Aristocratic Government

Aristocratic government is a form of government that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning ‘rule of the best’. In Ancient Greek, the word aristocracy means the rule of the best, but it has come to be linked with rule by royal families. There are different kinds of aristocracy with different ways the government is set up.

Forms of Aristocracy Distinguished :-

In evaluating the strength and weakness of aristocratic government it is necessary to distinguish between the several forms in Which it manifests itself or has manifested itself in the past. As pointed out in a preceding article, there have been aristocracies of birth or family, aristocracies of wealth, aristocracies of culture and education, aristocracies of elder statesmen, military and even priestly aristocracies, natural and artificial aristocracies, etc. Manifestly they do not all possess the same virtues or the same vices, nor the same elements of strength or of weakness.

Whatever may be the method or basis of classification or the form which aristocracy may take, the general principle is the same namely, that aristocratic government is government by a comparatively small portion of the population. If as a form of government it meant what the etymological derivation of the word implies, it would, as De Parieu remarked, undoubtedly be the best kind of government in the world.

Interpreted in the sense of government by the best, it is the government par excellence, the only government in fact which can be defended on sound and rational principles. Sir James Stephen remarked that the wise and good should govern in all countries, but, as Seeley observed if “good” is only a euphemistic name, meaning simply a quality possessed by the wealthy or well-born, then aristocracy is only a euphemistic name for oligarchy, which is itself a perverted or “diseased” form of aristocracy.

Formerly aristocracy was one of the most respected as it was one of the most widely distributed, of all forms of government but in recent years the name has come to have an unsavory if not a disreputable connotation.  Ancient writers like Aristotle, as has been said, carefully distinguished between aristocracy, which they defined as government by the best and, oligarchy, which they described as government by a wealthy minority in their own interest.  But today this distinction has largely disappeared, so that aristocracy connotes in the popular mind the same characteristics which the ancients associated with oligarchy.

Strength of Aristocracy :-

One of the distinguishing characteristics of aristocracy is that it emphasizes quality rather than quantity, character rather than mere numbers. It assumes that some are better fitted to govern than others, attaches great weight to experience and training as political virtues, and seeks to reward special talent and attract it into the public service.

It is preeminently conservative government, it honors authority, especially when it has had the sanction of long acquiescence, and has special reverence for long established custom and tradition. It strikes its roots deep in the past and distrusts innovation, especially when it involves the laying of violent hands upon institutions which have become venerable with age. Where it is associated with monarchy and democracy, it acts as a tempering and restraining element. It curbs the passions of democracy and holds in check the absolute tendencies of monarchy.

In this sense it is, said Lord Brougham, a necessary part of a government system, since nothing else can protect liberty from-an arbitrary sovereign or from the more insupportable tyranny of the irresponsible multitude. The very soul of it, said Montesquieu, is moderation founded on virtue.

It possesses an inherent vigor, he declared, unknown to democracy. Napoleon has been quoted as saying that aristocracy was the sole support of monarchy, its lever, its resting point that a state without it is a vessel without a rudder, a balloon in the air.

Naturally jealous of its exclusive privileges and always apprehensive of its own security, it has every reason for refraining from an unwise and immoderate use of its power. Thus it avoids rash political experiments and advances only by cautious and measured step. If the principle of selection were always that of intrinsic worth, it is difficult to see what could be said against aristocratic government qua government.

Considered from the standpoint of the quality of the government itself, without reference to its effect upon the masses who are excluded from participation in political affairs, government by the most capable few undoubtedly possesses distinct elements of strength and efficiency Which are conspicuously absent from a system in which the untrained and uneducated masses hold the reins of power.

John Stuart Mill remarked that

The governments Which have been remarkable in history for sustained mental ability and vigor in the conduct of affairs have generally been aristocracies,

but he added that they had been without exception aristocracies of public functionaries-that is, of men who have made public business an active profession and the principal occupation of their lives.

Weakness of Aristocracy :-

But the weakness of aristocracy as a practical system of government lies in the difficulty of finding any sound and just principle of selection by which the fittest, politically speaking, may be segregated from the unfit, and, when this is done, of providing adequate security against the temptation of the former class to exercise their power in their own interest. It is now generally agreed that the most capable and fit of the population cannot be selected by conferring the power to govern upon certain families and their descendants, for political capacity and honesty are qualities not always transmitted from father to son.

Modern Defenders of Aristocracy :-

There were formerly, however, some highly respected writers who defended under certain limitations aristocracies constituted on the hereditary principle. Sir Henry Maine, for example, expressed the Opinion that the chances of getting capable persons into the service of the state are as great under the principle of hereditary succession as under a system of popular election.

“A man,” said Professor Seeley,

“who is the son of a statesman, who has grown up in the house of a statesman, may be presumed to have learnt something, if only some familiarity with public questions, some knowledge of forms of routine which others are likely to want and there is a fair probability that he may have acquired more, and a certain possibility that, as the younger Pitt, he may have acquired very much and also inherited very much.”

Lecky, in a defense of the English aristocracy, commenting on a saying of Benjamin Franklin that there was no more reason for hereditary legislators than for hereditary professors of mathematics, and that it was absurd to expect that the eldest son of a single family should always display exceptional or even average government is that which provides most efficiently for the purity of the choosing of these natural aristocracies and their introduction into the government.

Artificial aristocracies have always been hated by the masses because they are constituted on the theory that some are born to rule and others to be their subjects, or because the rich are regarded as more qualified than the poor, merely by reason of their wealth. All of them, whether natural or artificial, are apt to be narrow and exclusive, and are inclined to arrogance and excessive conservatism which, at times retards wholesome progress.

We are entitled by deductions from history, says Woolsey, to lay down the principle that aristocracy is ordinarily capable of no long continuance, when it is the sole governing or by far the strongest power in the state.

All Governments Partly Aristocratic :-

In the sense of being government by a small class, differentiated from the rest of the population by distinctions of birth and wealth, aristocratic government has virtually disappeared in all civilized states,although there still remain traces of it in states which have hereditary executives, where one of the legislative chambers contains hereditary or appointive elements, or where the suffrage is narrowly restricted by educational, property owning, or other similar tests.

Yet aristocracy in some form is a principle which all states have admitted and to some extent followed in practice. In all ancient states, democracies and aristocracies alike, large classes of persons were excluded from participation in public affairs. The laboring classes everywhere have been enfranchised only in comparatively recent years.

In England, at the beginning of the eighteenth century one of the freest of states, the lower classes and a large proportion of the middle classes were excluded from all share in the government of the country. And the same was true to a less degree in America for a considerable period after the colonies became independent.

Modern democracies no longer exclude the laboring classes, yet practically all of them apply standards of fitness, even if they sometimes apply them indirectly and in a manner unconsciously. Lord Bryce emphasized that in fact all governments are aristocratic in a sense.

No observer, he said, could fail to be impressed by the fact that the world is governed by an extremely small number of persons. In all assemblies and groups and organized bodies of men, from a nation down to the committee of a club, directions and decisions rest in the hands of a small percentage, less and less in proportion to the larger size of the body, till in a great population it becomes an infinitesimally small proportion of the whole number. This is and always has been true of all forms of government, though in different degrees.

He cites the government of India,as an excellent example of a government by an enlightened, hardworking, disinterested, very small official class. Even in large, democratic countries like Great Britain and France and especially the United States the public opinion which influences and deter mines policies is made by a very small percentage of the total population.