Philosophy Magazine

The Band Practice Dialogues: Government and the Social Contract

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


The hard rock band Realizing Resonance performs enthusiastically in their otherwise empty rented practice space. The band is comprised of four members, Taylor is the lead vocalist and rhythm guitar, Daniel plays lead guitar, Rune is on bass, and Chris is the drummer.

Taylor: Sounds good! I think we’re pretty tight on that last song. If you guys want, we could work on a new song that I started writing last week. I’ve come up with a couple guitar riffs so far, but only a few lyrics. The theme would be a bit of a departure for us though ‘cause I was inspired to write a song about politics.

Daniel: What political topic has you so inspired?

Chris: Yeah! So far most of our songs have been about personal issues or relationship stuff. That’s what our fans can relate to. Political issues can be crazy controversial these days and we risk alienating some of our audience. I don’t really see us as the next Rage Against the Machine.

Rune: I’m studying political science right now in school and I think it’s a great topic for a song. Let’s at least give it a chance. What lyrics do you have so far, Taylor?

Taylor: Well, I was playin’ around with the title “Rise of the Oligarchs” and came up with:

Truth and hope have fallen

To greed and fear

Oligarchs conspire

To sell stolen tears

Rune: I like that. Its darkly poetic, but I think it captures the current mood of our country quite well.

Chris: Uh… what are Oligarchs?

Daniel: An Oligarchy is a type of government in which a wealthy minority rules over the rest of the poor populace. I agree that an Oligarchy isn’t the best system…but I have two concerns about the direction of these lyrics. First, if Chris doesn’t know the meaning of the words then how can we expect our fans to? Second, I’m not sure I agree with Taylor’s pessimistic assessment of America to begin with. I think we have one of the best governments in the world. Sure there are problems, but we’re still closer to a Republic than an Oligarchy. My worry is not that America is too wealthy or elitist, but that we are becoming too democratic and socialist.

Chris: Too democratic?! I thought America was supposed to be a Democracy. That’s one of the reasons why my parents moved here from Peru when I was five.

Taylor: What?! No way! We may get to vote, but no matter who gets elected it seems that the interests of the rich are always served in the end. It looks to me like our politicians are sold-out to some special interest before they even walk through the door. What we need is more Democracy, so that people have a direct say in the laws that are passed. I’m tired of these politicians working for their biggest campaign donors instead of the national interest!

Rune: Yeah! Plus, just because Chris didn’t know the word Oligarchy does not mean that we shouldn’t use it in any of our songs. In fact, I think it’s totally appropriate to sometimes challenge our fans with a serious theme.

Daniel: Rune, you have a good point about not disqualifying words because people may be unfamiliar with them, but let’s just focus on the song’s theme for a second. I know that many people think of the U.S. as a Democracy, but it is actually a Representative Republic. We vote for our leaders, but we don’t get to vote on our federal laws. Although, with the Initiative and Referendum processes we can cast direct votes for the laws here in Washington state. This is what I mean by too much Democracy. I am not convinced that having a direct vote on everything is a good way to govern, especially since most people don’t have the time to get adequately acquainted with the issues they are voting on.

Rune: Daniel is right about the historical stuff. America’s founding fathers were actually afraid of Democracy because they thought it was perilously close to anarchy. James Madison, while arguing for ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, made the case that a Federal system was the best protection against the evil of factions. The implication being, in a pure Democracy, property rights could not be guaranteed because the poor majority would use the force of their numbers to redistribute property away from the minority of wealthy citizens who had managed to accumulate it over time (Madison). Of course, only white male property owners were allowed to vote back then, and this was the group that Madison pitched his case to.

