‘The true forms of government are those in which the one, or the few, or the many govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether the one, or the few, or the many, are perversions.’ (Aristotle, Politics, Book III, 7:29)
In the foundational text for modern political theory – Politics – Aristotle was very concerned with conflicts arising from private ownership of property. Although he did not state it explicitly, he was essentially broaching the question of class conflict in ancient state systems. He felt that if in a perfect democracy there were extremes of rich and poor, the poor would use their democratic right to initiate land reform and confiscate property from the rich. He considered this to be unjust on the basis that if one considered this to be just then ‘all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich’. One could debate Aristotle’s judgement about justice and injustice at length. But it is his potential solutions to the problem that are most insightful and have most contemporary relevance. In democratic states, he saw two ways of dealing with the difficulty: the first option was to reduce inequality so that the poor would not be inclined to initiate land reform; the second option was to reduce democracy so that the poor would not have the power to initiate land reform. The question then arises as to which of Aristotle’s two solutions the state is currently pursuing with regard to contemporary failings arising from private ownership of property: so, is NAMA an attempt to reduce inequality or reduce democracy?
NAMA is being implemented under a veil of secrecy with one TD referring to it as a ‘secretive, tax-funded, politically directed work-out process for 1,500 of the most powerful, well connected business people in Ireland’. This lack of transparency tends towards Aristotle’s second option. The recent news that NAMA is to be submerged into a ‘special purpose vehicle’ which is to have majority (51%) private ownership is further evidence of the pursuit of Aristotle’s second option. There are many other examples pointing towards the adoption of Aristotle’s second option which is essentially a means of preserving the existing power structure in society by reinforcing and likely deepening inequality. Bearing that in mind, it is worth noting that Aristotle favoured the first option – reducing inequality.
Moreover, the scheme is being implemented with minority support from the general public and with little regard, its seems, for the ‘common interest’. A recent Irish Times poll shows that only 26% of the population support it. In a true democracy we would educate and inform the population about the important issues and allow them to make an informed decision on that basis; not here however, because that is not the position favoured by the current system of private power.