Was Plato a Libertarian?

Despite his reputation as a roaring statist, Plato espoused a surprising number of libertarian principles.


Plato's famous political dialogue, the Republic, had led a rather peaceful existence for 2,300 years, when its correct interpretation suddenly became the subject of an intense controversy. The occasion for this dispute was the rise, in the 1930s and 1940s, of fascism and communism in Europe. American and British philosophers and political scientists awoke to the relevance of the Republic, and several books appeared claiming that it provided a philosophical justification of totalitarianism. Since the authors of these books were opposed to totalitarianism, however, they were hostile to Plato. The most scathing of these attacks was the first volume of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).

The denunciations of Plato quickly called forth books and articles in his defense. The authors of these works maintained that the critics, especially Popper, had seriously distorted his views. While they did not deny that the Republic is antidemocratic and authoritarian—the text is too clear to permit that—Plato's defenders held that Plato was opposing, not modern representative democracy (of which he of course knew nothing), but the chaotic direct democracy of Athens. Furthermore, they asserted, if Plato's political principles are correctly understood, they tend to support modern democratic, rather than totalitarian, institutions.

The controversy remains unresolved,* although the battle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism—at least on the intellectual level—has largely been won. Today, however, there is a contest between two tendencies within the democratic tradition itself: the statist and collectivist strain, exemplified by modern liberalism, conservatism, and socialism; and the individualist tendency, upheld by libertarianism. The question now is not Plato: totalitarian or democrat? but Plato: statist or libertarian?

Now, most libertarians would probably consider Plato as much a libertarian as the pope is a Protestant. The usual libertarian interpretation of ancient Greek political philosophy is summarized by Tibor Machan in his introduction to The Libertarian Alternative.

The roots of individualism and libertarianism may be traced as far back as Aristotle who acknowledged the moral significance, that is, the fundamental value and purpose, each individual's life and happiness constitute for him. Aristotle emphasized the role of organized society as a means by which man could secure the best living conditions in which to develop his highest potentials. But his focus upon human self-sufficiency was in sharp contrast to the political and moral philosophy expressed in Plato's Republic, especially when the latter is interpreted as the paradigm of the total state.

No one, of course, would claim that Aristotle was a libertarian. Too much in the Politics contradicts any such idea—for example, his view that the State is "prior to" (more important than) the individual, his opposition to revolutions even against bad forms of government, his exclusion of mechanics and artisans from citizenship, his defense of slavery, his insistence that the purpose of the State is to make people virtuous, not just to protect them from aggression. But along with these elements can be found others, from which a thoroughly libertarian position could be developed, including his emphasis on the importance of private property, his belief that governing should be by means of general laws rather than ad hoc commands, his assertion that if one has no share in the ruling function one is not really a citizen, and his judgment that the "many," taken collectively, possess more political wisdom than the few "best."

By contrast, Plato's ideal state in the Republic contains a rigid class system; the upper classes live communally, while private property and economic activity are restricted to the lowest class; the rulers are an elite group of experts who govern paternalistically; censorship, deceit, and indoctrination are proper methods of government; the goal of statesmanship is the happiness of the community as a whole, not that of the individuals within it. Plato seems, then, to be a statist and collectivist—one of the "bad guys."

But should we be so quick to accept this conclusion? Plato was, after all, one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived. If libertarianism is the correct position, surely he must have caught some glimmering of the truth! Perhaps his philosophy, like Aristotle's, is a mixture of libertarian and nonlibertarian strands.

Plato was certainly not a full-blown libertarian, as is obvious from the features of the Republic just cited. Besides, no libertarian could have written, as he did in the Crito, that "our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor.…And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right." Nevertheless, Plato was aware of—and accepted—some basic principles that are emphasized by libertarianism but ignored or rejected by its opponents. This shows that a thinker of Plato's caliber could not deny these truths, even though they conflict with the basically statist tenor of his thought.

