Plato on Wealth and Poverty

“The form of law which I propose would be as follows: In a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues—not faction, but rather distraction—there should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty nor, again, excessive wealth, for both are productive of great evil . . . Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.”

Sound like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)? Karl Marx maybe? Bill Maher?

It’s not. It was , Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.) and “father of Western philosophy” who said it.
But it could have been Chuck Collins, grandson of Oscar Meyer, co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good. On their website, watch Chuck speaking on wealth inequality. I met Chuck three years ago at the home of a wealthy couple in Minneapolis.
I chimed in on the discussion in December, 2010 with a guest commentary on MPR, “Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”, arguing that the redistribution had already taken place – from the middle to the top of the economic ladder in America.
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Let me know what you think? Do you agree/disagree with Plato: “Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth”? Or with Chuck? Should the distribution of wealth (a ceiling and a floor) be on the table or off the table of a democratic republic? If economics is not on the table, what does democracy mean?

19 thoughts on “Plato on Wealth and Poverty

  1. I am 29 and recently found the centre required to contemplate this serious ancient issue. Action is required and it is very sad that men such a Plato thought along these lines such a long time ago without resolution. I guess the time for contemplation and philosophical debate is over. Action is required and it will certainly NOT come from the extremely wealthy or the extremely poor. I would postulate that action on wealth must come from the middle, the masses. sadly the masses are masters of apathy, inert between the issues of the poor and stories of the wealthy.

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    • Mark, Thanks you so much for chiming in on this. So glad to hear from a 29 year old who is joining Plato and the long tradition of political philosophy. You might be interested to know that there is a group of wealthy folks organized into what is called Wealth for the Common Good. Chuck Collins, Executive Director of Wealth for the Common Good, has published several books, the last of which is The 99 and the One. I agree with you, Mark, that change will only come when those of us in the middle class understand the economic-political reasons for the mal-distribution of wealth.

      BTW, I’d love to hear more from you. Where do you live? How did you find this piece on Plato and Wealth?

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      • What I find interesting in reading these, especially the ones back in Feb by Chris Nolan, talking of his father when he could not believe he was making over $100k a year, (and I am now seeing some of that in my generation) is that we do not factor inflation into our perception of the amount of money, and it seems that the wealthier ones also do not factor inflation in when they think how much those lower than them should earn. or even teachers. This is especially true in this era where low and middle incomes have stagnated or decreased, but inflation has kept on, non the less., and eating into the value of what we receive. And then there is the spiraling costs of healthcare…

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      • I just found your site and the post made by Patricia Mounts is so right on. We have to go outside to use our cell phnoes and with tv you only have 2 choices (forget the antenna, too many trees and the wind blows too hard). We can get DSL but it costs 49.00 + a charge if you ever have a problem and that totals 57.45 a month. That is the lowest priced package and it’s not always good if a lot of people are on it. We are tired of hearing how everyone wants you to pay online and bank online when you just barely have internet in the rural area. Of course we do live in SE Kansas and we don’t seem to be a part of the real world or they are not aware of us. If you do get anything it’s so costly you can’t afford it. We know businesses need to make money but it seems any more everyone is out to rip you off. What a sad day when your business means nothing!Sorry I didn’t read this when it was first posted but this is something that had bothered us for a long time.

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    • Mark, Yes. The change will come from the middle once the middle “gets it”. That will happen when the philosophical discussion is wide-spread and the suffering becomes the mother of invention. Thanks for coming by and thank you for commenting.

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  2. Ah, Plato’s last and most mature “Laws.” Then there was Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.” Preceding both was Thales of Miletus: “If there is neither excessive wealth nor immoderate poverty in a nation, then justice may be said to prevail.” To practically anyone who can think, the result is obvious, unambiguous and identical.

    May it be respectfully suggested (sometimes a difficult endeavor, considering the state of the world, with most folks still just waking up), the thoughtful suggestions by the thoughtful people down through the ages should perhaps be heeded and implemented. This writer’s embarrassingly simple and effective solution to the problem is the following.

    Socioeconomic Democracy is a theoretically consistent and practically implementable socioeconomic system wherein there exist both some form and amount of locally appropriate Universally Guaranteed Personal Income and some form and amount of locally appropriate Maximum Allowable Personal Wealth, with both the lower bound on personal material poverty and the upper bound on personal material wealth set and adjusted democratically by all participants of a democratic society.

