Decoding Kean

He warned Skidmore College grads that Plato’s warning is coming true: if decent people won’t participate in politics, they will be ruled by those less good than they are. An odd thing for a Republican politician to say, but welcome nonetheless. It would have been more welcome if he’d said it two or six years ago, but I’ll take what I can get.

Former NJ Gov. Tom Kean is reported to have told the Skidmore College commencement:

Plato said, “The penalty for not participating in government is to be governed by your inferiors.” Think about it. It may be happening.

Since we are currently ruled by Bush, Cheney, Rove, Frist, Hastert, and their accomplices, this seems like a remarkable thing for a Republican politician (whose son is now running for the Senate from New Jersey as a Republican) to say.

“Inferiors” suggests to a contemporary ear considerations of social class, and Kean had an aristocratic upbringing (St. Mark’s and Princeton). Some commenters are, consequently, reading this as a snobbish comment. It may well be that, of course, but the Platonic context suggests that the relevant inferiority is of character, not status.

Kean was paraphrasing, not quoting, but his paraphrase is reasonably accurate. The reference is to Republic I, 347. Socrates says:

the good are not willing to rule either for the sake of money or of honor. They do not wish to collect pay openly for their service of rule and be styled hirelings nor to take it by stealth from their office and be called thieves, nor yet for the sake of honor, for they are not covetous of honor. So there must be imposed some compulsion and penalty to constrain them to rule if they are to consent to hold office. That is perhaps why to seek office oneself and not await compulsion is thought disgraceful. But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do, and then they go to it not in the expectation of enjoyment nor as to a good thing, but as to a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves or to their like. For we may venture to say that, if there should be a city of good men only, immunity from office-holding would be as eagerly contended for as office is now …

(Shorey translation)

Plato’s Socrates is of course aware of the intense social snobbery of his rich and aristocratic young companions, and frequently plays on it. But in the Platonic schema, a judgment of “better” or “worse” within any kind is based on the arete &#8212 which one might translate “specific excellence” &#8212 of that kind: the quality that enables that sort of thing to fulfill its purpose. Since the purpose of a knife is cutting, its arete is sharpness, and the better knife is the sharper. Similarly, the better racehorse is the swifter. Since the function of a human being is to live well in a polis, the specific excellence of a human being is dike, justice. The better man is the more just, and the worse man the less just.

So Kean was merely noting that under the current ruling clique we are governed by our moral inferiors. Yes, it took him long enough to speak out, but better late than never.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “Decoding Kean”

  1. You mean some politicians are willing to read something besides the Bible? AMAZING. Who knew that the value of a liberal education would settle on New Jersey? I'm going to add Plato to my blog.

  2. The awareness that we're ruled by our moral inferiors, because truly moral people don't particularly WANT to rule, has never been far from the surface. It is kind of unusual for a politiican to notice it, though.

  3. Mark Kleiman, I realize that for you the sun rises and sets on your dislike for George Bush, and that's fine, but let's remember that this is a Jersey politico speaking in Jersey and he can be talking about Torricelli, or McGreevey, or Corzine, or any random one of squads of New Jersey state senators.

  4. > So Kean was merely noting that under
    > the current ruling clique we are
    > governed by our moral inferiors.
    Are you sure it isn't just more of the "Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld aren't _real_ conservatives" dolchstoss nonsense? And that Kean is saying that if the "real" conservatives don't take action we will be ruled by Democrats (or even – gasp – "liberals") who are our (that is, their) inferiors?

  5. Dave:
    Skidmore College is in Saratoga Springs, NY. Yes, it's possible that Kean took the occasion of a Skidmore commencement speech to make a rude and obvious remark about New Jersey politics, though it would be strange for him to claim that the rule of moral inferiors there was just beginning rather than an established fact. Alternatively, he might have been referring to the politics of North Dakota or Tanzania.
    But the natural interpretation, and the one Kean no doubt intended, is that he was discussing the affairs of the nation. Note that Kean's intelligence, character, and patriotism have all been trashed by the Bushites (on deep background, of course) for his performance on the 9-11 Commission. In my view, that makes both your reading and Cranky's less plausible than mine. Nice try, though.

  6. Kean was talking about public service to new graduates in New York. He (and every other speaker that day) was urging these young people to get involved and that the consequence was that we would be governed by our inferiors if we did not. He did not name names but it was hard to hear it as anything other than a critque of the Bush administration in the tone and context in which he said it.
    I was in the audience. One of the commenters on my blog was among the graduates. He had the same take (though he felt Kean was pandering) and seems to think the rest of his class did too.
    I don't think Kean was pandering. He may have thrown in the extra jab as an audience pleaser but the Plato quopte was planned and in keeping with his overall speech.

  7. FWIW, Kean also used the same quote in his Commencement Speech at Rutgers, which is in NJ (while on the same podium as Corzine).
    Something occurred to me about Plato, though: Plato via Strauss is the patron saint, as it were, of a certain element of the neo-con movement. I had assumed Kean was bashing Bush & CO when he made that comment (and Kean has much to bash Bush about), but is it even more subtle? Is this some sort of slap on McCain and his neo-con supporters for collaborating and enabling Bush & CO in spite of what Bush & CO did to McCain in the 2000 primary?

  8. Mark,
    Thanks for the update/correction; I am glad to hear that is the sitution. I really doubt there are any such things as "moderate" or "true" conservatives any more, but it is good to know there may be a few people left who can revive that breed when the time comes.
    I don't apologize for asking the question though, because the dolchstoss drumbeat I described is already being heard and will continue to grow in scope and volume leading up to 2006 (and then becomeing deafening in 2008), so the possibility needs to be considered.
    Again – thanks for the correction.

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