Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Political optimism

Bai Tongdong, the cat-loving professor teaching Pre-Qin Political Philosophy, has an interesting thesis. The context in which Confucianism and other early Chinese philosophies emerged was enough like that of the early modern West - trying to find a social glue and legitimate governance structures in post-feudal "societies of strangers" - that it should be thought of as modern rather than ancient philosophy. It's a clever move which makes Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Han Feizi and the others natural interlocutors for Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke and contemporary political theorists. On his reading the early Confucians are in various ways egalitarian and democratic, thinking that anyone might be good and wise (although in practice few are able to be), and that government exists to serve the needs of the people. A "hybrid" political system that combines democracy with a meritocracy seems in order.The structures of liberal democracy seem ill-suited to discern the common good (my term), which might involve, as Bai points out, non-voters such as past and future generations, foreigners, and the environment. Far-sighted and compassionate government is needed; is democracy the best way to get it? I find myself quite sympathetic with many of his arguments; my line has long been Churchill's "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others"! But his book has helped me see that there's a big difference between seeing government as a "necessary good" or a "necessary evil," the least bad check of flawed humanity and itself requiring constant vigilance since power corrupts. I sigh with communitarians and dream of the former but my instincts are still with the latter. It's rather fun to see a commitment to democracy as harboring the less optimistic view about human nature!

Tongdong Bai, China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom
 (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012), 66, 79, 81

No comments: