The aristocratic government places political power in a comparatively small part of the population of the state. This class may be based on birth, wealth, age, military power, priestly power, education, or a combination of these and similar distinctions. However, the ruling class may be selected in an aristocracy the mass of the people is exuded from any effective share in the government.
Many writers, from Plato and Aristotle down, believed that aristocracy was the best form of government, provided that the ruling class was composed of those most competent to govern and that they exercised their power for the good of all and not for their own selfish interests.
Some who have opposed class distinctions based on birth and wealth have believed in a natural aristocracy of ability and character that should exercise a dominant influence in politics and believe that government should be so organized as to give this natural opportunity aristocracy to rise to political power.
In a sense, all government is more or less aristocratic in that a considerable proportion of the population takes no part in government, that the greater share of governing power is concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number, and that public opinion is influenced and determined by the leadership of a few.
The masses have neither the knowledge nor the time nor the unflagging interest necessary to enable them to rule. The line between aristocracy and democracy is difficult to draw. Still, the aristocracy theory has no confidence in the political ability of the masses and believes in government by the select few.
Meaning of Aristocracy:
Originally, Aristocracy meant a form of government conducted by the best of the community and guided in the exercise of authority and functions by the most virtuous principles. Such a form of government comes down to us Aristotle, in Greek, means the best, and Kratos means power.
Aristocracy, according to Greek philosophers, was a form of government par excellence; its principle was a virtue, the moral and intellectual superiority of the ruling class, and the virtuous qualities which they disseminated into those over whom they ruled. Aristocracy has now come to signify that form of government in which the political power rests in the hands of a small section of the community.
But this is not a true test of Aristocracy; it is really Oligarchy, sometimes with implications of the corrupt few. The character of Aristocracy depends on selecting the people who wield power and the aims they keep in view, not the smallness of the number.
The selection methods are various and have been devised by certain leading ideas that had pervaded and still pervade society. First, birth is important in primitive society; families most directly descending from a common ancestor constituted a class by itself. Outsiders were not admitted, except perhaps by adoption.
In modern society, we do not speak of a common ancestor, but we still defer to the notion that some families are better than others, and consequently, they are best fitted to rule. This second place, selection my be by merit that persons of superior intellect and ability are chosen to govern others. This is an Aristocracy of intellect. Selection by favor is another method.
When a king confers high rank on those, who serve him best, the selection method is by favor. Again, there may be an Aristocracy of wealth when the criterion of selection is only the possession of riches. Whatever be their intellect or merit, the poor have no chance to assume public omen and participate in public affairs. Some are born to rule if they happen to inherit wealth or amass it themselves, whereas others to be ruled if the accident of birth or circumstances do not make them so fortunate.
Jellinek has said the emphasis on the social aspect of the aristocracy. He maintains that there is always some social class which, wields the dominant power in the State. It may be the priestly class or military class, or landed aristocracy. But whatever be the type, power Will belong to that social class, which is more powerful than the rest, and this class enjoys certain special privileges denied to other classes. Jellinek, accordingly, concludes that it is an error to define Aristocracy merely as a government by the few.
Kinds of Aristocracy.
Aristocracy for Aristotle was a normal form of government. Its perverted form was an oligarchy, government by the few, by the rich for the rich. Rousseau divided aristocracies into natural, elective, and hereditary. The general basis of classification had been: of wealth, of birth, of talent and intellect, and culture and education. Some writers have, during recent times, using the term “aristo-democracy” for the aristocracy. An aristo-democracy means that only the best types of men wield power.
In a sense, a democratic government is more or less aristocratic. A considerable proportion of the population takes no part in government. The greater share of the governing power is concentrated in the hands of a comparatively small number (the Theory of Elite).
Public opinion is influenced, molded, and shaped by the leadership of the few. The majority party forms the government, and its leaders man the administration. The majority party, together with the minority in the legislature, enacts laws. The masses elect their representatives and leave the rest to the actual administrators till they are called upon to elect the rulers again.
The line between Aristocracy and Democracy is, therefore, difficult to draw. But it must be remembered that Aristocracy places no confidence in the ability of the masses. It is a government of the select few, may it be the “aristocracy of breeding,” or “aristocracy of intellect,” or “aristocracy of talent.”
Democracy has faith in the ability and capacity of man, and its principle is equality. It accepts man as a man and provides equal opportunity to rise to the highest public office in the State. Thus all persons who are fit to perform the duties of a citizen can have a share in the direction of the affairs of the State.
Merits of Aristocracy.
One of the great merits of Aristocracy is that it emphasizes quality and not quantity. It assumes that some are better fitted to govern than others. They govern as they are the best, and the criterion of their being best is the moral and intellectual superiority that they possess over others.
“It is the everlasting privilege,” says Carlyle, “of the foolish to be governed by the wise.” Aristocracy, thus, gives to the community a ruling class that can be trusted to administer public affairs with template integrity and honor because they possess a great position independent of politics. These individuals have powers of perception usually denied to others. They can see an order in human affairs, and they can discern major trends that are obscure to their fellow citizens’ generality.
They rise above emotions and interests and see the meaning of justice and virtue in ways that others cannot. Aristocracy can also claim superiority over other fauna of government regarding stability and efficiency and, thus, can maintain a consistent and vigorous policy both in domestic and foreign relations.
