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Gerrard Eckhoff

Plato’s Conceit

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A political system that allows the select few of the ruling elite to dominate the life of the ordinary person has come to be known as …..“Plato’s conceit”.

Plato, the Greek philosopher, had a belief that the power or governance of a country should always be vested in the ‘guardians’ from the ruling class. His design for governance of a country applied only to those fortunate enough to be well educated. “Ordinary” people were of no consequence. Plato believed farmers and their ilk were best suited to slavery. His perfect society was based on the masses agreeing to be ruled, but with such people having no understanding of the principles upon which they were to be governed. His system dominates much of the world’s political governance to this very day.

The singular problem with Plato’s utopian ideal is that it doesn’t work …anywhere despite the “guardians” of many different hues decision to implement Plato’s design (by default) during the last 2000 years. That reality still does not stop our politicians as there has been an inextricable march in New Zealand towards the implementation of what is only a minor variation of “Plato’s conceit”.

The Guardians or in today’s language – cabinet and councils – would, according to Plato, naturally be possesses of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice.

Recent political history has shown us that wisdom is often tyrannical within those who possess it; as such people can be intolerant of those that don’t. Courage can be mistaken for belligerence, while justice appears to be an increasingly unaffordable and fleeting thing. Temperance of course has never been New Zealand’s strongest suit.

The decision of the Cabinet to continue with the fundamentally flawed and essentially bankrupt ACC system at what ever the cost to the ordinary person can only be described as a perfect example of “Plato’s conceit”. No genuine consultation with the “ordinary people” that are to pay the huge cost increases, has occurred. We the people are supposed to accept therefore, that community ownership of accident compensation, no matter what the cost, is good and that private arrangements no matter what the benefits, is bad.

The petition to repeal the anti smacking law is also a current example of Plato’s conceit. “We the Cabinet knows best – besides the petition was signed by…. ordinary people – who are unlikely to possess our “wisdom”. The controversy over the adding of an ‘h’ to Wanganui by the Geographic Board “guardians” despite widespread opposition is yet another recent example of Plato’s conceit.

The ‘wisdom of crowds’ is cast aside in favour of the ruling body giving advice to itself which is rarely if ever ignored.

To add insult to injury; too often the “guardians” load up the cart and then look for a suitable horse to pull it. There is only ever one available – the “ordinary” people.

Auckland’s super city quest is all about easier governance and less about the enhancement of democracy. Most will question how the will of the people will be exercised by the “guardians” of Auckland’s future. In reality such guardians will be drawn to the belief that their “informed” opinions must override the masses.

Climate change is another case in point. There has been no meaningful engagement with the public on this issue; just top down rhetoric promoting pseudo science from those who believe they know best. (Plato would have been proud)

The allure of power is more than enough to attract the odd fox to the central and local government’s hen house. That in itself is not too much of a problem as the fox among the hens is easily identified. It is when the “hens” start to crow and forget who and what they represent that problems occur. Once inside the hen house, there are very few guiding principles – other than the need for – “consultation” with the people.

There appears to be two forms of consultation. The first kind of consultation is easily recognizable. A series of public meetings is usually held where discussion on the issue is led by the proponents of the issue at hand, usually a cabinet minister or a councilor. A presentation is made to the attendees of the only options available and everybody goes home a little more informed but not necessarily any the wiser.

True consultation however is quite different as there is risk attached to the council or Government whose view may well be overridden. This form of consultation is determined by the stage and level of interaction between the council and the public or the impacted group. True consultation is so much more difficult as it requires an egoless effort and the courage of a council or government to accept the will of the people.

Failure to engage true consultation before any development, planning and construction proceeds violates the principles of transparency and accountability. A closed or ‘in committee’ meeting with selected persons who do not represent the majority view is still a form of consultation but it is not true consultation. Plato would have approved of this very discerning or selective type of consultation.

To truly engage with “the people” may be difficult and in many cases well nigh impossible but without the requirement and commitment to do so with openness and total transparency, is to deny democracy the chance to change and enhance people’s lives.