Monday, August 2, 2021

UNDERSTANDING PLATO podcast announcement

It gives me great pleasure to announce that I have begun a podcast based on the content of my first book in the Smart Student's Guides to Philosophical Classics series.  

The podcast is about Plato's Socratic dialogues and his celebrated book Republic.  The podcast is divided into episodes of about 20 minutes. 

 Each episode is about one dialogue or a part thereof, beginning with Euthyphro.   Four episodes have already been published.  

Future episodes will be published weekly on Monday evening at 5 pm PST. 


Here are several sites where you can find the podcast:

Spreaker Podcasts

Podcast Addict


Apple Podcasts


Thanks for listening!


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The U.S. Form of Government is an Aristocracy not a Democracy


Why the American system of government is an aristocracy: A Rousseauian warning to U.S. Senators Manchin and Sinema

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin
U.S. Senator Krysten Sinema
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Americans like to call their form of government or system of rule a democracy and they brag about this to the rest of the world.  Although there is much in the U.S.A. to brag about, the system of government we especially like to brag about is not a democracy.  There are many features in our system similar to those found in aristocracies that disqualify the U.S.A. as having a democratic form of government.

Let me explain. Democracy is a system of government or rule in which the power to legislate is either held directly by the people themselves or by representatives elected by them.   Democracy is the only system of government in which all citizens have equal power (right, freedom) to either legislate or to give over their power of legislating to others of their own choosing.   The former system is called direct democracy.  The latter is called representative democracy.  Whether the democracy is direct or representative, a simple majority of voters or their representatives is necessary and sufficient to create or change a law.  For example, if a law is proposed that mandates citizens to wear face masks during a pandemic, then the proposal becomes law if there is a simple majority who approve and it fails if there is one or more votes less than a simple majority.  Any proposal requiring more than a simple majority to pass a proposed law violates a central principle of democracy: each vote should count for one and no vote should count for more than one.  If more than a simple majority is required, then more voting power is given to those in the minority.  This dissolves democracy and installs aristocracy (see below).

By way of contrast, a system of government in which one person has the power to legislate is called a monarchy or autocracy, whether the monarch (autocrat) has inherited the power to legislate by birth or is directly elected by the people for a few years or for a lifetime.

A system of government in which more than one but fewer than a majority of citizens have the power to legislate is called an aristocracy, whether each aristocrat  is appointed by a king,  inherited the power to legislate by birth or is directly elected  by the people for a few years or for a lifetime.

A system of government in which more than a simple majority is required to create or change law is called a supermajority or a qualified majority system of rule. 

The system of government of the United States of America fails to qualify as a democracy in at several ways, each of them endorsing aristocracy over democracy.

1. The aristocracy of the filibuster.

First, the filibuster action or tactic used in the U.S. Senate is clearly undemocratic.  Filibusters are actions allowed in a legislature (such as a prolonged speech) that obstruct progress in passing a bill while not technically contravening the required procedures.  Although filibusters can be overridden by the vote of a supermajority of senators (60 instead of 50 in a group of 100), this rarely happens, especially if there is an equal number of senators on both sides of an issue.  In most cases, the filibuster succeeds because the supermajority to override the filibuster cannot be found, and a simple majority of senators are thereby prevented from passing the desired bill or law.  The minority who opposed the law win, but only because the system of rule has been transformed by the filibuster from a democracy into an aristocracy! 

The argument for the filibuster recently given by senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema is that it forces senators from both parties to seek a bipartisan solution.  It is more important that a bill have bipartisan support than that to pass a bill by a simple majority of senators of one party.  In other words, for the senators, using the filibuster to prevent a simple majority of senators from one party from passing a bill is more important than adherence to the foundational rule of democracy: the will of the people is expressed through a simple majority.  There is no requirement that the simple majority be composed of members of contending factions.

2. The aristocracy of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is an undemocratic system for electing the president and vice president because it overrides the popular vote of the whole people of the United States.

