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29 September

Plato was wrong about “philosopher kings” – just look at Kwasi Kwarteng

The swift consequences of the Chancellor’s textbook ideology prove that leaders can’t rule from the head alone.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

In the year 399 BC Socrates was convicted by a 501-member jury of his peers of corrupting the youth of Athens. The philosopher had been aggravating local citizens by hanging around the agora and probing young people with anti-democratic questioning. The jury sentenced him to death, forcing him to drink hemlock.

For Socrates’ pupil Plato, losing his mentor to what he surely perceived as a bunch of ignorant, illiterate fools was one of the formative experiences of his youth. After his teacher’s death he hopped on a boat and sailed abroad to do what many young people do – find his own definition of justice and meaning to life.

Twenty years later Plato came up with The Republic, a work of political philosophy that argues that the perfect city-state should not be ruled by the people under a democratic system, but by “philosopher kings” who, coincidentally, bore an uncanny resemblance to Plato himself. These kings would be chosen as children from aristocratic ranks and brought up to be the brightest brainiacs Athens had ever seen.

This week provided an example of what happens when the type of book-smarts that comes from a good education but lack empathy or common sense are given free rein in power. Like a philosophising child playing king in a giant sandbox, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor, announced a series of tax cuts and other “pro-growth” policies, such as scrapping the cap on bankers’ bonuses, that could only have been developed in a mind that has never had to confront reality. 

Kwarteng is a modern-day example of what Plato might have imagined when he came up with his concept of the philosopher king. He is Eton-educated with a PhD from Cambridge in financial history. His conservative ideology has been shaped by hours of cherry-picked reading and intellectual insulation from grubby proletarians who might argue that growth is impossible without opportunity.

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The market reactions to his ideological experiment have come quickly. The pound has crashed to a record low against the dollar, some mortgage products have been suspended for fear of high interest rates, and the Bank of England has been forced to take emergency action by buying government bonds on “whatever scale is necessary” to calm the markets.

The swift consequences of Kwarteng’s zealotry prove that, contrary to what Plato argued, leaders can’t rule from the head alone. Leadership requires the compassion that comes from having your finger on the pulse of a country and understanding what it needs. If the kind of populist anti-intellectualism that led to Socrates’ conviction is no way to run a society, neither is cold, textbook academia that refuses to acknowledge the reality of people’s lives.

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It may be true that you can’t tax your way to growth, but taxes are necessary if we want, for example, schools to feed the 800,000 children in poverty who don’t qualify for school meals. Even if the wealth created by tax cuts eventually trickles down, it won’t come in time to help a child sleeping in a cold, damp house that his parents can’t afford to heat from developing respiratory problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And if Kwarteng bothered to ask a low-income school leaver what she needs to become a doctor, he might understand that he’s not going to solve NHS staffing shortages by sending young people into crushing student debt for degrees he himself obtained for free.

In an age of anti-intellectualism (“This country has had enough of experts”) it might seem a relief to have leaders in power who inform their opinions by reading books. But a good ruler should be able to strike a balance between the type of rigid academic ideology that Kwarteng demonstrates and the reliance on “gut feeling” that prompted George W Bush to invade Iraq.

In an interview last year Kwarteng said: “My job is to make us not lose sight of the fact that we are Conservatives. We believe in markets, we believe in individual responsibility, we believe in the ingenuity of the individual to come up with ideas that can transform society.”

Unfortunately for the Chancellor and the rest of the country, his ideas are the weightless ones of an armchair philosopher who has never taken the time to understand his country with his heart.

[See also: The Conservatives are destroying themselves – and the British economy]