I seldom write about politics and economics (or policy and economy, respectively). Maybe that is because I am neither very much interested in political discussion nor in economy. In contrast to philosophy and science, these domains are rather unpleasant but necessary burdens of our contemporary societies than inspirational sources of growth and mental development. Yet, sometimes my interests have unavoidable touching points with one or both of these spheres.
A thought this morning grew into a rather large consideration on what could be a favourable political system. It started with the boss giving me a book on Open Innovation. In short, it describes trends in making customers, consumers and the general public a part of the innovation process from design onwards. It is believed that this is the best way to ensure that value co-creation is realised in the development of products and services and that technology development proceeds on sustainable trajectories. This form of democratisation of technological progress has been promoted in the EU on the political level since a few years, for example in the Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World (3O) concept. This approach was put in place to substitute the previous Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agenda that has itself been an extension of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) research program. The latter has been criticised for being too academic and too much expert-dominated, ignoring the needs of industry, and excluding the public from active participation. I come from the ELSI school of technology assessment, believing that the ethical assessment of developments should lie in the competence realm of ethicists and other normative scientists, firmly based on evidence-based knowledge and sophisticated but reliable and well-established methodology. The Open _____ [insert whatever you like to be “open”] program undermines the disciplinary rigidity of normative sciences, delegating important considerations on values, desirability, conflict solving, risk mitigation and other normative aspects of technology to laymen. This is disastrous in view of the majority of people being self-interested ignorant fools (a central part of my worldview).
To be honest, I have been doubtful of the effectiveness and usefulness of democracy as governance form since my adolescence. People are stupid! Who would want (all) people to rule?! I was attracted by the idea of a philosopher state (as described by Plato) or, rather recently, by Jason Brennan’s epistocracy (knowledge rules) model. Yet, most of these oligocratic (power in the hands of few) concepts have flaws or bear the danger of misuse for self-interest (more details later). After a bit of wikipedia research on forms of governance, I found an approach that I believe I can fully endorse as long as it fulfils some conditions: Noocracy (pronounced “no-ocracy”), sometimes called Aristocracy of the Wise. Let’s start from the very basics.
People are suffering. The root of their suffering are ignorance (or delusion), attachment (or greed, clinging to or craving for something), and resistance (or hatred, rejecting or denying something). These mind poisons cause (or empower, give rise to) the major three evils of this world: Money, power, and ideology. Money became the driving force for many individual and collective decisions, overriding ethics, humanity and cooperation. Intended as a means for efficient exchange of goods and services, it turned into an end-in-itself. Money is the material manifestation of greed. Besides material wealth (represented by money), people are usually greedy for influence and control, striving for power over others. I declare ideology the third big evil of the world, because promoters and followers of ideologies, by definition, refuse to subject their ideas into critical scrutiny, disregard logic and reason, treat opinions and feelings just like evidence-based facts, and confuse taste and rationality. Ideology is just as good as ignorance; in fact, it is highly dangerous! All three evils are supported by all three mind poisons, respectively. Money became so impacting not only because of greed (for material wealth) and resistance (fear of monetary poverty as the worst situation in a capitalist society), but also because of the delusion that money is an important end, ignorant of the fact that it is a flawed human-made system. Greed for power goes along with an aversion against being controlled and the deluded idea of hierarchies and well-being dependent on the position in these hierarchies. Endorsing ideology is not only the result of epistemic ignorance or lack of intellectual capacity, but also the effect of attachment (to doctrines and worldview, see my entry on ontological security) and resistance (against having to admit that the world is, in fact, different from what is firmly believed).
The evils manifest their influence because societies are organised (or organise themselves) in a way that promotes them. This is because political leaders are deluded by the mind poisons. In most democracies, representatives of the public, from local council members to presidents of nations, don’t need to prove their competence for their office beforehand. Best example is the laughable clown Donald Trump being elected by a foolish US-American society as their president. In regard of the history of democracy, the hope that voters select their candidates by competence or skill has to be given up. In order to break the dominance of money, power and ideology, a system change has to be induced. To put it into a simple formula: We need to find ways of giving political leadership to people that are not deluded by the mind poisons. But since voters are deluded themselves, democracy should better be replaced by a system that grants policy-making rights only to enlightened wise people. Wise people reduce ignorance and delusion to a minimum by replacing it with knowledge and rational application of it. Instead of being attached to any craving and desire, they have a free mind that substitutes selfishness by compassionate modesty. The inner imbalance of the deluded that causes hatred and aversion is replaced by an inclusive attitude of acceptance and peacefulness. This combination of traits (or virtues, maybe?) – knowledge, freedom, acceptance – would lead the wise leader to endorse wellfare (a just distribution of the available benefits, including non-monetary goods like environmental health or education, etc.), creativity (here understood as the willingness to exploit skills and ability to build a healthy society in a collaborative effort), and reason (reflecting on the validity of knowledge claims, the difference between factual and normative insight, and the importance of both for viable pragmatic decision-making). If we could find a way to make such mindful people the rulers of a society, that would be a noocracy (from nous (νους), Greek for mind or intellect) as envisioned by Vladimir Vernadsky (calling it “noosphere”), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, or Mikhail Epstein.
Obviously, I suggest a system in which few rule over many. Even though in many so called democracies this is the reality, such an oligocracy still faces strong – sometimes rather intuitive – opposition. There are too many oligocratic systems that are either outdated, inefficient, cruel or simply unpopular. Let me try to explain the difference between a Buddhist-inspired noocracy and alternative oligocracies.
