Saturday, October 09, 2010

Weekly Column - 10/09/2010

This week's column:

"We will fix the number of citizens at 5040, to which the number of houses and portions of land shall correspond." – Plato, Laws

We hear much of the benefits of democracy, but the most striking aspect of the representative system of the American republic may be its sheer size. One searches in vain through the annals of political philosophy for a recommendation of running a representative system with a large number of people—let alone with near universal suffrage. Indeed, until Thomas Hobbes’s decidedly anti-democratic Leviathan was published in 1651, the consensus was that the State should be, if not limited in power, at least restricted to lord it over a small number of citizens.

Thus Plato keeps his Republic small, while in the Laws, he sets an explicit limit to the number of citizens. Aristotle neither recommends democracy nor the totalitarianism of Plato; but while he deigns to give an exact number of citizens, the state is to be kept contained, so that the citizens will know each other, and that, should there be a democratic aspect to the state, those with suffrage may be gathered in a single place to deliberate its functions. Even Rousseau, who advocated government by the general will, probably had Geneva—a small state with limited suffrage—firmly in mind while writing his book On the Social Contract.

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