Daniel: Even the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was not so big on Democracy. In his dialogue Republic, Plato argues that Democracy is only slightly worse than Tyranny as a system of governance, while Oligarchy is better than both, and Aristocracy is the best (215). Where Oligarchies value wealth above all else, democracies value freedom. This may sound great, but Plato contends that it will eventually lead back to Tyranny. His explanation is that a citizenry who puts too much value on freedom will despise authority and eventually undermine it to the point where the civil leaders can no longer govern effectively without being accused of being Oligarchs. At this point a strong man has to take over for order and structure to be restored to the society (232-236). Do you think every person in America is equally qualified to be President? Does experience in just any profession provide insight into the crafting of legislation as a Senator? Plato thought that states would need an Aristocracy of Guardians and Philosopher Kings to govern them, because not everyone has the stuff to rule justly and effectively (148). It takes a combination of character and careful conditioning. He offers the analogy of a ship tragically crashing into the rocks because all of the sailors wanted to be captain and fought for control of the helm. None of the sailors had the experience or knowledge to be captain, but their hubris caused them to deny the need for these qualifications (162). Point being that pure, direct Democracy has the innate power to destroy the state in just this sort of way.

Taylor: What are you saying? That I’m not qualified to understand the political issues that affect me enough to vote for them?!

Daniel: Not exactly. Look at it this way; we all have different roles in the band, right?

Taylor: Yes.

Chris: Duh.

Daniel: Taylor, you’re the lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and main writer. So naturally Rune, Chris, and I leave the lead vocals to you when we play a live gig. After all, you’re the most talented and practiced singer. It’s for that same reason that I play most of the guitar solos since I’m the lead guitarist. I know this all seems obvious in the context of the band, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see why we need to think of civic leadership in the same way. Some people have more talent and experience at leading than others and we are all better off if we let them do their job.

Taylor: I know that not everyone is suited to serving in high government positions, but we’re all entitled to vote for who we want to hold office. My frustration is that we never have a true choice because for any candidate to get popular enough to win they have to raise huge amounts of cash, which means the wealthy are the real king makers and they always attach strings. The regular people have only a symbolic say, which means our leaders have no incentive to work for us instead of their rich donors. Besides, if our band was an Aristocracy, wouldn’t my talent as a lyricist and my role as singer give me complete say over the lyrics making this whole conversation a moot point?

Daniel: Touché.

Rune: I agree with Taylor about America’s Oligarchy problem. Plato never intended the Guardians to have personal wealth because it would create conflicts of interest detrimental to the state’s ability to function properly and benefit everyone (93). But I also agree with Daniel that a direct Democracy is not the solution. Plato’s mentor Socrates was sentenced to death and executed for what I believe were unfair reasons, based on a democratic vote between 501 Athenian citizens (Apology 41). Just because a majority wills it does not mean that it’s right.

Chris: So what is the solution? The notion of Philosopher Kings sounds interesting to me. It reminds me of stories my mom told me when I was little. Having been born in Lima I have Spanish heritage from my father’s side, but I also have Incan blood on my mom’s side. Before the Spanish conquered Peru, the Incan empire spanned nearly the entire continent of South America and was ruled by only one man, the Inca. He had complete and absolute authority over all the activity in his empire. Aside from the Inca himself, who had immense wealth and luxury, and his supporting Aristocracy, all the other people in the empire were completely equal in the eyes of the government. Not only did the Inca decree every law, he arranged every job, marriage, and birth. With total control, the Inca used his power to build roads across the Andes, networks of storehouses for food and supplies, and an intricate economy that benefitted everyone. It was said that not one human who lived in the Incan empire ever starved. When the Inca set out to conquer others, they would often win without fighting by simply offering the benefits of freely joining the empire (Prescott). When I think of a Philosopher King I think of a benevolent dictator, like the Inca.

Daniel: I’ve often thought a benevolent dictator would work best, but it’s too risky.

Taylor: That’s putting it mildly! I can’t stand getting set up on a blind date, let alone a marriage!

Daniel: Plus, America was founded on rebellion against a monarchy. Our founding fathers specifically set up a federal system with checks and balances so that the ambitions of those in one power position would be moderated by the ambitions of rivals in a different power position.