Why did Plato not go on to develop a libertarian political philosophy? Because he "went wrong"—adopted a nonlibertarian position—at one crucial juncture in his theory, and his tragic slide into statism was a logical consequence of this mistake. And Plato's error is the same one that is made today by his statist intellectual descendants, but his superior wisdom prevented him from making it in as serious a form as they do.

We find the first of Plato's libertarian principles in book 2 of the Republic: Socrates, conversing with Plato's brother, Adeimantus, says:

We are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations.

Very true.

And will you have a work better done when the workman has many occupations, or when he has only one?

When he has only one.

Further, there can be no doubt that a work is spoilt when not done at the right time?

No doubt.

For business is not disposed to wait until the doer of the business is at leisure; but the doer must follow up what he is doing, and make the business his first object.

He must.

And so, we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.

Plato has very clearly stated the principle of the division of labor. He goes on to make it the cornerstone of his ideal State, since the division into three classes is an application of the principle.

It even turns out that the essence of the primary virtue, justice—the search for which is the theme of the entire dialogue—is identical with this principle:

You remember the original principle which we were always laying down at the foundation of the State, that one man should practice one thing only, the thing to which his nature was best adapted;—now justice is this principle or a part of it.…Further, we affirmed that justice was doing one's own business, and not being a busybody; we said so again and again, and many others have said the same to us.…Then to do one's own business in a certain way may be assumed to be justice.

Thus, for Plato, the division of labor is rooted in human nature, is the key to efficiency and productivity, and is not only just but is justice itself.

It is instructive to contrast Plato's view with that of the arch-nonlibertarian, Marx, who contended (in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example) that human beings are by nature well-rounded, multitalented individuals, "fit for a variety of labors"; that the division of labor is consequently contrary to human nature and is therefore the root cause of alienation. For Plato the division of labor is the root of all good, while for Marx it is the root of all evil.

Plato's hypothetical State, which started out with only a few citizens, increases in size as more and more specialists are added in accordance with the division-of-labor principle. Now Socrates asks:

Then, again, within the city, how will they exchange their productions? To secure such an exchange was, as you will remember, one of our principal objects when we formed them into a society and constituted a State.

Clearly they will buy and sell.

Then they will need a market-place, and a money-token for purposes of exchange.


Suppose now that a husbandman, or an artisan, brings some production to market, and he comes at a time when there is no one to exchange with him,—is he to leave his calling and sit idle in the market-place?

Not at all; he will find people there who, seeing the want, undertake the office of salesmen.…their duty is to be in the market, and to give money in exchange for goods to those who desire to sell and to take money from those who desire to buy.

We should notice several important points in this passage.

First, Plato is saying that at least one of the fundamental purposes of human association is peaceful, voluntary exchange. People do not form societies because they are innately gregarious "species-beings," but because there is a mutual economic benefit from such association.

Second, at this stage in the imaginary evolution of Plato's State, there is as yet no government. Even so, this is not a primitive barter economy, but a monetary one. This shows that in Plato's view the production of currency is not inherently a government function. It is true that he is speaking hypothetically, not historically, but at least he thinks it possible for money to come into existence by voluntary agreement rather than by State fiat. And we know from Murray Rothbard (Power and Market) and Carl Watner ("California Gold," REASON, Jan. 1976) that there have been a number of actual instances of successful private coinage.

Third, there is the significant phrase "seeing the want." Plato recognizes that even in the absence of centralized direction, needs will be perceived and fulfilled by individuals—and not from altruism, but because the individuals themselves can benefit from satisfying the wants of others. Here is the "invisible hand" 21 centuries before Adam Smith! This is, of course, how a libertarian society would obtain its roads, postal service, and fire protection, as well as its money.

When the demands of the imaginary citizens for economic goods and services have been met by voluntary exchange, the next step is to provide for their defense. Once again, Plato applies the principle of the division of labor. His discussion of the need for a professional army should be required reading for all proponents of a return to conscription.