    As has been demonstrated elsewhere, Socioeconomic Democracy can eliminate or significantly reduce a multitude of serious-to-deadly, but utterly unnecessary, intimately intertwined societal problems including (but by no means limited to) those familiar ones associated with: automation, computerization and robotization; budget deficits and national debts; bureaucracy; maltreatment of children; crime and punishment; development, sustainable or otherwise; ecology, environment, resources and pollution; education; the elderly; farcical “free-market” fantasies; the feminine majority; inflation; international conflict; intranational conflict; involuntary employment; involuntary unemployment; labor strife and strikes; sick medical and health care; military metamorphosis; natural disasters; pay justice; planned obsolescence; political participation; poverty; racism; sexism; so-called “offshoring” of both jobs and personal/corporate profits; unconscionable Empires; unconscious politicians; untamed technologies; and the General Welfare.

    A few, of many, relevant links:

    “A Democratic Socioeconomic Platform, in search of a Democratic Political Party”
    http://www.centersds.com/dsep.html

    Socioeconomic Democracy: An Advanced Socioeconomic System (Praeger Studies on the 21st Century, 2002)
    http://www.centersds.com/thebook.htm

    “Bibliography of Socioeconomic Democracy”
    http://www.centersds.com/biblio.htm

    “Socioeconomic Democracy: A Nonkilling, Life-Affirming and Enhancing Psycho-Politico-Socio-Economic System”
    http://www.pelicanweb.org/solisustv06n10page2robleygeorge.html

    “Socioeconomic Democracy” forthcoming in International Journal of Science, February, 2012.
    http://issuu.com/ijosc.net/docs/ijosc-february_2012_issue

    We welcome and encourage feedback to this outreach, and look forward to working with all those interested in further peaceful development and implementation of these and other necessary changes aimed at the betterment of all humanity and the total planet.

    Robley E. George
    Director, Center for the Study of Democratic Societies
    http://www.CenterSDS.com
    Coordinador, Nonkilling Economics and Business Research Committee
    http://www.nonkilling.org/node/7

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    • I’m honored that you would take the time to read the post and give your time and attention to such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I’ll spend the next few days reading the links. For now, THANK YOU! I’d not heard of the Center for the Study of Democratic Societies. It heartens me to know you exist, that you’re engaging others in the discussion of real democracy – democratic rule beyond the politics of division and demagoguery. On bad days we all need to be reminded that we are not alone in asking the big questions. It’s the questions that count!

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  3. I saw a presentation about homelessness awhile back. The presenter had been serving people in St. Stephen’s Shelter for more than ten years. She said when she first started and people would ask her why so many people used shelters she would respond, “They don’t have skills and they are mentally ill.” After a few years, she realized that was not the situation for many of them so she changed her response to, “They don’t have family support.” Even then, she realized that wasn’t quite true. Her response today is, “Because it is the will of the people.” It would be cheaper to really help people (housing, food and medicine) than to pay for police to round them up and bring them to detox and shelters—but we must not want to do that. Apparently we (through our legislation) have already decided about accepting poverty. I agree with Christina that a negative attitude prevails about people in poverty somehow deserving to be poor due to their own choices or laziness. God help us all!

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    • Carlye, you’re so on target…because you don’t drive past the blighted neighborhoods on the interstate, and because you listened carefully to a volunteer who shared her transformative experience by reason of first-hand experience at St. Stephen’s, a wonderful place if ever there was one! Here in Carver County – a wealthy county – the number of homeless families has risen dramatically because of mortgage foreclosures. The county and the CAP agency that used to get 200-300 calls a month are now getting between 700 and 800, and the number is growing. Thanks for the reminder. “We” do decide. But, perhaps…just perhaps…the fact that middle-class neighbors are now “homeless” will turn the discussion away from the “deserving to be poor due to their own choices or laziness” misunderstanding of the roots of the matter.

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  4. Hello Gordon:
    I could not agree more with Plato. I do not know how this even distribution should be accomplished however. The real problem lies in people’s thinking – in the simple idea that poor people are poor because they are lazy and the rich are rich because they work hard. This idea lies behind most of the actions that lead to the state of this country’s economic system. The very persons who complain that those on welfare feel unduly ‘entitled’ to their free money/food, feel unduly entitled to their own wealthy lifestyles; had they been born into a different situation, they could easily be the ones in need.

