Thursday, January 20, 2005

36. Government's all Greek to him

Success is often built upon the bricks of knowledge formed from studying both the triumphs and failures of its predecessors. The founders of this country sought to examine previous governments in order to frame a constitution and government that might encapsulate the best of each, without repeating the mistakes of the past. Some of the failed republics studied were those of the ancient Greeks. The challenges of government that we experience today are not apart from the hindrances pondered by Athenian philosophers centuries before modern time.

Aristotle and Thucydides, in particular, noted the tensions and potential incompatibility between ideas such as "democracy," and "freedom." Too often, these terms are used interchangeably, despite their very different meanings and applications. Their musings and postulations are exemplified in our modern government, with the differences often unnoticed.

According to Thucydides, expounded by Daniel N. Robinson, Ph. D. in his Greek Legacy series, "democracy assumes that all have equal moral and political standing, and that rewards will be distributed equally, " whereas "freedom presumes that rewards will be distributed unequally, since some people have more ability than others."

In Thucydides' definition of democracy, the assumption of equal moral and political standing does not refer to a casteless society. However, the plausibility of a society of equal moral and political standing is improbable. To this, according to Robinson, Aristotle noted that a "democracy creates the potential for a tyranny of the majority." One could argue that Aristotle prophetically detailed the last election in which the "moral" majority tyrannically eradicated potential marital arrangements between homosexuals. Thus, in this definition of democracy, the rights of minorities exist only so long as the majority refrains from extinguishing them.

Fortunately, the American founders fought for the ratification of several rights as Constitutional amendments to preserve minority beliefs and opinions. Again drawing from tyrannical study, the inclusion of these rights guaranteed, at least to some degree, a democratic state in which individuals would have equal moral and political standing- at least in the right to express one's minority or unpopular opinion, without the fear of being hauled off to prison (although this, of course, hasn't always held true).

The presumption that freedom rewards those based on ability or effort lends itself to a meritocracy or what is sold as "the American dream." In this concept of governance, the rewards are to be reaped by the deserving and successful- as the most talented individuals rise to the top. Ideologically, citizens would begin at the same place but end (or succeed) according to merit- some rich, some poor. This premise, however, fails in the light of nepotism, elitism and privilege. Fewer citizens, as the wealthy entrench their stronghold on the path of success, realize the American dream.

The Economist magazine examined American's "fading meritocracy," in what it titled, "Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend." It found that income inequity "is growing to levels not seen since the 1880s." In addition, it noted that it is "not any easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the wealthy have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

Again, in our recent election, both President George W. Bush and candidate Senator John Kerry came from very privileged backgrounds. The privileged path consists of growing up in wealthy and prestigious families, attending private schools and then Ivy League colleges- after which, the opportunities are endless. With education often being the key to success, especially for those that graduate from the top schools, it is disheartening to note, according to The Economist article, that "three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic forth, compared with just 3% from the poorest forth." Harvard students, for example, come from families whose median income is $150,000. Furthermore, 10-15% of all Ivy League classes are made up of "legacies"- those that are often granted special acceptance because they are the children of alumni.

Some leaders of the recent past, likewise, expressed their concerns over the plight facing the poor. Teddy Roosevelt favored inheritance taxes to preserve a meritocracy (and prevent an aristocracy), that is, to level the playing field so that fewer individuals realize such a head start. In addition, philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, who donated millions of dollars to free libraries, attempted to thwart the implications of a class-based society.

The ideology of America's democracy and meritocracy, it can be argued, is slowly being eroded, as exemplified by the distribution of wealth and education. An aristocracy can succeed in a democracy so long as it prevents overthrow from the mob. To do this requires a content middle class and a perceived majority ideology. As long as the middle class is relatively satisfied, the voice of the poor will not be heard. Moreover, as long as the country is moving in the "right" direction politically, culturally or morally, the aristocracy will be permitted to survive (consider conservative values that sparked this year's election, regardless of social standing).

Ancient Greek philosophers proposed that we must choose between the majority mob that rule democracies (because they can) and societies that rewards its citizens (in terms of wealth and power) proportional to their accomplishments. Similarly, Robinson concludes that, "The American founders realized that their democratic experiment would fail if it were not restrained (from) the excessive tendencies to which democracy is prone." Today, it seems, America must tread cautiously through the principles of government, balancing democracy, meritocracy, freedom and liberty- while dedicated to controlling the excessive tendencies of democracy and the oppressions of aristocracy.

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