Oligarchy is defined as “government by the few.” It is a form of government characterized by the rule of a few people. The oligarchs usually share a common trait such as wealth, nobility, religion, education, ethnicity, political ideology, military control or family. Oligarchy can be contrasted with monarchy which is a government with a single absolute authority. In an oligarchy power is kept closely by a few people who agree to share power for mutual gain. That being said, what are the pros and cons of oligarchy?
The pros of oligarchy include long-term solutions and less citizen responsibility. The cons are many and include there being no single leader, the propensity for tyrannical power, monopolies, no free press, stifled innovation and more.
Read on for a further look at the origins of oligarchy and its various advantages and disadvantages.
Aristotle’s Opinion on Oligarchy
The term “Oligarchy” was pioneered by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In The Politics, Aristotle compared oligarchy to other forms of government like autocracy. He claimed that oligarchy was an inferior form of government. Aristotle believed that the oligarchs would not aim to achieve justice or political benevolence. In contrast he claimed that a monarchy, aristocracy or a mixed republic was more likely to achieve justice. Aristotle stated that the oligarchy was a small cohesive political class which ruled in its own interest rather than for the people.
Subgroups of Oligarchy
There are more than one ways that an oligarchy can operate. This form of government can be distinguished into several distinct types. The most common types of oligarchy are plutocracy, technocracy, theocracy and many others. Plutocracy is rulership by a few rich oligarchs or plutocrats based mainly on their wealth. Technocracy is rulership by the technological experts who have special power than others do not. Theocracy is another type of oligarchy where rulership is sometimes shared by a few religious leaders.
Historically, plutocracy dominates as the main form of oligarchy. Oligarchs are most likely to agree to share wealth based on their money. In a plutocracy, a few families who disproportionately hold the majority of the wealth ruled over the rest of the population. The oligarchic plutocrats can then abuse their position to protect their monopoly on power. Corruption becomes very common in plutocracies. The few benefits of oligarchy as a form of government are usually taken by the ruling elite and very little gain is distributed to the common people.
The disadvantages of the oligarchy are experienced more by the general population. While poor people starve, the actual oligarchs themselves remained sheltered from the suffering that they can cause. Most disadvantages to the oligarchs are mere inconveniences whereas disadvantages to the people can have disastrous consequences to their lives and the nation as a whole. Aristotle’s warnings against oligarchy ring true because the oligarchs can simply leave after destroying the countries that they manipulated. The common people are left to deal with the consequences.
The Pros of Oligarchy
An advantage of the oligarchical system is that the oligarchs can seek long-term solutions to problems without concern for short-term offices and winning democratic elections. Oligarchs do not need to worry about public opinion when they make decisions. On the other hand, politicians from democratic governments invest a lot of time running against and blaming their political opponents. Sometimes democratically elected leaders will avoid making difficult decisions that are unpopular. This distracts from focusing on arriving at an agreement on real solutions to benefit the nation.
If an oligarch happens to be more benevolent than others, then he might invest in the wellbeing of the country that he controls. The oligarchs together can operate by making good but unpopular decisions and then replace the puppet government. In contrast other forms of government have to listen more to public opinion. Sometimes that can lead to disastrous consequences that no one is held accountable for. This is because the politicians who put the policies in place comfortably leave office before the citizens realize what was done.
Unlike in a democracy, there is typically less pressure on citizens who are ruled by an oligarchy to stay politically informed in their daily lives. Within a democracy, citizens are expected to stay educated in history, economics, politics, and current events, which are pivotal when it comes to voting for who to rule over them on the local, regional and national levels. Whereas under an oligarchy, citizens are free to occupy their time with personal pursuits that are not politically relevant. They may have no concern for the affairs of the government as the citizens have no responsibility towards the policies and operations of the rulership. Without political participation by the citizens, the oligarchs are able to rule without interference.