Rune: Yeah, the problem with a Guardian Class, or Philosopher Kings, or Benevolent Dictators is that they seem to be utopian rather than pragmatic solutions. It never seems to work in real life because people are self-interested by nature. In fact, Machiavelli even points out in The Prince that a monarch should strive to be feared rather than loved because in a self-serving world the love, and thus the loyalty, of the people can be fleeting, while a healthy fear will persist. The projection of fear is in a monarch’s power while love is controlled by the people. Machiavelli provides a recipe for maintaining power through the force of power, in a weird blurring of the concept of the means justifying the ends, because in this case the ends and the means are both power (Machiavelli 182). Maybe this is what Lord Acton meant by absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s best to avoid this system all together in my opinion.

Chris: That’s a good point. Pizarro was able to subdue the entire Incan empire with only a small force of conquistadors, partly because he was able to exploit the indigenous challenges to the Incan emperor Atahualpa’s authority which was weakened from the civil war (Prescott). Not everyone is comfortable letting others control their destiny.

Taylor: I never thought it was a good idea to begin with! Even if you can convince me that too much Democracy is bad, I will never consider dictatorships, benevolent or otherwise, a viable option for our government.

Daniel: Ok Taylor, don’t get too worked up. So we’ve eliminated Tyranny from the list of possible governments, but as a band we have yet to agree on the best system between Oligarchy, Aristocracy, and your suggestion of more Democracy. Getting back to the current state of the American government, I think it includes elements of all three of these other systems. America started out as an Aristocracy’s Aristocracy, in which elite representatives were selected by a narrow electorate of the white, male property owners. Over time however, African Americans, women, and everyone over 18 was given the right to vote. Also over time, many states have established methods for legislation to be directly decided by popular vote. This is the increase in Democracy I want to point out. Taylor has pointed out that there has also been an increase in the power of Oligarch’s over time. Perhaps I can combine our two analyses to say that over time America’s original system of an Aristocratic Aristocracy has morphed into a Democratic Oligarchy. So then I think the best system would be a Democratic Aristocracy.

Taylor: I don’t know. That all sounds a bit confusing…

Rune: What about the Social Contract? Thomas Jefferson’s wording of the Declaration of Independence was inspired by the philosopher, John Locke (Johnson Lectures). The Social Contract underpins our concept of a government by and for the people. The first person to really flesh out this idea as a justification of government was Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan. He argued that in a conceptual state of nature, with no established government of rules, there could only be anarchy. Hobbes describes this as a state of war in which each person is working against each other, and would result in a “nasty, brutish, and short” life (Hobbes 208). This was because every man had the natural rights of life and liberty which justify all self-interested actions. The solution to this type of existence is a covenant among people to give up certain freedoms, in order to be protected from the relatively worse effects of others exercising those same freedoms. For example, I agree not to steal Taylor and Daniels’ amplifier cords if they agree not to steal mine, but we share the guitar picks. Of course, Hobbes thought that no one would have an incentive to live up to their end of the bargain unless there was a strong sovereign power to enforce the rules. So Hobbes’ conception of the Social Contract also includes a justification for Tyranny, but…

Taylor: Come on!

Daniel: Clam down, we won’t go there again. I think Plato hinted at the Social Contract in his Dialogue, Crito, long before Hobbes came on the scene. Plato depicts a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that takes place in a jail where Socrates is imprisoned awaiting his execution. Crito tries to convince Socrates to escape, but Socrates won’t do it. One of the best arguments for staying to face his execution was that escaping would cause damage to the social acceptance of a system that, while flawed, in many ways still provided a wonderful life for Athenian citizens and which Socrates had benefitted from for a long time (Plato Crito 55).

Rune: Exactly. But, actually, I was going to suggest that we could try out a thought experiment about the Social Contract. The modern philosopher John Rawls in his book, A Theory of Justice, puts a really interesting twist on the Social Contract that leads to a conclusion that you might like, Taylor.

Taylor: Oh yeah? Let’s hear it.

