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Socrates on state and supervisors

Socrates on state and supervisors

This is the first opportunity for a wider audience to learn about the recently discovered chapter XI of Plato’s Republic. It should come as no surprise that this chapter is more about state enterprises and less about the ideal state. Some parts of the text are missing because the text was found as a copy of the original in the northern Mediterranean region, now Slovenia. The climate there is not as dry as in Greece or Africa, so it is a miracle to find at least traces. A persistent local apparently translated the original into Slovenian around the year 1000 AD and left it in a massive wooden box buried deep in an abandoned wheat stone bin, which was widely used in the region at the time. Wheat regulates the climate in a favorable way, so the bread we got from this container is gluten-free and memetic.

Platon, Republic, Chapter XI

Socrates – Taxpayer

I went to town yesterday to ballot on pension reform, alone. When I returned and thought about the tedious act of breaking jars, I got tired on the way to Rose Valley. So I sat down on a wooden bench under the sight of a tree letting in a light breeze. While allowing my body to slowly gain the upper hand over my mind overloaded with thoughts, I noticed the well-toned torso of a taxpayer rapidly approaching me with the clear intention of disturbing my rest.

“Socrates,” the taxpayer called from so far away that birdsong seemed louder than his voice; “I’ll bet you remember our conversation from not too long ago when you tried to convince me that cost-cutting does not benefit most people. I would venture to guess that you have since changed your mind.”

“Dear taxpayer,” I replied, after he had come close enough to free me from using electronic devices to amplify my voice, “don’t you respect a very honorable custom of greeting a person you meet first, and only then bothering him? I am pretty sure that …”

“Having settled this first question, my dear taxpayer, have you not thought of reducing the cost of supervisors on boards of directors who act for the state as owner?

“Most definitely,” he replied. “I think we all see that when supervisors were paid more for their work, they were just as inefficient. Now they produce the same result, but they cost less, so the majority benefits.”

“Your words make sense,” I replied. “But I would still like to ask you first: do you call a plow that does not turn the soil a plow; a blacksmith that does not touch the iron a blacksmith; a teacher that does not teach a teacher?

“Of course not, my dear Socrates. But you have made a false comparison, for bad supervisors still do their work and so are still supervisors.”

“Really,” I replied. “How can you tell that someone is a superior and another is not, by the color of his skin, his education, or something else?”

“I can not really say,” the taxpayer replied. “To me, they are all the same, bad, like I said.”

Cheap farmers

“If I understand you correctly, you see them all as bad supervisors, but not necessarily as bad professors, macroeconomists, lawyers, … since we can find all these professions among supervisors.”

“Speculating further,” I said, still sitting relaxed on the same bench, “we should acknowledge that when we store in the Saturday market, we do not choose those who are good mothers or good tailors or even good glass cutters, but those who are good farmers.”

“True,” the taxpayer replied quickly through the icy summer air. “On the other hand, I see that there are many bad supervisors who also do other jobs.”

“True. But I always buy from the cheapest farmer who is the best for me,” Taxpayer triumphed. “If I follow your analogy with supervisors, we would have to conclude that the best supervisors are actually the cheapest.”

“Dear Taxpayer, I must admit that you have defeated me with my own argument. But I’ll ask you anyway: would you buy from the cheapest farmer if you saw him at the market for the first time?”

“No, because I would not trust him. But if my friends whom I trust would store there, I would store at the cheapest one too.”

“So that means that you can recognize a good farmer by the repetition of circumstances each time you store and by recognizing the other shoppers, and not by the price…”

“Dear Taxpayer,” I raised my voice and began to walk around the bench where he was sitting instead of me even at that moment. “How much would you pay for a plow that does not turn over the soil, little or nothing?”

“Nothing, of course,” he replied.

“In the same way you would not pay anything for a teacher who does not teach, and nothing for an Uber driver who does not take you where you want to go?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Dear taxpayer, don’t you see that you are paying little to a supervisor who does not supervise, and yet you are paying him more than he deserves – so in effect, you are robbing most by paying him anything.”

“But Socrates, you are going the wrong way. In choosing a peasant, it is I who choose, while it is the state that chooses the supervisors.”

“True,” I said. “If there are no good supervisors, it means that the state cannot distinguish between good and bad supervisors.”

“But, dear Socrates, there must be a profession that qualifies a supervisor, and therefore there should be a distinction between supervisors based on how one master that profession.”

Are soldiers good farmers?

“Let us try an analogy. Would a soldier who is also a farmer perform well as a soldier?”

“What do you imagine?”

“Do not you also think that a soldier/farmer who destroys crops on the march is a good soldier if he wins a battle, while a soldier/farmer who avoids crops, loses a battle, is a bad soldier?”

“True,” he eagerly joins the chain of my reasoning. “We should reward a soldier for acting as a soldier and punish him when he acts against the interests of the army he belongs to, even if he acts against his interests as a farmer.”

“So the state should choose as superiors only those who have no conflict of interest to be sure they are the best supervisors/soldiers.”

“It would seem so,” he replied, but with some reluctance in his voice. The silence was broken first by a passing group of children and then by his recovery. “But don’t you agree, dear Socrates, that a supervisor who oversees a company that makes plows should know something about agriculture, since plows are sold to farmers?”

I won, but then…

“And that, dear taxpayer, is precisely my argument that cheap supervisors are bad supervisors.”

“How so?”

“If supervisors were supposed to know something about the business they are supervising while acting only in the interest of their supervisory role, the only way they would not have a conflict of interest is if they were paid more than they would if they were acting in the interest of any other role they might have. Unless we pay them as little as possible, we are literally forcing them to do other jobs to make a living, and we cannot expect them to thrive. Similarly, we can not expect a profession of consultants to exist if they are not paid enough to resist the temptation to be sloppy. And it’s quite clear that politicians who build their policies on savings so that they make their own coffee can not act as statesmen.”

“But dear Socrates, by this you have implied that the cost of true supervisors without conflicts of interest would be absurdly high. So it is wiser to pay them as little as possible and accept that they can always have conflicts of interest. More than that, they said that real supervisors, consultants, and politicians cannot exist in principle, so all the costs they incur are for nothing. And to crown the argument, are not you the best case of someone in charge, since as a philosopher you do not charge fees and even this book is distributed for free?”

The night did not bring a solution, but the dawn. There was even a moment when I thought I might be a taxpayer myself. On the way home I also realized that I do not understand it, but it’s certainly good. At least the birds stayed as if nothing had happened.

This is the third revision of a translation from 2011.

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