The Cons of Oligarchy
No Single Leader
A disadvantage of oligarchies is that the rulers are often all motivated by wealth. No single person has control or agency over the government. The lack of a single executive can create confusing situations during times of crisis when decisions need to be made quickly.
This becomes especially troublesome when the oligarchs are divided and cannot come to a decision, or when it is a time of national crisis and nobody is sure who to report to as leader. Whereas in other forms of government with a clear leader such as a monarch, president or dictator, orders are made and executed immediately. This allows the government to react more efficiently and quickly to ongoing active situations.
Historically this point was lived out by the example of the Romans and the Carthaginians. Neither empire had a king or emperor at that time. Instead they had senates and elected positions. The Carthaginian empire was even more oligarchic than the Romans because their empire was built on trade instead of war.
When Rome and Carthage did go to war, the Romans elected a temporary dictator to act as commander in chief. The Carthaginian oligarchs did not have an elected dictator like the Romans. Consequently, the Carthaginians were too slow in making decisions despite having great generals like Hannibal. Eventually the Romans won and destroyed Carthage.
Another disadvantage is if the oligarchs only have partial control over their government, then they often become tyrannical to maintain their power. To control people and restrict their opposition the oligarchs could leverage government power to take away the rights of their competition.
Groups of oligarchs can collaborate to install a puppet leader to act as a tyrant. If the common people come to hate the tyrant then he can be replaced later on. Meanwhile the oligarchs maintain power from the shadows.
Often members of an oligarchy have selfish objectives that are not in the best interest of the general population. Consolidating all of the wealth is a common goal through monopolies and leveraging their policy making abilities to cut down their competition.
The oligarchs’ power derives from their wealth, not from their country or their people, so they can easily get up and leave to another country without losing too much power while maintaining their wealth. Therefore oligarchs have very little loyalty to the countries that they dominate. They can manipulate the government from the shadows, steal wealth from the people, and then move on when their countries are destroyed.
No Free Press
There is no freedom of speech. Within an oligarchy, only the opinion of the ruling elite matters and any other opinions of the people are disregarded and unheard. In fact there is little reason or justification to maintain a free press since the will of the people never factors into the decision making of an oligarchy.
Sometimes the speech of the people is intentionally suppressed and censored if it is counter to the oligarchs stance. Other members of society go along with the charade in exchange for financial benefits that corrupt oligarchs provide their followers.
Oligarchies lack any incentive for growth and innovation. Since the main goal of the oligarch is to retain power, there is little incentive to change the status quo. Since very few new members join, there are rarely new ideas introduced.
New technologies or innovations could be disruptive to the oligarchs’ business models. They seek to monopolize the industries they control and suppress any disruptive innovations instead. An oligarchy could also attack innovations in different industries to limit the power of other oligarchs relative to themselves.
No One Can Join
There is very little room for advancement in an oligarchical society. The hierarchies become rigid and solidified. For the common citizens it can become almost impossible to join or create any influential organizations since the oligarchs often hold monopolies on business, trade, communication and wealth.
These monopolies reinforce severe income inequality between the oligarchs and the rest of the population. This also contributes to the extreme difficulty in ever obtaining elite status. The education of the common people can also suffer because the oligarchs try to snuff out competition early on by deliberately hampering the educational system of the citizens.
Since the oligarchs often belong to very exclusive isolated groups with complex hierarchical ranks of authority, aspiring members almost never reach the upper echelons of the oligarchs.
Final Thoughts – The Pros and Cons of Oligarchy
All forms of government have their strengths and weaknesses. In the “Iron Law of Oligarchy”, first developed by Robert Michels in his 1911 book Political Parties, he postulates that any democracy will eventually devolve into an oligarchy. This would happen naturally as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of the organization. Therefore even people living in democracies should understand how oligarchies work. The benefits of oligarchy are clear for the few people at the top. For everyone else oligarchies unfortunately can cause a lot of hardship. Time will tell whether power can be shared with the many or only with the few.