The Philosopher King As The Jester Mayor?


Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and philosopher, decided to put his creatively shameless teacher’s sensibilities to the task of governing a violent city of 6.5 million, filled with corruption and thieving gangs of street children:

When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called “Supercitizen.” People laughed at Mockus’ antics, but the laughter began to break the ice of their extreme skepticism.


The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the new mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets. He launched a “Night for Women” and asked the city’s men to stay home in the evening and care for the children; 700,000 women went out on the first of three nights that Mockus dedicated to them.

When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.

More highlights below the fold:

Mockus taught vivid lessons with these tools. One time, he asked citizens to put their power to use with 350,000 “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” cards that his office distributed to the populace. The cards were meant to approve or disapprove of other citizens’ behavior; it was a device that many people actively – and peacefully – used in the streets.

He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the attitude of “Bogotanos” during Mockus’ tenure is that, in 2002, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.

Another Mockus inspiration was to ask people to call his office if they found a kind and honest taxi driver; 150 people called and the mayor organized a meeting with all those good taxi drivers, who advised him about how to improve the behavior of mean taxi drivers. The good taxi drivers were named “Knights of the Zebra,” a club supported by the mayor’s office.

Harvard University’s Gazette has many more details of how he did these and other humorous and creative things to improve life in his city, and the abstract principles he recommends for others who looking to effectively motivate people for positive social change.

He went on to run for president of Colombia in 2010 but lost.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Olav

    I have been a huge fan of this man for years. A shame he didn’t become president of his country. Perhaps he will get another chance.

    • Camels With Hammers

      If he doesn’t, can we have him?

  • Stevarious

    Why the hell can’t we get politicians like this here in the States?

    Oh, right, because he’s actually trying to improve things. You’ll never get the necessary millions of campaign dollars like that!

  •!/wmachannell WAC

    As a resident of Bogotá, I can say that Mockus has helped to turn the city around completely. Unfortunately, the country didn’t put much faith in his ability to be a president. A funny sidenote that you might not have heard of is that there was a huge controversy about Mockus during the elections last year due to his supposed atheism. In a country that is about 80% Catholic, this was a big deal. There were people that actually decided not to vote for him just because of that. His biggest weakness, however, was the fact that so much of what he tried to get across in his campaign and during the debates prior to the elections just went over people’s heads. Any time he got too intellectual, his opponents would take advantage of it and try to twist his words around and confuse people who had trouble understanding him in the first place. His treatment of issues from a philosophical / intellectual perspective definitely didn’t help him garner votes as much as his traditional political opponent (and current president, unfortunately), Juan Manuel Santos.

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