An oligarchy a society ruled by a small, powerful minority. These are not necessarily the most capable leaders in a society. Oligarchies are not at all similar to democracies, but they are also very different from governments ruled by a single dictator. Oligarchies can have both positive and negative effects on the societies they rule.
The great Greek philosopher Plato recommended oligarchy, or aristocracy, as the best form of government because it would organize society in the most efficient way possible. He envisioned an ideal society made up of three distinct classes: rulers, soldiers and common people. All of these classes would work together for the common good.
To the extent that a society is actually ruled by its best, and not just its most influential, this theory has some merits. However, there is little practical evidence that even the most worthy minority can organize society.
Incentives For Benevolence
Oligarchs who are given political power to enjoy for their entire lives have a strong incentive to rule their subjects well. Without short-term offices and messy democratic elections, oligarchs have no reasons to seek short-term solutions to problems. In democratic societies, politicians spend a lot of time blaming their opponents for bad policies and then proposing equally disastrous policies knowing that they will be comfortably out of office by the time citizens have suffered the consequences. In oligarchies, however, there is no pretense of blame, and the political rulers have incentives to draft good long-term policies to keep the people happy.
Oligarchies focus political power into the hands of a small, powerful minority of rulers. Since they control the laws of society, these minorities pass laws for their own interests and exclude the masses from the political process. In the small South American country of Ecuador, for example, an oligarchical government emerged after a coalition of citizens overthrew the president in 1944. Historian Marc Becker says the lower classes in Ecuador were marginalized and systematically excluded from all political processes.
Oligarchs who control society compete with one another for control over land, resources and power. The result is that they control all the industries in society and own most or all of the property. The oligarchy in El Salvador during the latter half of the 20th century, for instance, dominated the coffee industry and, therefore, dominated the whole economy because coffee was the most important export crop in the country, according to historian Richard Haggarty.
- Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images