But is war an art so easily acquired that a man may be a warrior who is also a husbandman, or shoemaker, or other artisan; although no one in the world would be a good dice or draught player who merely took up the game as a recreation, and had not from his earliest years devoted himself to this and nothing else? No tools will make a man a skilled workman, or master of defense, nor be of any use to him who has not learned how to handle them, and has never bestowed any attention upon them. How then will he who takes up a shield or any other implement of war become a good fighter all in a day, whether with heavy-armed or any other kind of troops?

In more modern terms: how will an average, unaggressive 19-year-old boy, suddenly yanked out of college or a job against his will, be transformed into an efficient fighting machine in a mere 16 weeks? It is well known that the casualty rate in war is higher among draftees than among career soldiers. It is less well known that, according to unpublicized studies by the military during World War II and the Korean War reported by James Martin in Revisionist Viewpoints, conscripts not only had extremely high desertion rates but frequently refused to fire their weapons even in the face of direct attack! How successful can any enterprise be when most of its members are unenthusiastic about their jobs, resign as soon as they can, and have to be continually replaced by inexperienced people?

Plato was criticizing the Athenian "citizen-soldier" practice, in which there was no standing army; instead, when war broke out, farmers left their fields and potters their wheels, picked up their weapons, and marched off to battle. The Athenians thought that the enthusiasm of men fighting for their homeland would more than compensate for their lack of expertise; many modern advocates of the draft believe the same thing. The system worked for the Athenians against the conscript armies of Persia at the beginning of the fifth century but led to defeat against the well-trained Spartans at the end. The libertarian, agreeing with Plato that soldiering is not an activity for amateurs, would also ask why, if the citizens of the modern State are supposed to be so eager to defend it, it is necessary to force them to do so.

Plato's soldiers are to preserve the peace domestically as well as externally; thus they also constitute the police force. But they must have some rules to enforce, and Plato applies the principle of division of labor once more and creates a new class of rulers: the "guardians" or "philosopher-kings."

The "government" of the Republic consists of these two classes of guardians and soldiers-policemen. It is in regard to these classes only that Plato makes his famous "communist" proposal.

In the first place, none of them should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary; neither should they have a private house or store closed against any one who has a mind to enter; their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage; they should agree to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year and no more; and they will go to mess and live together like soldiers in a camp.…And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and they will be the saviours of the State. But should they ever acquire homes or lands or moneys of their own, they will become housekeepers and husbandmen instead of guardians, enemies and tyrants instead of allies of the other citizens.

If this arrangement were to apply to the entire community, it would be extremely antilibertarian; but as it pertains only to the ruling classes, it reveals Plato's awareness of the libertarian principle that the government should not be involved in economic activity. Such activity, in Plato's State, is to be the prerogative of the lowest class.

Plato has perceived that if the rulers have any economic interests they will inevitably use their power to promote those interests. Unfortunately, he fails to draw the inference that the rulers must not only be prohibited from engaging in economic activities themselves but must be forbidden to interfere with the economic activities of others. His guardians, for example, will have the power to enforce the division of labor by assigning individuals to their respective occupations, instead of allowing this specialization to come about spontaneously. He seems not to have realized that the power to regulate trade is also the power to confer benefits on some traders at the expense of others and that this leads to the corruption of the rulers—in other words, to the rulers' acquiring the very economic interests that he was concerned to prevent.

Or maybe he did realize this, in a way. In book 8, after completing his description of the ideal State, Plato turns to an account of the way in which even this utopia would transform itself into less and less ideal forms, terminating in the worst form of all—tyranny. "Seeing that everything which has a beginning has also an end, even a constitution such as yours will not last for ever, but will in time be dissolved." And the first stage of this degeneration occurs when the rulers begin to acquire private property: "There was a battle between them, and at last they agreed to distribute their land and houses among individual owners; and they enslaved their friends and maintainers, whom they had formerly protected in the condition of freemen, and made of them subjects and servants; and they themselves were engaged in war and in keeping a watch against them." Even the philosopher-kings, it seems, would be subject to temptation.