 The college is a group of presidential electors required by the US Constitution who meet every four years.   Their only purpose is to elect the president and vice president.  Each state has as many "electors" in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress (the District of Columbia has three electors). When voters go to the polls in a presidential election, they actually vote for the slate of electors who have vowed to cast their ballots for that ticket in the Electoral College.  Unbeknownst to most voters, they are not directly voting for a particular president and vice president.  For those who know about and understand the process, they cast their vote hoping that the ticket that wins the popular vote will also be the ticket that the electors vote for when the Electoral College meets in Washington, D.C. two months after the election.  Although the Constitution does not require electors in each state to cast their vote for the president and vice president chosen by popular vote in the state, most electors will do so. 

The source of inequality is to be found in the distribution of electors in each state.  The distribution is not proportionate with the number of eligible voters.  For example, the voting population of the state of California is over 22 million and the number of California electors is 55.   Wyoming has 269 thousand voters and 3 electors.   If the number of electors were proportionate to the voting population of these states, California would have 245 electors not 55.   The implication of this is that the three electors from Wyoming have much more power than the fifty-five electors representing California.  Each Wyoming elector represents 90,000 voters but each California elector represents 400,000 voters, making Wyoming voters 4.4 times more powerful than California votes when the final electoral votes are cast. 

In their effort to give small states like Wyoming, Vermont and Delaware more power in presidential and vice-presidential elections than they would have if electors were appointed in numbers proportionate to their voting population, the founding fathers ignored the principle of equality.  If this moral principle had been employed when the Constitution was ratified each vote would count for one and no vote would count for more than one.  A voting system that gives more power to voters who live in one state than those who live in another state violates this principle and with it a foundational principle of democracy: one person, one vote.

3. The aristocracy of the United States Senate.

The composition of the United States Senate is undemocratic for the same reason that the Electoral  College is undemocratic.  The Constitution of the United States gives each state two senators, elected by every six years, regardless of the number of voters in the state.   Hence, the legislative power of the people in the state of Wyoming who elect their two senators to represent them in the Senate is much greater than the legislative power of the California citizens who also vote for two senators.  The moral principle of equality is violated in the extreme by was modelled by the founders on the 18th century aristocratic British House of Lords.  Although U.S. senators are elected by the people not appointed as “lifetime peers” by a king,  the disproportionate legislative power held by both U.S. senators and British lords is the same.

4. The aristocracy of the presidential veto.

The power of presidential veto in Article I, section 7 of the Constitution is undemocratic because it grants the president the authority to veto legislation passed by Congress. Congress can override a presidential veto but only if both the House of Representatives and the Senate can muster two-thirds of its members to approve the override. 

Although the veto power of the president was approved by the founders to diminish the legislative power of Congress and thereby achieve a balance of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches, the use of the veto is a clear assault on democracy.   Congress can override a veto, but it takes a supermajority of the members to do so.  This requirement is sufficient to categorize this article of the Constitution as another endorsement of aristocracy and a rejection of democracy. 

5. The aristocracy of voter suppression.

There is no explicit right to vote in the Constitution or in its amendments.  This omission is undemocratic because the concept of democracy implies that all members of the “demos” (the whole people) must have the right to vote if they are to carry out the function of ruling (legislating).   If a proposed law is a product of the vote of the people or those who represent them, then we can infer from this that their form of government is a democracy.     

The right to vote is implicit in the Constitution and its amendments.  Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment comes close to making the right to vote explicit:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

A “privilege” of being a citizen is having the right to vote.  If voting is a privilege of citizenship, and the exercise of this right is one of the most important liberties citizens possess, then no State can make or enforce laws that would deprive citizens of the vote without due process of law and without the equal protection of the laws.  

The question before the courts today is whether new laws recently passed in several states that make it more difficult for minorities, the elderly, young and poor people to vote are in violation of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1956. The burden is on the states to prove that restrictions placed on how and when to vote are necessary to prevent fraud.  For example, if a state has no evidence that voting by mail or voting on Sunday increases the number of fraudulent votes, then prohibiting people to vote by mail is an instance of voter suppression that impacts minority group more than it impacts others.   

