that the best way to settle important political decisions is to ask everyone what they think. No one would dream of behaving like this in areas like ship-building or architecture; one wouldn't imagine that the best way to decide how to put together a ship was to ask a crowd of Athenians what they thought. One would instead get hold of some experts and follow their advice. Why then imagine that in government, an art surely no less comp-licated than ship-building, the majority would be any better qualified to decide when to go to war, or how to handle the currency?

As an alternative to following the dictates of the majority, Plato suggested that we learn to follow the dictates of reason. We should look for the right answer about car design or foreign policy by reasoning logically, not by asking a whole group of people to put up their hands. Plato therefore recommended that an ideal state should be ruled over not by elected leaders, but by an elite group of wise intellectuals or philosopher-kings, who could be guaranteed to think every decision through, and decide on the right course.

It is, in a way, a great idea. Public opinion is often very wrong. If you follow the will of the majority, you are likely to end up with some pretty daft decision (and some odd-looking cars). Focus groups show up not only the wisdom of the majority, but frequently also its idiocy and prejudice.

Unfortunately, Plato failed to appreciate how every attempt to put his plans into action at a political level would end with an elite who claimed to be wise without in fact being so (Nazis, Communists, and so on). If the will of the majority is worth listening to, it's not because it's always right, but because the will of an elite is even more frequently wrong. The Ford Focus isn't such a bad car after all.