Plato, Poverty Inc., and Rhode Island


We get caught up in the notion of “progress,” because we’re so enamored of the material world, which technology can manipulate.  That’s wonderful, as far as it goes, but too often, we err in believing that technological advancement somehow indicates that we’ve improved ourselves in a more spiritual, moral, or fundamental way.  We think, for example, that our facility with computer science is evidence that we can set smart people to the task of running the world, and they’ll make us all comfortable and happy.  (Themselves most of all, one suspects.)

One need only turn to Plato’s description of modern Rhode Island some 2,500 years ago in The Republic:

Well, and about the business of the agora, dealings and the ordinary dealings between man and man, or again about agreements with the commencement with artisans; about insult and injury, of the commencement of actions, and the appointment of juries, what would you say? there may also arise questions about any impositions and extractions of market and harbour dues which may be required, and in general about the regulations of markets, police, harbours, and the like. But, oh heavens! shall we condescend to legislate on any of these particulars?

I think, he said, that there is no need to impose laws about them on good men; what regulations are necessary they will find out soon enough for themselves.

Yes, I said, my friend, if God will only preserve to them the laws which we have given them.

And without divine help, said Adeimantus, they will go on for ever making and mending their laws and their lives in the hope of attaining perfection.

You would compare them, I said, to those invalids who, having no self-restraint, will not leave off their habits of intemperance


Yes, I said; and what a delightful life they lead! they are always doctoring and increasing and complicating their disorders, and always fancying that they will be cured by any nostrum which anybody advises them to try.

Such cases are very common, he said, with invalids of this sort.

Yes, I replied; and the charming thing is that they deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth, which is simply that, unless they give up eating and drinking and wenching and idling, neither drug nor cautery nor spell nor amulet nor any other remedy will avail.

Charming! he replied. I see nothing charming in going into a passion with a man who tells you what is right.

These gentlemen, I said, do not seem to be in your good graces.

Assuredly not.

Nor would you praise the behaviour of States which act like the men whom I was just now describing. For are there not ill-ordered States in which the citizens are forbidden under pain of death to alter the constitution; and yet he who most sweetly courts those who live under this regime and indulges them and fawns upon them and is skilful in anticipating and gratifying their humours is held to be a great and good statesman –do not these States resemble the persons whom I was describing?

Yes, he said; the States are as bad as the men; and I am very far from praising them.

But do you not admire, I said, the coolness and dexterity of these ready ministers of political corruption?

Yes, he said, I do; but not of all of them, for there are some whom the applause of the multitude has deluded into the belief that they are really statesmen, and these are not much to be admired.

What do you mean? I said; you should have more feeling for them. When a man cannot measure, and a great many others who cannot measure declare that he is four cubits high, can he help believing what they say?

Nay, he said, certainly not in that case.

Well, then, do not be angry with them; for are they not as good as a play, trying their hand at paltry reforms such as I was describing; they are always fancying that by legislation they will make an end of frauds in contracts, and the other rascalities which I was mentioning, not knowing that they are in reality cutting off the heads of a hydra?

For both the effects of this government self-indulgences and another indication that technological advancement needn’t indicate any sort of real improvement of value, consider a pair of charts that appears toward the end of the documentary, Poverty, Inc.  One chart plots the distribution of businesses in high-income countries, and it shows a large bulge running from larger micro companies to smaller medium-sized companies, let’s say from two or three to 30 to 40 employees, with the line going down toward a straight line for large companies.  The second chart plots the distribution of businesses in low-income countries, and it shows a high, thin bulge at the small end of micro companies and then lower, but broader, bulge among the larger large companies.

In other words, because of (basically) political corruption, people who are well connected find it relatively easy to operate, and they dominate the market.  Poor, unconnected people do whatever they can for money (acting as micro companies) and find it nearly impossible to establish themselves and grow past a couple of employees, because the regulations and approvals become vastly more difficult to navigate.  This is precisely what I described, in a four-part series of posts last year, looking at job creation and destruction in Rhode Island; people in our state initiate a good number of establishments, but as they attempt to grow, their numbers fall away.

And it’s very much a consequence of what Plato described in The Republic.  Our government, not wanting to give up its true pleasure of making up rules for the rest of us (or the special deals of insiders), layers on new rules and giveaways in the hopes that some magic mixture will allow productive people to live well enough not to flee the state without having to change what’s really wrong.  For all our knowledge and technology, we still fall into being the civic invalids whom Plato described.