6. The aristocracy of representation.

The 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously argued that most governments that call themselves democracies do not qualify as such.  Rousseau argues that the only true democracy is a direct democracy.  When a proposal for a law comes up for a vote, the only persons who should be allowed to cast a vote for or against the proposed law are the citizens themselves.  Anyone who claims that she is a representative of a group of citizens and is voting “in their behalf” should not be allowed to join the assembly of voters.  She can cast her personal vote as a citizen but she cannot cast a vote for other citizens. 

To give one’s vote to another is equivalent to not voting at all.  If a citizen goes to the polls and votes for candidate X instead of candidate Y, they are alienating their freedom to legislate (that is, to create or change law) by giving the power of their vote to another person over whom they will have no control until the next election.  For the next two, four or six years the votes cast by representatives are their votes not the votes of the citizens that they are presumed to represent. 

If the only legitimate votes for new laws are the votes of representatives and not the votes of citizens,  then the assembly of elected representatives is no different than an assembly of unelected aristocrats who have been given legislative power because of the circumstances of their birth.  In the spirit of Rousseau’s words, an assembly of representatives, no matter how they came to power, is an assembly of aristocrats.  It is certainly not a democracy. Democracy exists only when the whole people rule.  The “whole people” is a simple majority of citizen voters.  To quote Rousseau, the vote of a simple majority expresses the general will.

7. Summary and conclusion. 

The United States of America is an aristocracy not a democracy.  If the word “aristocracy” is too much to bear, then we can call our form of government a flawed democracy. 

Is there any way to repair the flaws?  Here are a few suggestions.

First, the U.S. Senate should abolish the filibuster.  The argument that the filibuster is needed to guarantee bipartisanship in the Senate is not a sufficient reason to violate the principle of majority rule and with it the heart of democracy.  This justification for the filibuster is equivalent saying that no law should be passed unless it is approved by a supermajority of senators, for example, by 75 out of 100 votes of approval.  If it is argued that this would permanently enshrine a tyranny of the minority (the 25 senators who disapprove), then the same argument can be applied to the use of the filibuster. 

Second, the Constitution must be amended to abolish the Electoral College.  It is a remnant of aristocratic governments and it has no place in a country that aspires for democracy and hypocritically repeats the words “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” 

Third, a more radical solution would be to abolish the U.S. Senate entirely.  The fact that each senator does not represent the same number of citizens is sufficient to declare the composition of the Senate as undemocratic.  If equal representation is made a requirement, then the membership of the Senate would be like the membership of the House of Representatives.  Hence, it would be redundant legislative body. 

Fourth, Congress should immediately put into action the long process of amending the U.S. Constitution to guarantee the right to vote. This could be done by adding new words to the First Amendment;  for example,  “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise of the right to  vote.  Or Congress could promote a new amendment using these or similar words, solely dedicated to the right to vote. Amending the Constitution to include a right to vote would be much more difficult than getting rid of the filibuster because it would be fought by those who are currently attempting to suppress attempts to encourage new voters or make voting easier for all.  Instead of wooing new voters to their party or faction, they would rather build new impediments to the process of voting.

Fifth, the power of veto should be removed from the presidency.  It is obviously in violation of the principle of majority rule.  The power of the president should be entirely executive not legislative, for reasons already cited above.

Sixth, attempts to suppress the vote can be quashed by passage of a constitutional amendment that guarantees the free exercise of the right to vote, as recommended above.  If an amendment cannot be passed, then Congress has the power to federalize the vote for president and vice-president.  At this writing, recent attempts to pass this legislation have failed in the U.S. Senate because Republicans are convinced that practices like mail-in ballots and same day voting will increase the number of fraudulent votes, even though there no evidence that this happened in the 2020 election. 