Rune: Rawls suggested that if you were to imagine the State of Nature as an Original Position, in which the Social Contract could be construed and agreed upon by people behind a Veil of Ignorance, then the outcome would be fair. The Veil of Ignorance means that no one has any information about themselves or the others they are bargaining with. No one knows their age, sex, race, wealth, or even anything about their own beliefs or political views. If this condition were present during the bargaining then any outcome would have to be fair, because the rational strategy for any given participant behind the Veil of Ignorance would be to bargain from the assumption that they might be lowest in the pecking order, and therefore agree to the trade-offs that sacrifice as much power as needed from the top to provide the minimum acceptable power for the lowest ranked individuals in society (Rawls 672-675).

Taylor: I like the Veil of Ignorance. It would be fun to try out the thought experiment ourselves in the context of the band. Say we were to imagine that none of us had any idea who we were in all the aspects that Rune mentioned, but also what instruments we played, or what kind of music we liked…or who gets the most girls…

Chris: It will be difficult to imagine away something so obvious about myself.

Rune: Focus people. I like the band analogy, but the Veil of Ignorance is just used to set up the primary rules for how we go about deciding the specific aspects of our band. These rules should answer basic questions, like how we decide who plays which instrument rather than the specific question of who actually plays which instrument. Or, deciding how we will choose which style of music we play rather than initially agreeing on a genre.

Taylor: About the first question, how do we decide who plays which instrument? I think whoever ends up being the most talented with each instrument should play that instrument. This arrangement has the potential to create the best music because it represents the greatest utilization of talent given all the possible combinations.

Daniel: Aha! I knew you would understand the benefits of Aristocracy someday, and I concur.

Chris: I agree with that too, but what about the second question? I think that when deciding what style of music we’re going to play we need a different process to resolve it. If I were ignorant of the kind of music I liked, I would want a system that was flexible and gave me a vote after I became aware of my tastes. So I guess we come back to Democracy in this instance.

Daniel: Except there are some kinds of music that three of us might like, but one of us would despise enough to refuse to play it. This is the problem with pure Democracy. The minority person here needs to have some sort of veto over their worst case scenario being the outcome.

Taylor: I totally agree.

Rune: Perfect! This all fits with the outcomes predicted by Rawls. In the first example of the assigning of instruments, we agreed to an unequal distribution of roles based on specialization in exchange for pure equality because it conferred a larger net benefit for all of us. I think this is like Rawls’ Equality Principle. In the second example, we agreed to a different mechanism, but the principle is similar. We each want to ensure our own freedom to decide for ourselves the type of music we prefer to play the most by casting a vote, but also having a veto over the worst outcome for the one in the minority. This lines up with Rawl’s Liberty Principle, which indicates that from the Original Position we would all agree to the greatest freedom possible as long as it is conducive to allow for the same freedom for others. That is why, as a band, we agreed to the veto on musical style. Because we can imagine being in the minority, we are willing to give up the potential for absolute power as a majority in order to avoid the complete loss of freedom as a minority.

Taylor: Alright, all this being said, let’s have a vote on my song lyrics now.

Rune: Yea!

Chris: Yea!

Daniel: Nay, but not enough to veto. I would like to negotiate its position on the set list though.

Taylor: Fair enough! And it looks like we’ve run out our rental time guys so we better pack up.

Rune: Glad you brought this up today Taylor, it’s gonna be really interesting to explore these complex themes with our music.

Chris: Dork.

Jared Roy Endicott

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Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan”. Princeton’s Readings in Political Thought. Eds. Cohen, Michael and Nicole Fermon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 (original 1651). 205-242. Print.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince.” Princeton’s Readings in Political Thought. Eds. Cohen, Michael and Nicole Fermon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 (original 1513). 165-187. Print.

Madison, James. “Federalist No. 10: The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued)”. 22 Nov. 1787. Web. 14 Mar. 2010

Plato. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1992 (original 380 B.C). Print.

Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Second Ed. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002 (originals 399-380 B.C). Print.

Prescott, William H.. History of the Conquest of Peru. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2004 (original 1847). Print.

Rawls, John. Princeton’s Readings in Political Thought. Cohen, Michael and Nicole Fermon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996 (original 1971). 667-697. Print.

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