Plato's insight here poses a challenge to libertarians: what is to keep a government from overstepping its self-imposed boundaries, bit by bit, first in one area and then in another? Some would say that something like this happened in the United States after 1776.

Plato seems, then, to have had a number of ideas in common with libertarianism; nevertheless, his ideal State is far from libertarian in character. The guardians rule by decree, not by law; they are free to intervene in any aspect of their subjects' lives at their own discretion; censorship, lying, and propaganda are among their favorite political tools. Where did Plato go wrong?

His mistake, I think, is one that lies at the basis of all statist ideologies. It is the one that Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Karl Popper, and others have cautioned us against—the belief that it is possible for human reason to comprehend, and so to design and manipulate, the vast complexity of human social life. Here is the mistake:

Well, I said, and is there any knowledge in our recently-founded State among any of the citizens which advises, not about any particular thing in the State, but about the whole, and considers how a State can best deal with itself and with other States?

There certainly is.

And what is this knowledge, and among whom is it found? I asked.

It is the knowledge of the guardians, he replied, and is found among those whom we were just now describing as perfect guardians.

This is the sort of knowledge which in our day is supposed to be possessed by social engineers, regulatory agencies, legislators, presidents, judges, fascist leaders, and vanguards of the proletariat.

It is the actual lack of such knowledge that causes most measures undertaken by governments to backfire: expansion of the money supply to stimulate business activity leads to inflation, which results in depression; minimum-wage laws increase unemployment and so poverty; rent controls create housing shortages; agricultural price supports stimulate increases in production, which cause prices to fall; drug laws drive up prices and lead addicts to turn to crime; etc., etc. These paradoxes occur because a society consists of myriads of interactions among multitudes of diverse individuals in vastly different situations—individuals who, in addition, constantly change their beliefs and attitudes in ways unforeseeable even by themselves. No finite mind can grasp such tremendous complexity.

Plato's fatal mistake, then, was to allow himself to fall victim to what Hayek describes in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, as the "synoptic delusion, that is,…the fiction that all the relevant facts are known to some one mind, and that it is possible to construct from this knowledge of the particulars a desirable social order." But even here, Plato shows more wisdom than his modern counterparts who endeavor to draw up blueprints for giant nation-states.

Plato thinks in the context of the tiny Greek city-state and specifies that the Republic should be kept small: "I would allow the State to increase so far as is consistent with unity; that, I think, is the proper limit." He also proposes to make his community even more homogeneous than the typical city-state, albeit in a brutal, nonlibertarian way: the rulers would "begin by sending out of the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old, and will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents; these they will train in their own habits and laws."

Centralized direction might have a chance to succeed in such circumstances, though the failure of many actual small utopias casts doubt even on this possibility. But the fact remains that Plato would be the first to insist that political units on the modern scale could not be governed by any small group, no matter how noble their intentions and how great their expertise. He also admits that even under such "ideal" conditions as he lays down, the rulers would have to resort to deceit and censorship to make their policies work. And he concedes that even then their success would be short-lived.

At least as far as the Republic is concerned, Plato—appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—shared a number of key convictions with libertarians. His great error was his belief that someone could possess the requisite knowledge to plan and direct an entire society. An examination of the more "practical" political dialogues, the Statesman and the Laws, would probably reveal even more libertarian elements in Plato. But we can already see that, while neither Plato nor Aristotle was a full-fledged libertarian, they can both be considered legitimate forebears of that philosophy. It is not necessary to abandon one of the greatest minds of antiquity—or any other era—to the advocates of statism and collectivism.

Philip Dematteis taught philosophy for six years at the University of South Carolina.

* Interested readers can find an overview of the entire affair in Plato: Totalitarian or Democrat? edited by Thomas L. Thorson (Prentice-Hall, 1963) and Plato, Popper, and Politics, edited by Renford Bambrough (Barnes & Noble, 1967).