    I am working on understanding how people can think such a thought and why, when facts come along to show otherwise, they insist on their beliefs. Is it because they are not strong enough to face the suffering in the world and admit their part in it? Or are they just selfish? Take me for instance – while I know that I am not ‘entitled’ to my life style, I do not make the effort to help the poor and needy.

    What is to be done? Still thinking long and hard on this one.

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    • Thanks, Christina, I guess we’re all working on it, huh? Willem Zuurdeeg taught me that human perception is shaped by deep-seated “convictions” – beliefs that appear so obvious as to be beyond questioning in the heart and mind of a person. Each of us a kind of civil war where multiple convictions vie with each other for supremacy. For the place of ‘god’ you might say. Anxiety is essential to the human condition, so we look for security in all sorts of places. Old wealth tends to recognize that wealth does not provide immunity from suffering; new wealth often lives with the illusion that it can. There is also the fantasy among middle class people that one day we could beyond the reach of the forces of economic and personal insecurity. Unfortunately, many therefore tend to identify themselves with those ‘above’ them instead of their peers or those who are hanging on by a thread. The philosophy of our time is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. That’s a far cry from the teachings of Judaism or Rabbi Jesus.

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      • You hit the nail on the head when you said that people tend to identify with those ‘above’ them – often the very people complaining about a tax increase are so far below ever earning enough to be hit with that tax that they really have no reason to have an opinion, yet they do. It is amazing – I only discovered that fact recently. And I think you are right – we look for comfort. But comfort zones are stagnant places – we should be so grateful for opportunities to suffer (sounds so nice on paper, but I am really glad I am not suffering right now!).

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  5. Setting an arbitrary ceiling on individual or corporate wealth just doesn’t seem very organic. But I’m all for setting them on the privation that anyone in a wealthy and democratic republic should be expected to endure, for any reason, including sloth. Limits on the accumulation of wealth will proceed, anyway, from governance over how it’s to be acquired. Capital itself is over-valued, as a matter of tax and investment policy, above real, productive, work, because the so-called “job creators” are said to need more incentive to create jobs. Judging by our sallow economy, ownership of the vast majority of equity in this country by the few who hoard it is not enough to persuade them to create those jobs, and that tells us the Fed’s nullification of the prime interest rate until the end of time won’t persuade them to get off their cash piles and start. And why is it that it’s we who are expected to get our confidence up and start consuming–that is, spending our non-existent wealth–to prop up consumer demand once more?

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    • Thanks, Chris, for your thoughts. As always, very thoughtful and incisive. I’d like to hear more about your first sentence. It would seem to me to be organic – it would recognize the organic nature of the whole society. There was a move in the early 20th century for a 100% tax on personal income in excess of $100,000. It was a proposal of the Progressive Party back then. TGhe real question, it seems to me, is whether we agree with the principle behind Plato’s statement. There is no good reason, I think for a CEO, for example, to earn more than 50 times the wage/salary of a corporation’s lowest paid employee. That’s for starters. If you want to do business in this country, you live by this simple law of a just distribution of income. Look forward to hearing more.

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      • Gordon, you’ve illuminated for me a memory of my dad’s reaction when his salary crossed the $100K threshold some 30 years ago, and he said to me bemusedly, “I always believed that no man is worth a hundred thousand dollars a year.” He’d been a history student at St John’s many years before, and I’m sure he was mindful of the Progressive Party’s proposal, even though by then he’d voted twice for Nixon.

        By ‘organic,’ I meant to describe a preference for a system whose limits derive from the system itself, rather than simply by confiscating earnings above an imposed limit. I guess my ideal, unlike Plato’s, would be a socioeconomic system in which it’s less possible for a fortune to multiply just because it’s already a fortune. It seems like wishful thinking to me, on second thought–sort of like the almost religious insistence by opponents of market regulation that the free market will right all wrongs, given enough “freedom.” Does it make me an anti-capitalist?

        Like the poor, the rich will always be with us. It is the will of the people. I just wish they were WITH us. American Muslims find creative ways to sell houses on credit despite the Qur’an’s injunction against charging interest. It would be fascinating to watch the accounting workarounds develop should Plato’s new rules go live.

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