An oligarchy – which I differentiate from the umbrella term oligocracy – is defined as the self-interest driven analogy of an aristocracy that serves common good (at least in the definition of Plato, Aristotle and ancient historian Polybius). With other words: Oligarchy relates to aristocracy in the same way as tyranny (self-interest) relates to monarchy (common good), or as ochlocracy relates to democracy. Oligarchs – we may think of Russia, Zimbabwe, but also recent tendencies in the USA – tend to fill their own pockets through their power. Noocrats would, by definition, never do that!
As the “subtitle” – Aristocracy of the Wise – suggests, noocracy could be understood as a form of aristocracy. There are some similarities between the concepts, especially when interpreting aristocracy as “rule of the best (most capable)”. Unfortunately, the term is heavily history-laden and refers in common usage to the leadership of the noble class (the aristocrats). This corrupts the very basic idea, because not the best ruled but those who had the fortune of being born into a noble family. In a noocracy, heredity is irrelevant for the competence of being a leader.
This would qualify noocracy as a derivative (or even synonym) of a meritocracy, a system in which those gain power who proved their competence by acquiring certain merits such as a good education or success in a particular examination. The crucial parameter, here, is the criteria that determine the merit. Education degree and success in one’s career are clearly insufficient indicators. Even intelligence (IQ) and knowledgeability are not enough since wisdom and mindfulness are much more than that. It is a feature of a meritocracy that people run for power and reach their goal by being better than their competitors (achieving higher or more merits). The competition is kept alive and efficient by the fact that people are motivated to get into a powerful position. This could be a serious problem for a noocracy: Those that are most suitable for a leader position in a noocracy are people that are, by their character and personality, not striving for power (as Susan Sara Monoson pointed out in her reflection on Plato’s philosopher state). Yet, I believe that this aspect can be turned into another advantage of a noocratic system. While political leadership is, of course, a matter of decision-making power, the office itself (being a political leader) should be primarily about responsibility, vision, and bringing in one’s skills and competences rather than having power as an end in itself. It could be a good idea not to let those have political offices that aim at a maximum of power! At least – and this is the major difference between a meritocracy and a noocracy – those who collect merits for the sake of power and influence (and fame, wealth, self-pride, etc.) are not the ones suitable for leadership since their attachment to these merits shows that they are still suffering.
Clearly ruled out is the option of a plutocracy (rich people rule) as a special form of either aristocracy or meritocracy. Material wealth, following the above considerations, is certainly not an indicator whether someone is wise or not. Of course, wise people can be rich, and some rich people may also be wise. The important factor that has to be looked at is the attachment of the wealthy person to his/her wealth.
From my perspective, the most interesting comparison is that between noocracy and epistocracy (knowledge rules, or better: those who have knowledge (experts) rule). Generally, I endorse any attempt to base policy-making on empirically acquired knowledge and to form strong ties between politics and (academic) sciences as the most reliable sources of viable knowledge. At the same time, I doubt that experts – competent and knowledgeable people in specific fields such as natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and humanities, or industrialists and economists – are per se (by their expertise) qualified for political leadership. An extreme form of governance in which policy-making is dominated by technical engineering-like thinking is a technocracy like the Chinese: The society is understood as a kind of machine with all kinds of cogwheels and springs, and the task of politics is to keep the machine running by efficient fine-tuning. In a drastic form, it means that malfunctioning parts (trouble makers, however defined) can be thrown out for the sake of the harmony of the whole; in a more moderate version, the factual and technical-scientific knowledge outweighs the normative and orientational knowledge (on values and worldviews, on what is humane or not) so far that political leadership turns cold and mechanistic. Therefore, “my” noocracy wants the mind to rule, not just knowledge. Noocrats gather knowledge on whatever topic needs to be discussed (health, energy, mobility, housing, food, economy, etc.), get clear about the available options and their respective implications on values, and choose that option that is the most promising for the protection and promotion of those values that the society endorses or that the wise leaders identify as the most endorse-worthy. That is what mindfulness (here understood as freedom from the mind poisons) is necessary for. Expert knowledge is only one part of the insights required for rational and reasonable decision-making. Only in combination with a clear (non-deluded), free (non-attached), embraced (non-resisted) vision of values and virtues, it adds up to wisdom.
Of course, all these considerations are extremely naïve and idealistic. There are too many influences that undermine the idea of a leadership of the wise, ranging from methods to select the leaders to ensuring that leaders are led by their wisdom rather than by their (self-)interest. On this blog I may have the opportunity to “dream” of such a system, knowing that it would be unrealisable in the real world. On the other side, isn’t the small Himalayan country Bhutan an example for something like a noocracy? It has been a kingdom for many centuries until the king resigned in 2006 and intended to complete the transformation process towards a constitutional monarchy that his predecessor started. After the people protested and wanted their king back, he installed councils and advisory groups that are in charge of the policy-making. In a country that takes Buddha’s teachings very serious (for example, just look at Bhutan’s environmental policies), it is very likely that those in leading positions have at least a basic awareness of the mind poisons and know strategies of overcoming them. Thus, I see a chance that Bhutan is governed by a few wise leaders (not just one, and also not everyone) – a real-world example of a noocracy!