In a small tribe, where pretty much everyone knows everyone else (and their ancestors) one could elect one person to rule over all; he is in a simple sense, first amongst equals, for all the members of the tribe.

Plato discusses Democracy in a Polis. Already there he deplores it as a fall from Aristocracy.

In some sense I agree with him, why would I not want to be ruled by the best?

Is part of his argument against democracy, is the scale of the city?

President Obama, is surely first amongst his cabal, but not amongst surely all his citizens; despite the appearance of this, by the modern public relations industry.

Can Democracy scale to the size of medium sized country, say like France; can it scale ever to a sub-continent sized country, such as the states?

If they are not democracies, then what are they? Is calling them representative democracies a fig-leaf, are they in fact something else?

  • 2
    You could have better luck on the new SE site for Politics
    – rraallvv
    Dec 20, 2012 at 15:23
  • The area of the country is only an issue as far as it constrains communication. You might also want to consider the population size which could have multiple confounding effects besides just communication constraints. Apr 9, 2014 at 15:01
  • I've read about some African tribe that used to come together periodically to make decisions of import. Anyone could speak, they would deliberate, even for days, until everybody agreed... This is called consensual democracy, and I always thought of it as the only true form of democracy. But of course the more people who want to speak, the less time there is to till the fields and tend the flocks. So basically I take it for granted that practicality is a primitive factor in diluting natural democracy.
    – christo183
    Apr 18, 2019 at 5:56

5 Answers 5


One possible answer to this is given by Rousseau. You can read the part on Democracy here (the following chapters are at least as relevant, so don't skip them).

Little extract:

For a monarchical State to have a chance of being well governed, its population and extent must be proportionate to the abilities of its governor. It is easier to conquer than to rule. With a long enough lever, the world could be moved with a single finger; to sustain it needs the shoulders of Hercules. However small a State may be, the prince is hardly ever big enough for it. When, on the other hand, it happens that the State is too small for its ruler, in these rare cases too it is ill governed, because the ruler, constantly pursuing his great designs, forgets the interests of the people, and makes it no less wretched by misusing the talents he has, than a ruler of less capacity would make it for want of those he had not. A kingdom should, so to speak, expand or contract with each reign, according to the prince's capabilities; but, the abilities of a senate being more constant in quantity, the State can then have permanent frontiers without the administration suffering.

  • nice extract. Rousseau writes well. Dec 4, 2012 at 19:33
  • Yes, I enjoyed reading the Contract.
    – iphigenie
    Dec 4, 2012 at 21:14

Political philosophers like Friederich Hayek would probably argue the opposite - that a free-market democracy is the only scalable society.

Take for granted for a moment that people are distributed as Plato describes in the Republic - there are these elite "gold souled" people who make up a minority, and there's everyone else. Face with any one decision, maybe these gold souled people really would make the best decision. The problem is that there is no way they could make every decision, and even if there was, the amount of information in society would quickly overwhelm their ability to consume it to make these decisions.

Instead, in democratic societies where people mostly are free to associate, decide social norms for themselves and so on, you maximize the amount of information used by people and provide incentives for people adjusting their decisions over time, and thus come to better decisions in the long run.

  • In Hayeks conception, the gold-souled people is the abstract mechanism of the market - so far as economics goes. But not all laws and norms in a society relate to commerce. Apr 10, 2014 at 13:43
  • Hayek (or at least Hayekians, I can't find the citation in Hayek) distinguish between "Laws" and "Legislation" in non-commercial dealings. "Laws" are roughly "common law," what we've established by convention, and thus similar to the free market (and, like the free market, change over time without any one person deciding so). "Legislation" is something created by a government in a centralized fashion. Apr 10, 2014 at 13:48
  • I don't think the "gold-souled" people are the abstract mechanism of the market for Hayek, they are the so-called elite people in society. That's the whole point - lots of people continuously making decisions will lead to a better result than a few really smart people making decisions (usually with long intervals between adjustments). Apr 10, 2014 at 13:50
  • @Kingsbery: I didn't think Hayek would use gold-souled. I was just myself making that link myself. Apr 10, 2014 at 13:57
  • Agreed, I don't think he would use that term. I'm just disputing the link you yourself made. My point is that whatever term you use (elite, gold-souled, etc), there is a fundamental different in the model between centralized and decentralized decision making. Plato's model is to have centralized (society's smartest are philosopher-kings), Hayek's model is to have decentralized (society's smartest are no different than others except perhaps being more successful at what they do). Apr 10, 2014 at 14:02

Democracy is scalable an applicable at many levels, what varies is its connotation regarding cultural differences, or even semantic.