Seventh, Rousseau’s recommendation for direct democracy should be taken seriously.  At the time that Rousseau wrote The Social Contract (1762), there was no practical way for most states to adopt direct in-person voting for proposed laws.  If it is to work at all, Rousseau opined, direct democracy could only work in states with very small populations in which each citizen could travel and assemble at the designated polling place. 

But times have changed.  We now have the technology for persons to approve or disapprove proposed laws by ballot.  The recent referendum in the state of California is a prime example of direct democracy.  17.8 million residents voted for president, senators and representatives on November 6, 2020.  More than 15 million ballots were cast by mail.  But more to the point, citizens also voted for or against 12 proposed “measures” that would become law if approved by a majority.  If millions of Californians can legislate, why can’t all Americans in every state of the union?

We should trust the citizens to do more legislating than they are now legally allowed to do.  If we allow citizens to vote for their representatives in Congress, then there is no justification for not allowing them to vote for or against proposed federal and state law.  It might be objected that the average voter is not smart enough to vote for proposed laws or they do not have the time to do this.  To this I would answer that if they are smart enough to choose their representative, then with the help of educators to inform them about the content of proposed laws, they are smart enough to legislate.  If some citizens don’t have the time to understand complex proposals because of the necessity to work and provide for their family, then a democratic government should make time and give compensation. What is important is not how to properly educate of our voters, but to make laws that are truly the will of the people.











Saturday, June 12, 2021

"True Christians are made to be slaves" (Rousseau, The Social Contract)


This post is from the final chapter of my book  


                                        Book IV, Chapter 8 CIVIL RELIGION

1 Religion in relation to society.

Rousseau divides the relation of religion to society into two kinds: the religion of man and the religion of the citizen.

The religion of man has no temples, altars, or rites.  It recognizes only one God, supreme over all humans, regardless of where they reside on earth.   It has “eternal obligations of morality” based on “natural divine right or law.”

The religion of the citizen is prescribed by law in a single country. The law gives that country “its gods, its own tutelary patrons; it has its dogmas, its rites, and its external cult.”  These were the religions of ancient peoples.  Outside of their nation, they regarded every other country as “infidel, foreign and barbarous.”  The duties and rights of man are defined by Rousseau as “civil or positive divine right or law.”

There is a third sort of religion that Rousseau calls “worthless” and hardly worth mentioning.  He calls it the religion of the priest.  “It is worthless because it “destroys social unity… by giving men two codes of legislation, two rulers, and two countries, rendering them subject to contradictory duties, and making it impossible for them to be faithful both to religion and to citizenship.”  Roman Catholicism is one of Rousseau’s examples of this kind of religion. It has “a sort of mixed and anti-social code which has no name.”

2 Political defects and strengths of the religion of the citizen.

The strength of the religion of the citizen is that it “unites the divine cult with a love of the laws, and, making the country the object of the citizens' adoration, teaches them that service done to the State is service done to its tutelary god.” The pontiff (bishop, pope) is the prince, and the priests are the magistrates.  “To die for one's country then becomes martyrdom; violation of its laws, impiety; and to subject one who is guilty to public execration is to condemn him to the anger of the gods.”

The religion of the citizen is defective in that it is “founded on lies and error…, becomes tyrannous and exclusive, and makes a people bloodthirsty and intolerant, … and regards as a sacred act the killing of everyone who does not believe in its gods.”  The ultimate consequence of this turmoil is that the people are in a natural state of war with all others so that its security is deeply endangered.”

3 Political defects and strengths of the religion of man.

Rousseau identifies the religion of man as Christianity, but immediately says “not the Christianity of today, but that of the Gospel, which is entirely different.”  Rousseau means that the teachings of Jesus in the first four books of the New Testament constitute “the real religion” of all people.  He focuses on the teaching that “being children of one God, [the people will] recognize one another as brothers, and the society that unites them is not dissolved even at death.”

This is not a political strength but a significant defect of the religion of man.  Christianity does not bind the hearts of the citizens to the State. It has the opposite effect of “taking them away from all earthly things. I know of nothing more contrary to the social spirit.”

