There are many different types of government; and there are many people who claim to have the “best” style of governing. Aristocracy by its very name is a type of government that puts the power into the hands of a deserving few. Aristocracy means “rule of the best” in Ancient Greek and has become associated with rule by a nobility.
However, at its origins, aristocracy was believed to be better than either a monarchy or a democracy: “Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Xenophon and the Spartans considered Aristocracy (the ideal form of rule by the few) to be inherently better than the ideal form of rule by the many (Democracy), but they also considered the corrupted form of Aristocracy (Oligarchy) to be worse than the corrupted form of Democracy (Mob Rule).
As aristocracy took on the new meaning associated with a monarchy, most aristocracies were inherited from the father to the son with daughters often being excluded from inheriting. The people who make up an aristocracy are called aristocrats and are often given unique monikers to denote their level of rank within the aristocracy (duke, duchess, earl, baron, etc.) These ranks could be earned through service to a monarch, military service, in rare cases or, with the emergence of a middle class, bought. Although, buying one’s way into an aristocratic title was even more rare than those that were earned for service. However, even now not all aristocracies are associated with a monarchy. So what are the different types of aristocracies?
For the most part, there are two main types of aristocracies: those associated with monarchies and those that are not. Some of these will overlap. All oligarchies are aristocracies as an oligarchy is considered “rule by the few.” The difference between an oligarchy and an aristocracy is the supposed quality of the rulers. A monarchy is a type of aristocracy. Autocracies are also considered aristocracies; however, their reach tends to be much smaller with only the autocrat’s close friends and family being considered aristocrats. A plutocracy is also an aristocracy meaning “rule by the wealthy.” Aristocracies not associated with monarchies and inherited rule are meritocracy and technocracy. Meritocracy is a government where those who are most qualified to rule are given power. A technocracy gives the power to experts. Lastly, while there are not usually official aristocracies associated with democracies, often times people with means and influence can get special treatment within the government and sway the opinions of the voters.
Aristocracy to Monarchy
Monarchies are the most famous type of aristocracy. Initially, aristocracy was presented as a favorable contrast to an inherited monarchy. Aristocracy was supposed to be “rule by the best.” And inherited rule would have been illegal unless the politician’s child was qualified over all other citizens.
However, eventually true aristocracy was corrupted from this ideal rule by the best into a more general aristocratic class oligarchy with inherited rule. This was because of an unfounded belief that some people were more fit to rule or were sanctioned by God to rule.
Some of the most famous types of governments and infamous political leaders have been heads of a monarchy. Up until the 20th century, monarchies were the most popular type of government, and over 40 nations still have a monarch in one way or another. The English Civil War (1642-1651) was the first united effort to reform the monarchy in England.
Two types of Monarchy
There are two types of monarchies: true monarchies and constitutional monarchies. The more prevalent constitutional monarchies vary widely in the monarch’s power. Some constitutional monarchies give the ruler significant freedoms and input into government and policy; other constitutional monarchs have very little personal authority. Most of the world’s surviving monarchies are the constitutional variety with only five true monarchies left in existence: The Vatican City where the Pope serves as the head of the monarchy, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bruni, and Eswatini. These absolute monarchies are considered autocracies. The other type of autocracy is a dictatorship.
Plutocracies are ruled by those with great wealth and income. A plutocracy does not have basis in any established political philosophy. They are also used as a warning against an undesirable outcome. For instance, plutocracies are often condemned for ignoring social responsibilities, serving only the purposes of those in charge, which increases poverty and class conflict. They are also seen as having a corrupting influence.
Some historical examples include certain city-states in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Carthage, Florence, the Dutch Republic and pre-WWII Japan. Many historians and contemporaries alike have compared the United States, both in previous years and in the present, to a plutocracy or have warned against the US’ slide into an eventual plutocracy. While it doesn’t seem as though plutocracies would be related to an inherited rule type of government, when wealth is inherited so is the ability to use that wealth to influence.
A timocracy is rule by those who own land. This is also an example of a type of government began with the ancients. However, a more recent example is the early United States where only men who owned enough land could vote.
Although, many types of aristocracy are associated with inherited rule, there are two which are not: meritocracy and technocracy. A meritocracy was preferred over democracy by Plato. He thought that philosophers would be the best at ruling because they only cared for the truth and not for personal gain. To prove their ability, those who wish to rule under a meritocracy would be required to pass a test, go to a certain school, or have otherwise special credentials. However, critics of this type of government claim that it is elitist and doesn’t allow the full spectrum of society a chance to rule.
Technocracy is an attempt to rule scientifically or “rule by experts.” Proponents of this type of government want to use the scientific method to solve the issues faced by the government using different types of scientists like engineers. They believed that management could replace politics altogether. However, when these attempts to rule by were made, the technocracy often fixed one problem while creating many more. Most experts agree that technocracies will not work due to the vastly different points of view of a larger society.
A Cautionary Tale to Democracy
An aristocratic democracy sounds like an oxymoron. How could “rule by the people” become “rule by the few?” Well, it’s easy. Many political experts have cautioned the US from sliding into one of the aforementioned aristocratic forms of government. The United States has already been a timocracy, with only wealthy land owners being able to vote, and has been accused at varying points in its history as being a plutocracy, with the rich (regardless of land ownership) being in charge. They argue that the “representative” part of our “representative democracy” is becoming increasingly aristocratic as running for office is often very expensive and the expense of a successful campaign will hinder the general public’s ability to run.
Another parallel that can be drawn between the aristocracy and the representatives of our democracy is the idea that the ability to rule effectively is somehow tied to some aspect of a person’s character other than their plans for addressing political issues and the ability to follow through. Politicians are often expected to be perfect in all aspects of life, fitting some ideal “American” stereotype, and if they don’t, they are often judged harshly on those aspects which are considered “different.”
Lastly, as the number of American million and billionaires, who have vested interest in the status quo, we should be vigilant against the backsliding of our great democracy into the plutocratic past and robber barons of old.
Present and Future
In the end, there are many different iterations of an “aristocracy.” It turns out “rule by the best” can be interpreted in many ways. What was once the world’s most popular type of government all but disappeared after the First World War. As the world pushed into the modern era and the middle class was beginning to recover after the War, the vast differences between the “haves” and the “have nots” were less and less tolerated.
Even though aristocratic governments have been adapting or dying out, social aristocracy is still very much alive. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the United Kingdom. In England, as recent as 2010, a third of the land still belongs to those who hold aristocratic titles. These titles still hold weight and serve as a point of pride (and often income) for these ancestors who inherited it. For example, before the First World War, an unexpected, unknown visitor to an aristocratic estate would immediately have been thrown out.
These days aristocrats are opening their estates for an admission fee. From it’s inception, the idea of “rule by the best” has undergone many evolutions. It seems that the established aristocracies are happy to adapt in lieu of elimination. Who knows what this adaptation will look like in another one hundred years. Will there be any aristocracies or aristocrats left?