AC Grayling: our right to good government | Letters

AC Grayling responds to Giles Fraser’s article about ‘patronising elites’; while Deborah Cook says Fraser ignored the fact that Plato thought truth was paramount

I write in response to Giles Fraser’s article on my book Democracy and its Crisis (Loose canon, 22 September). It is so predictable that a lazy reading of any discussion about how a democratic order can rebut the patronising view taken by Plato that “ordinary people” are not fit to have a vote, that I repeatedly stressed that the great debate about how to honour the right of citizens to be the source of political authority in a state was precisely about the means to prove Plato wrong.

Fraser’s failure to see this is the result of his having ad hominem intentions, a sure-fire way to be dimwitted in important debates. In contrast to the caricature he gives of the book’s argument, the book is precisely a discussion of how the right we all have to a voice in the government of our lives is connected to another right we have: namely, the right to good government, and of how representative democracy attempts to achieve this. We have a right to good government because without it we cannot fully exercise other important rights we have, including those to privacy and freedom of expression, the rule of impartial law, the right to assembly, and more.

In anarchic situations these rights are forfeit; so a rational society needs to ensure that the diverse and often conflicting preferences and interests of we the people are translated through agreed institutions into good government. This point is comprehensively missed by Fraser, who trivialises the issue in the usual cheap and easy way of those who make populist jibes at “elites” and “experts” because they do not understand the extremely important point at issue. And this kind of unintelligence is dangerous, because it is what is corroding our liberal democracies at present.
AC Grayling

• Plato did, of course, criticise democracy but certainly not for the reasons that Fraser gives. Fraser suggests that Plato championed intelligent leaders (philosophera) because he was an elitist who would today support what we call the middle class. But this is not the case. First, there was no middle class when Plato was writing, and the intelligent leaders in Plato’s republic were selected from members of every class and gender. As long as you (be you male or female) could think, you were capable of governing. Those men and women deemed suited to rule were given an education that lasted until they were 50. They had to prove that they held the good of their community over their own good. Only then could they rule.

Grayling does sound regressive, on Fraser’s reading. And obviously we can’t go back. But Fraser also ignores the fact that Plato thought that truth is paramount. So if we extend Plato’s views on the ideal republic to the Brexit vote, where truth was trampled in the dust, and the politicians who pushed it forward were not chosen for their fitness to govern, but instead were part of an elite, mostly male, and with moneyed parents and an Eton education, then quite frankly, Plato’s my gender and class blind man.
Deborah Cook
Professor of philosophy, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada

• Giles Fraser’s attack on AC Grayling’s defence of representative democracy justifies referendums on the grounds that “direct democracy does what it says on the tin: directly expresses the will of the electorate”. Most tins I buy carry a long and detailed list of their contents, so that the user can be sure what he or she is going to get when they open it. The tin the electorate opened last year was mislabelled. Had it carried the correct description, it would have been seen for what it is: a can of worms.
Emeritus Professor Glyn Turton
Baildon, West Yorkshire

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