Plato v. Mises: Mises Wins

Michael MungerMichael Munger  – September 1, 2020

plato statue

In Plato’s Republic, the Socrates character is asked an obvious question: If the rulers of the state are all-powerful, so that they can protect the citizens, who will protect the citizens from the rulers? Socrates is embarrassed, and mutters something about “needful falsehoods,” or “just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city.”

Then he explains, flustered:

Well then, I will speak, although I really know not how to look you in the face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction, which I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers. (Book III)

Adeimantus, startled, tells Socrates, “You had good reason to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.” Socrates, though, doubles down:

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command…others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen… And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race… For an oracle says that when a (weak or incompetent man) guards the State, it will be destroyed. Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Adeimantus, this being a Platonic dialogue, does not say, “That’s stupid. I’m not going to talk to you anymore; you’re a dangerous lunatic.” Instead, Adeimantus thinks it over, and says that no, the current generation would just laugh. But “their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.” Socrates agrees that it won’t be easy, but then delivers the now-standard justification: “The fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.”

Philosophers, and later social scientists, refer to this notion as the Platonic “Noble Lie.” Of course, it wasn’t long before it became an article of faith for the Progressive Left that this sort of indoctrination, which was renamed education (itself a Noble Lie?), became the key justification for a monopoly public school system. As Progressive hero Che Guevara put it:

Society as a whole must become a huge school…. Education takes among the masses and the new attitude that is praised tends to become habit… Discounting those whose lack of education makes them tend toward the solitary road, towards the satisfaction of their ambitions, there are others who, even within this new picture of over-all advances, tend to march in isolation from the accompanying mass. What is more important is that people become more aware every day of the need to incorporate themselves into society and of their own importance as motors of that society.

They no longer march in complete solitude along lost roads towards far-off longings. They follow their vanguard, composed of the Party, of the most advanced workers, of the advanced men who move along bound to the masses and in close communion with them. The vanguards have their eyes on the futures and its recompenses, but the latter are not envisioned as something individual; the reward is the new society where human beings will have different characteristics: the society of communist man. (From Man and Socialism in Cuba)

There’s a subtle difference, of course. The Socrates character expects that there will always be, and in fact should be, an elite that knows the “Noble Lie” is a constructed myth, useful as a sop for the masses but not to be taken seriously by serious people. For the more recent version, the mythological nature of the fable is elided; in fact, it is most important that everyone must act as if they believe the entire myth, and fervently.

That’s the reason why the “market failure” paradigm is so powerful. It is manifestly true that markets “fail,” in the sense that each of us can imagine a world better than the one we live in. The “Noble Lie” enters at the point that the organs of the state promise, and we believe, that the state has the knowledge, and incentives to make improvements. The typical approach involves bureaucracy, with a system of planning that will control prices to direct resources in ways that markets cannot achieve.

Wilhelm von Humboldt is famous for founding the modern German university system, after which most other universities have been modeled. But he is also famous for his observations on the intellectual opportunity cost of organizing bureaucratic activities.

We must not overlook here one particular harmful consequence, since it so closely affects human development; and this is that the administration of political affairs itself becomes in time so full of complications that it requires an incredible number of persons to devote their time to its supervision, in order that it may not fall into utter confusion. Now, by far the greater portion of these have to deal with the mere symbols and formulas of things; and thus, not only are men of first-rate capacity withdrawn from anything which gives scope for thinking, and useful hands are diverted from real work, but their intellectual powers themselves suffer from this partly empty, partly narrow employment. (Limits of State Action, pp. 29-30).

This is a really interesting point: being a bureaucrat, a really good bureaucrat, is hard work. Knowledge of the rules, and fair and uniform application of the rules, requires long study and real dedication. But those rules are “mere symbols and formulas of things,” the manifestations of the Noble Lie on which the system of state planning and control is based.

The response to criticisms of markets is, as I have said above, “Let the state do it!” But criticisms of government failure is rarely “Let markets do it!” Instead, the solution is always reform, making government run “more like a business,” using metrics and considerations of efficiency. At this point I introduce the antidote to the “Noble Lie,” in the person of Ludwig von Mises. In his book Bureaucracy, Mises made an important observation, obvious once you think about it but with profound implications:

Bureaus specialize in the supply of those services the value of which cannot be exchanged for money at a per unit rate.…As a consequence of the above, bureaus cannot be managed by profit goals and “the economic calculus”…In the absence of profit goals, bureaus must be centrally managed by the pervasive regulation and monitoring of the activities of subordinates. (pp. 47-49).

If the structure of government is rational, and the activities of government are organized around market failures, the one thing that bureaucracy can never be is efficient, or measurable goals based on output. But then why is it that reforms are always sold to the public on the basis of enhanced efficiency? Could it be the “Noble Lie” in modern (pant) suits?

I would argue that it is worse than that. The Plato/Socrates version may well have been satirical; the notion of the “Noble Lie” may have been a kind of goof on the idea of self-important leaders. But the modern version is decidedly unironic, and therefore more dangerous by far. The difficulty is that the belief in, and public advocacy for, the Noble Lie that the states seek, and can achieve, social justice, is most fervently believed by Progressives such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and many youthful products of our university system.

But then how to explain the resilience of the Noble Lie, in the face of generations of evidence, from Cuba to the collapse of the Soviet bloc to Venezuela in our own decade? The answer is that to believers the value of state control and central planning is noble, but it’s not a lie. And the more evidence that is marshalled against it, the stronger their belief. In a remarkably prescient passage, Mises explains everything we need to know: belief in the Noble Lie is the key to advancement in the apparatus of the modern American republic.

Scarcely anyone interests himself in social problems without being led to do so by the desire to see reforms enacted. In almost all cases, before anyone begins to study the science, he has already decided on definite reforms that he wants to put through. Only a few have the strength to accept the knowledge that these reforms are impracticable and to draw all the inferences from it. Most men endure the sacrifice of the intellect more easily than the sacrifice of their daydreams. They cannot bear that their utopias should run aground on the unalterable necessities of human existence. What they yearn for is another reality different from the one given in this world…They wish to be free of a universe of whose order they do not approve. (Ludwig von Mises, Epistemological Problems of Economics)

Mises has identified the problem. The Noble Lie is not noble; if we all repeat it and we are taught it in state schools, before long it’s not even a lie. Because worshippers of the state actually persuade themselves that the whole thing is true. Yes, we are all born equal, but some of us are more equal than others. People want power so they can do good in the world; the result is that they sacrifice their intellect for the sake of their daydreams. Not only are the energies of many of our best minds diverted from productive work toward pointless attempts at planning, but—as Humboldt put it—” their intellectual powers themselves suffer from this partly empty, partly narrow employment.”