John Stuart Mill says that “the governments which have been remarkable in history for sustained ability and vigor in the conduct of affairs have generally been Ariosto-crazies” It is further argued that Aristocracy would refrain from the unwise. Immoderate use of power Burke believed that the elite m a society would be more realistic than the common people The aristocrat, he further said, has more of a sense of shame because he must ask himself what posterity will think of his actions the anonymous citizen in a popular majority has no such thoughts.
Supporters of the “aristocracy of breeding” defend hereditary aristocracy because genetic inheritance produces superior qualities in certain family lines. Having roots in their national tradition and taking a large-range perspective on the future, their approach to politics is conservative in the best sense.
Political training runs in their blood, and they naturally take the business of government more efficiently and diligently. They represent a standard of perfection, derived from heredity arm environment, and set a model for others to imitate and revere. Since members of this aristocracy material security, they enter politico life out of a sheer sense of duty. They can thus promote society’s broader interests and do not have to pander to the momentary whims of a capricious electorate.
Aristocracy, it is claimed, is pie-eminently conservative. Since admin-station rests in the hands of the wise, talented, and experienced administrators, who have inherited high public service traditions, they would naturally avoid rash and radical political experiments. Moreover, stability is one of the foremost requirements of a good government, and stability demands “conservative innovation.”
Violent changes involving suppression of institutions, which become venerable with age, agitate popular feeling and, as such, endanger the stability of the government. “It is, therefore, of the greatest importance in social and political progress that the principle of progress or liberalism should always be joined to the principle of stability or conservatism.” Aristocracy serves the desired purpose. It allows only slow change, and there is no complete break with the past.
Aristocracy is a reservoir that conserves experience and transmits wisdom to the present and the future. Conservatives and continuity are the two essential conditions of stability, and Montesquieu said “moderation” is the chief principle of Aristocracy.
Cabinet Government is, in essence, Aristocracy. Those who constitute the Ministry are party leaders. According to Laski, the essential contribution of the Ministers to the Cabinet is “their commonsense, their ability to put before their colleagues that judgment about decisions which public opinion, and especially party opinion, will make after they have been published.”
This is Aristocracy tinged with responsibility. Modem governments have preserved the element of aristocracy in the composition of the Upper Chambers of their legislatures. For instance, the British House of Lords consists primarily of hereditary peers. In countries where the Second Chambers are elected, the elections are usually so arranged as to make them representative of the best minds in the nation.
The Council of States, the Second Chamber in India, consists of two hundred and fifty members, of whom the President nominates twelve members. The members nominated by the President are persons having special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as literature, science, art, and social service. This system of representation is aristocratic in the best sense.
The weakness of Aristocracy.
But the evil inherent in all kinds of Aristocracies is that they form a separate interest, which is almost certain to come into conflict with the community’s interests. No wise and just principle has so far been devised for selecting the ruling class, and no safeguard has been suggested to ensure that the few will rule in the interests of all and not for their selfish advantage.
The privileged persons, who are destined to rule, form a class of vested interests, and they look on their privileges as a matter of right that ought to be transmitted unimpaired to their successors. Even the Aristocracy of the best soon degenerates into a class rule.
Flushed with power and authority, they become arrogant and proud and display towards the classes excluded from a share in the government, harshness, and cruelty which have been the more intolerable because accompanied by contempt.
Even an aristocracy of intellect has no convincing appeal to make. High intelligence is not the exclusive property of any single group, and rational individuals are distributed at random up and down the social scale. Of course, a person from a wealthy background stands a better chance of developing his intellectual potentialities. He will receive encouragement from his parents and the benefits of higher education. However, experience has shown that many of our finest intellects have Sprung from humble surroundings, and many of them have all but educated themselves.
The rule of hereditary succession, “aristocracy of breeding,” works evil as well as good. When it has prevailed for a long time, many hereditary dignities descend to persons quite unfit to exercise power or make good use of social influence.
Moreover, the division of people into classes provokes envy and opposition. The rulers become narrow, selfish, and domineering, causing widespread disaffection and,d eventually, rebellion. It is not rational to maintain and put faith in the myth that some are born to rule and others to be ruled. Such a government is unresponsive and irresponsible, for it excludes the masses from finding government interest.
They become the only recipients of orders. Aristocracy, therefore, is exclusive. It does not offer the people political training or political consciousness, which is so essential for citizenship. It is a government for passive dumb, driven creatures and not for politically awakened and active citizens. Similarly, property, like birth, should not be the criterion for elevating a person to rule.
Governing power cannot be wisely restricted to persons who, either by accident of birth, are born in rich families or to whom some freak of fortune has brought riches. When in power, such fortunate persons devise all means, sane or insane, to perpetuate their own interests, reducing the masses to a pitiable plight.
A great defect of the aristocracy, says Bluntschli, is its excessive rigidity. A government that has reverence for long-established customs and traditions cannot have a dynamic Outlook. A good government must keep pace with the economic and social requirements of society. The aristocracy will resist all such changes to preserve its power. It is not a dynamic mechanism of government for the fulfillment of the needs of a dynamic man.
It cannot, therefore, serve the purpose of our times. It stands for backwardness. Finally, Aristocracy stands for pomp and splendor. All this grandeur and dignity entail huge expenditure and extravagance at the very high cost of the public good.