Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American Aristocracy

I had an epiphany today while reading Aristotle's Politics, and it is that Aristotle would probably not classify the United States as a republic but as an aristocracy. He does think that the two have a great many similarities, because they are both fusions of democratic and oligarchic tendencies. What distinguishes the two is that aristocracies tend more oligarchic and republics tend more democratic. We have democratic elements, of course, but we have way too many features that Aristotle would clearly consider oligarchic to be counted as a republic. And many of the features that we think of as intrinsically democratic, especially favorable to the rule of the many, Aristotle would consider obviously oligarchic, favorable to the rule of the few. (Elections are an obvious one. We think of them as democratic, but Aristotle is extraordinarily firm in placing them in the oligarchic box. And he's not wrong: the whole point of an election is to choose a few to govern the many, and elections encourage the dominance of the field by those who are either wealthy themselves or supported by the wealthy. When Aristotle thinks of a paradigmatic democratic method of choosing leaders, he thinks of choosing by lot: a system in which, at least more or less (depending on precisely what the requirements and rules are), every citizen is equally a candidate. Elections by their nature are systems of inequality; the lottery, on the other hand, treats everyone equally. The very fact that we think of elections as democratic at all he would regard as an obvious sign of our oligarchic tendencies.)

And indeed, it is remarkable, when Aristotle describes the basic features of, say, Sparta that make it at its best an aristocracy, how American it sometimes sounds -- and where they differ is that Sparta had more features that Aristotle classifies as democratic (e.g., inequality between the rich and the poor was sharply restricted in Sparta, and people were required to share certain things in common). And recognizing that we count as an Aristotelian aristocracy puts things in an interesting light. And it does raise the question of just exactly why we are surprised, when we go around insisting that everyone have elections, that it so often happens that the government in a few generations becomes a junta; if elections are oligarchical by nature, then they will create oligarchies unless something is already in place to compensate for that tendency. It's not, of course, that elections are a bad idea; it's that unless there is something to counterbalance them, they encourage the rise of ruling class: the Eligibles. We do, of course, have counterbalancing institutions in place. But something must there, and it must keep on performing its role of counterbalancing.

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