An aristocracy is a government ruled by an elite class. An oligarchy is similar to an aristocracy and the two terms are usually used interchangeably; the one distinction is that the elites in an oligarchy come from a business or finance background while elites in an aristocracy come from a military background. Gilbert Chesterton quipped that "democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated." Nevertheless, one can find both advantages and disadvantages to having an elite aristocratic class ruling over society.
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In his book "The Republic," the Greek philosopher Plato ranked the different types of government from best to worst and discussed the merits of each type in great depth. He ranked aristocracy as the best form of government because it was capable of ordering society in the most efficient way. According to Garth Kemerling, Plato's ideal aristocracy was made up of highly competent leaders, who gained entry into the aristocratic class solely based on personal merit. He wanted the leaders of society to pass a series of rigorous tests over many years to demonstrate their wisdom and impartial judgment. A society led by wise and capable leaders could potentially be the most efficient society.
Sparta defeated the Athenians in the Peloponnesian war (430-400 B.C.) This defeat led Critias, leader of the Athenian oligarchic party, to advocate abandonment of democracy. If a society cannot survive a military attack, the logic went, then democratic values will die anyway. Historian Will Durant says Critias admired the Spartans' aristocratic government because of its military abilities. Aristocracies can be much better than democracies at fighting wars because they can dictate a command economy and do whatever is necessary to win the war.
Government paternalism can be viewed as an advantage or a disadvantage of aristocracy, depending on your viewpoint. Paternalism can be an advantage if the government keeps the best interest of the citizens in mind and rules accordingly. But paternalism can be a disadvantage if the elites end up promoting the interests of the elite class in the name of the "general welfare" or "public interest." Brett Stevens says that paternalistic governments become preoccupied with their own interests, causing societies to weaken and fail. He says that governments hide their failures by publicising their short-term successes to the public and disregarding their long-term failures; short-term appearances trump long-term realities.
Aristocracy centralises power into a few hands. They are then able to maintain and increase their power by passing laws favourable to themselves, such as taxation laws on private lands that make it difficult to own land unless you are a member of the aristocracy. This is what happened in Japan during the 11th and 12th centuries when the Fujiwara family gained considerable power, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A new class of warriors, called the samurai, rose in the Japanese provinces against the monopoly of power in lands and high political offices held by the Fujiwara family.
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