In Plato’s ideal society, philosopher kings and elite Guardians shepherded the rabble to force them to do the “right” thing.
To prevent the unwashed from doing anything stupid, the all-powerful, all-wise Guardians often had to tell a few “noble” lies. And, of course, these caretakers themselves were exempt from most rules they made for others.
We are now seeing such thinking in the Obama administration and among its supporters.
A technocracy — many Ivy-League-educated and without much experience outside academia and government — pushes legislation most people do not want but is nevertheless judged to be good for them.
Take the Obama proposal for health care. A large percentage of Americans do not trust those who run the Postal Service to oversee the conditions of one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
No matter. Our philosopher-king president says of our fierce resistance: “I . . . know what happens once we get this done. The American people will suddenly learn that this bill does things they like.”
How about energy policy? Unlike Obama, most Americans believe we should fully utilize our own gas, oil, and nuclear resources so that we don’t go broke waiting for a promised solar-and-wind revolution.
In fact, on a number of other major issues, polls show more than half of all Americans are at odds with the Obama agenda: more federal takeover of private enterprise, gargantuan deficit spending, and “comprehensive” immigration reform, for starters.
Why, then, does the Obama administration persist with such an apparently unpopular agenda?
Like Plato’s all-knowing elite, Obama seems to feel that those he deems less informed will “suddenly” learn to appreciate his benevolent guidance once these laws are pushed through.
Liberal columnist Thomas Frank once promoted similar assumptions in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank argued that clueless American voters can’t quite figure out what their own self-interests are.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, another Obama supporter, also reflected the philosopher-king thinking in a recent column praising China’s “reasonably enlightened” dictatorship. Unlike the messiness of American democracy, he argued, a few smart strongmen in China can ram through the necessary policies “to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
President Obama has now apparently convinced himself that his old promises about a new transparency get in the way of giving the American people what they need.
Obama campaigned against lobbyists in government. But lobbyists in government are now necessary to accelerate the Obama hope-and-change agenda.
The president on several occasions promised to air the health-care debate on C-SPAN. But now negotiations take place behind closed congressional doors. That must be a necessary price if the people are going to get the health care they must have.
Obama, in addition, once ridiculed John McCain’s idea of taxing “Cadillac” health plans. He promised not to raise “any” taxes on those who make less than $250,000 a year. And he lectured President Bush on his foolishness of pushing Social Security reform when only 35 percent of the people were in favor it.
But now our philosopher-king has determined that he really needs to tax some premium health-care plans — even if that means additional costs will be passed onto those who make less than $250,000. And he certainly doesn’t mind pushing noble legislation that most people oppose.
Other past declarations — like the pledge to close Guantanamo within a year of taking office or the deadlines for the Iranians to stop work on their nuclear program — are noble sorts of lies. They at least show us the president’s good intentions and his care for our welfare — even if he can’t follow through on them.
There is one other trait of this administration similar to those of utopian philosopher-kings. Our elite must have the leeway to be exempt from their own rules.
Higher taxes must be levied on many of us. But the Guardian of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, now and then can cheat a little. So can the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles Rangel, who oversees the writing of tax law.
An evil Wall Street makes obscene profits and flies on private jets. But from time to time, Wall Street campaign donations and private-jet travel are permissible for our wiser Guardians if they are properly to plan for the people.
There is, however, one difference between Plato’s thinking and the Obama administration’s agenda. Plato at least assumed that philosopher-kings were fantasy ideas and his utopia unachievable.
Our president and his modern-day Guardians in contrast haven’t quite figured that out yet. Perhaps after this week’s election in Massachusetts they will.