Aristocracy is a form of authority that assumes human equality is largely a myth. Aristocracy is different from oligarchy. In fact, in Aristotle's famous view, these two are polar opposites, having nothing in common. Literally, from the Greek, “aristocracy” means “rule of the best,” and puts ability above equality in searching for social justice.
There is really only one benefit to aristocracy: The best and the brightest will rule the state or society. The alternatives are mediocrity or oligarchy. The basic view of aristocracy is that people differ in terms of their basic abilities and aptitudes. People in civil society might be legally and morally equal to one another, but this does not imply that they have equal and identical rights to income, political power or social prestige. In business, aristocracy would be the rule of the board: a group of people chosen to run a firm based on their business knowledge, experience and acumen, not necessarily their personal income. An oligarchy in business is based solely on money: who makes the most money should rule the firm, and to a great extent, society at large.
The most famous theory of aristocracy comes from ancient Greece. Aristotle held that, among others, two perversions of government were oligarchy and democracy. Neither of these derive from actual ability or experience. Oligarchy is based solely on money, while democracy is based solely on equality. Neither of these is just. Aristocracy is justified because the purpose of civil society is to promote nobility, the highest level of virtue possible to humans. Therefore, the best, those who have become habituated to noble and good acts through long experience, should rule. Democracy is the rule of the average, of mediocrity, of the mob. In business, this would mean that those with the requisite knowledge and experience should rule the firm for the sake of moral action, not necessarily profits above all things.
One of the founding fathers, John Adams, the second American president, was an advocate of a “natural aristocracy.” The benefits here are the same as Aristotle: those who should make policy are those who have the most knowledge or experience. Adams, like Aristotle, saw a real aristocrat as someone having money -- though not necessarily wealthy -- so that they would not have to work. They could dedicate their time to reading, study and contemplation of justice and the good. Those who work eight hours a day cannot dedicate much time to serious study and contemplation. Therefore, an aristocracy with a suitable income is necessary to free the best and brightest from daily labor so they can improve their minds.
Another founding father and the third president, Jefferson also held to a view of natural aristocracy based exclusively on talent. While more suspicious than Adams of the aristocracy, Jefferson's opinion was that the superior minds will naturally attract voters and therefore, the franchise need not be restricted to the brightest. Adams did not trust the democracy to do the right thing and vote for the true aristocrats. Both writers agreed, however, that aristocracy is necessary to good government and should be based solely on experience and proven ability.
- John Adams on US Dollar Coin image by Sujit Mahapatra from Fotolia.com