We are told that a people of true Christians would form the most perfect society imaginable. I see in this supposition only one great difficulty: that a society of true Christians would not be a society of men.

I say further that such a society, with all its perfection, would be neither the strongest nor the most lasting: the very fact that it was perfect would rob it of its bond of union; the flaw that would destroy it would lie in its very perfection.

Rousseau admits that “everyone would do his duty; the people would be law-abiding, the rulers just and temperate; the magistrates upright and incorruptible; the soldiers would scorn death; there would be neither vanity nor luxury.” But this is irrelevant.  “The country of the Christian is not of this world.”  What happens in this world is fleeting and temporary.  What happens in the spiritual world after death is eternal and permanent.  It does not matter whether he is a free man or a slave.  The essential thing in the mind of the true Christian is to get to heaven, and “resignation is only an additional means of doing so.”

But I am mistaken in speaking of a Christian republic; the terms are mutually exclusive. Christianity preaches only servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that it always profits by such a régime. True Christians are made to be slaves, and they know it and do not much mind: this short life counts for too little in their eyes.

4 Religion and the limits of political expediency.

The right which the social compact gives the Sovereign over the subjects does not, we have seen, exceed the limits of public expediency.[1] The subjects then owe the Sovereign an account of their opinions only to such an extent as they matter to the community.

Rousseau adds to this that “it matters very much to the community that each citizen should have a religion” because it makes him “love his duty.”  However, the dogmas of that religion should be of no concern to the State and its members if they have no reference to morality. 

Each man may have, over and above, what opinions he pleases, without it being the Sovereign's business to take cognizance of them; for, as the Sovereign has no authority in the other world, whatever the lot of its subjects may be in the life to come, that is not its business, provided they are good citizens in this life.

The dogmas of the Catholic Church now and during Rousseau’s lifetime are “baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, reconciliation (penance), anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders” (Roman Catholicism,  Britannica).  These beliefs might be important to those who want entrance to Heaven, but they have little to do with being a good citizen or a faithful subject of the State.

There is therefore a purely civil profession of faith of which the Sovereign should fix the articles, not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.

Rousseau refers to these social sentiments as “the dogmas of civil religion” and says that “they ought to be few, simple, and exactly worded, without explanation or commentary.” They include positive dogmas (beliefs) in “the existence of a mighty, intelligent and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws.” 

The only negative dogma mentioned by Rousseau is intolerance.  Having rejected an exclusive national religion, Rousseau says that “tolerance should be given to all religions that tolerate others, so long as their dogmas contain nothing contrary to the duties of citizenship.”

No one can be compelled to believe in the dogmas of civil religion, but it can “banish from the State whoever does not believe them.” It can banish the non-believer, “not for impiety, but as an anti-social being, incapable of truly loving the laws and justice, and of sacrificing, at need, his life to his duty.” 

Rousseau recommends harsh punishment for those who, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behave as if they do not believe them: “Let him be punished by death: he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”

5 Final words

In the concluding paragraphs of The Social Contract, Rousseau praises Thomas Hobbes for seeing "the evil of Christianity” and how to remedy it by restoring political unity of religion and state, “without which no State or government will ever be rightly constituted.”

I believe that if the study of history were developed from this point of view, it would be easy to refute the contrary opinions of Bayle and Warburton, one of whom holds that religion can be of no use to the body politic, while the other, on the contrary, maintains that Christianity is its strongest support. We should demonstrate to the former that no State has ever been founded without a religious basis, and to the latter, that the law of Christianity at bottom does more harm by weakening than good by strengthening the constitution of the State.

Rousseau realizes that he needs to more exact about “the vague ideas of religion” if he is to be understood.  But he does not clarify these ideas here.  As noted in his biography,  it was because of the ideas expressed in this chapter that Rousseau was “banished” from France and two Swiss city-states on charges of blasphemy and even a public denouncement by his pastor that he is “the anti-Christ.”