Immortal vs. Life-cycle Political Theory
It’s very rare that I meet a Platonist, at least outside the philosophy of mathematics. Few are willing to divert a conversation in a bar to say something serious about a transcendent order of pure ideas lying behind this very flawed reality we inhabit.
But nonetheless, an air of platonism still hangs around in political discussion. The ideal state is a cruising altitude. If only we rose through this storm of confusion and Fox News, and at last instituted just rules and institutions, then a just government would carry on in the blue skies of Reason, or Equality, or Community….forever!…with only the slightest turbulence from time to time to disturb a passenger from his soporific movie and meal.
In this model, the work of governance in the future is maintenance. Establish just laws and then work to protect them from corruption, erosion, forgetfulness, and Chick-Fil-A.
The economist Amartya Sen broke ranks from his Harvard pals in Emerson Hall by suggesting that a theory of justice need not aim for an ideal, but only for the comparatively better. Governance becomes a treadmill of transitive preferences, where we move to state C, which is better than B, which is better than A, and so on through time, never arriving, but somehow always getting better.
While I think this contrast between the Platonic ideal and the comparatively better is a good one, I want to suggest that there’s a more important, and very neglected element of political theory that needs more discussion. It is the immortal theory versus the life-cycle theory.
The Platonic theory can easily be confused for the immortal theory, in that a Platonist will fight like a pit bull to show that the pure idea of justice is, like the soul, immortal. Forever beyond our limits, it lives forever. But that’s not what I’m talking about. You could just as well have a life-cycle Platonic theory: states rise and fall, and only at their pinnacle do they instantiate the platonic ideal, before quickly declining and disappearing.
Perhaps this is easier to see in corporate governance. It may be–and I’m certain a number of McKinsey consultants know for sure–that there is one ideal system of corporate management. Companies come and go through history–look at the top ten highest valued companies 100 years ago compared with today’s top ten–and yet we can still accept that in those rare years of vitality, when everything is humming on Six Sigma Jack Welch overdrive, that firm attained a platonic ideal. But humans are humans and new technologies disrupt industries and so the firm inevitably falls, spirals, and disappears off the Dow Jones without anyone even noticing. It is accepted as given that no firm will last forever. There is a life-cycle to its existence, however well managed.
I’m interested in thinking about life-cycle theories of governance, Platonic or not. A life-cycle theory would take corruption, sclerosis, and any other malady as inevitable. It would take very seriously the biological metaphor. And instead of focusing on safeguards within any political unit, this body of theory would take a step back and think about foundings, the rise, the pinnacle, and the fall of political units. It would accept certain historical drivers as–such as human nature–as features, not bugs. And it would also think about political evolution over time.
Immortalist American libertarians, for instance, yearn to bring back the Constitution in exile. If only we could roll back the clock!
Life-cycle libertarians would accept the New Deal as inevitable. It’s part of aging. But they would marvel at the inner workings of a constitution that has enabled a state to last, and thrive, for so long. And instead of undertaking rearguard action to protect the sacred vessels, they would look for new frontiers for new foundings, knowing full well that whatever political unit is established, it will rise and, one day, ultimately fall.
The only constant, Heraclitus said, is change.