Take for instance, a Plutocracy ruled by the wealthy, or a Monarchy. In every case that government is posible only because majority chose democratically in one way or another, by action or omission, to allow those governments to exist.

Even pirates were democrats - not pun intended regarding some political party. Pirate communities were some of the first with a system of checks and balances.

So democracy can be scaled (I prefer... could be found with different connotations) at many levels, even in some degenerate, or amoral, forms of government - again no particular allusion here.


You are starting off with the idea that the relevant question for political philosophy is "Who should rule?" As Karl Popper noted in The Open Society and Its Enemies, this is a terrible idea because there is no reason at all to expect any particular person or group to have a monopoly on the knowledge required to solve problems, including political problems. The question begs for an authoritarian answer. The question we ought to ask is "How can we best set up our institutions to correct mistakes and to remove incompetent or malicious rulers?" Liberal democracies are better than the other systems that have been tried so far because they allow rulers to be removed without violence. A system that does not involve violence as part of its succession mechanism is more scalable than one that does require violence because it allows easier correction of mistakes.

Plato was in favour of totalitarianism and the destruction of individual liberty, as illustrated by this quote from the Republic translated by Popper:

The greatest political principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should ever be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals .. only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

This does not allow people the freedom to say when rulers are making mistakes and so does not allow for error correction. It may be the case that liberal democracy could be replaced by some other system that would be better at correcting mistakes, but you won't find it in Plato.

  • I'm not sure that the question 'who should rule' leads directly to an authoritarian or totalitarian answer. When Plato is using the word Aristocracy he means rule by the best - in the abstract sense - not in the specific sense of a specific Aristocracy of a particular people. But that leads to the question what is the best, and how do we ensure that that they remain the best, or the best that is practically possible. Democracy as you point out allows one to oust an unpopular leader. But it also allows it to become dominated by powerful vested interests. Apr 9, 2014 at 15:02
  • The US democracy for example appears to be dominated by a professional caste of politicians and large corporate interests. This makes it, in some sense, closer to an Oligarchy - rule by property/wealth. Apr 9, 2014 at 15:03
  • @MoziburUllah Any answer to "who should rule?" presupposes that some identifiable group of people should rule, i.e. - they are authorities on what should be done to solve political problems. The appropriate policy is to regard all politicians and policy recommendations as flawed and look for the flaws since they will all be flawed. Your phrasing the issue as finding the best also distracts attention from looking for an correcting errors.
    – alanf
    Apr 10, 2014 at 8:37
  • @MoziburUllah It is necessary to have money to run a political campaign and it is unrealistic to expect people to donate and get nothing in return. The way to deal with this is to require that all discussions, whether by e-mail or phone or in person or whatever, concerning donations should be recorded and posted on the net. If it isn't recorded the politician has to return the money or he will not be allowed to run.
    – alanf
    Apr 10, 2014 at 8:42

Yes, the principle of democracy is indeed very scalable!

The central aim of democracy is that we want representatives who indeed will represent the folk for whom they were selected.

The problem with direct elections for a position with very large groups of citizens ... the voters know practically nothing, and with few elected posts, money can corrupt the candidates.

From my own experience, we can be good at selecting representatives at the local level. Given a pool of candidates far above average ability, even on random basis, we could assign roles to better folk than our current means.

Democracy wants to select folk who represent all folk. At the same time we want to representatives who are above average, and not easily corrupted by wealth.

I believe local election (a good filter for ability), combined with random selection (for greater roles), would give us better representatives.

So ... "Yes!!" ... I believe there is a scalable form of democracy.

  • This doesn't seem to have much in it other than personal experience. There's nothing wrong with some personal experience, but how does this address Plato's argument?
    – virmaior
    Jan 21, 2017 at 6:36
  • Greek Philosophy is based on observations from that time, and is a foundation of Western thought. We have quite a lot of experience since that time, so we can do a bit better. I read Plato and Aristotle as a teenager, was much affected, but have not felt a need to re-visit. Plato's musings are about how to select the most able and suited leaders. We know from our history that Aristocracy and Oligarchy are poor selectors for ability or suitability. In the rare case where a leader resembles Plato's ideals, it works wonderfully. But this is very rare, and almost always fails on succession. Jan 27, 2017 at 16:21
  • Once you get past democracy and oligarchy, we find that democracy does make a decent and repeatable selector ... some of the time. The question asked here is very much to the point - the problem with democracy seems to mostly involve scale. How can we scale up our selection of able and suitable leaders? Which leads to the answer I gave. Jan 27, 2017 at 16:27

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