The (Aristotelian) Art of Democracy


Aristotle is an incredibly important democratic thinker, and probably the very first. Much of Western political tradition is owed to him, and there is great value in re-examining his ideas in order to better inform our present. There is a great deal to cover so this author will briefly outline Aristotle’s theory on democratic rule in order to provide the foundation necessary for the main argument of this post.

First, Aristotle asserts that man is a “political animal” (Book I, chapter 2). By this he means that humans have a natural tendency for society. Individual man and woman come together, they form a household; several households come together to form a village; and these several villages come together to form a city, all for the sake of self-sufficiency. (For ancient societies, the city was the equivalent of the state or nation, and so the reader should not limit the city to what is typically thought of as a city but should include nation-states). But, as Aristotle admits, other animals do this, too. So what makes man unique? What separates the human animal from the other social animals? He argues that it is humankind’s perception of, “good and bad and just and unjust and other things [of this sort].” It is these perceptions that give humankind the ability to live well, not merely survive. And it is to this end: to live well, that humankind should and must strive in order to maintain its unique ontological position. He goes so far to say that an individual who, “is incapable of participating or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city and so is either a beast or a god.”

The next few books of his Politics investigate the proper functioning of the household and its parallels to the proper functioning of government, i.e. the management of the city. He also outlines three basic forms of good government: kingship, aristocracy, and polity; and their corrupt counterparts: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively. Without getting bogged down in theory, suffice it to say that the first three are just and good because the government rules for the benefit of all*; the last three governments rule for the advantage of those who rule and so are unjust and bad. It is worth noting that Aristotle’s conception of democracy is different from our contemporary conception. By democracy, Aristotle meant mob rule of the generally poor masses. Our contemporary conception of democracy – that form of government by citizens who have the ability-potential to rule collectively for the benefit of society – is what Aristotle calls polity. In this essay, I will use democracy in our contemporary conception of the word (what Aristotle refers to as polity); and when Aristotle uses the word, the reader must remember that he speaks of mob rule.

Though Aristotle was very distrustful of mass rule, he reluctantly concluded that the polity would best be able to inculcate justice and humanity and thus preserve the city and mankind because it is the most moderate form of government (Chapter IV, chapter 2, section 2). But it wasn’t polity alone that ensured and protected the justice of the city and its inhabitants. For it is possible that a polity could easily become corrupt and devolve into one of the perverted forms of the government. In all of the good forms of government there is a foundation and guide, and justice is this guide. For Aristotle, the “political good is justice,” what he calls the, “common advantage,” or the well-being of the whole society (Book III, chapter 12, section 1). Aristotle continues, stating that laws are the operational manifestations of that justice. If justice is maintained, then good laws will follow and a king, an aristocracy, or a polity could properly rule according to the laws derived from it; if justice was absent, then the laws would also be unjust, and government would misrule, becoming corrupt, and the people with it.

Aristotle writes:

One who asks law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite (Book III, chapter 16, section 5).

For Aristotle – as most of Western philosophical tradition – Reason is the domain of Justice and as such is best able to identify and articulate it. The laws that govern both the government and the city it manages are to be derived through Reason. It needs to be stated that both Justice and Reason are thought to emanate from some source, what Aristotle called the Prime Mover, or what has been traditionally – and problematically – referred to as god. This premise (or conclusion, depending on the direction in which it is argued) is not without its problems and is in need of reconsideration for a variety of reasons, but that is another subject altogether. For now, it is enough to say that the laws of a (just) city derive from a higher source and that Reason is the means to access this source. And to reiterate: accessing this higher source through Reason is what makes us uniquely human.

Now that I’ve outlined a very truncated primer to Aristotle’s democratic theory, I can proceed to the main argument. But, again, some context is necessary, first.

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There has been much talk in that past few years of economic inequality, prosperity, the proper role of government, and who is best to lead the U.S. starting in 2016. But this author asserts that these issues are ancillary to the true issue: is the U.S. just? – is it being ruled justly? – how can we know for sure? – and, what can be done about it? There are a myriad of ways to address these questions – and that need to be – in order to fully answer and resolve them; however, for the sake of concision, this essay will focus on the economic aspect given its salience and relevance in contemporary times. Focused in this way, the questions become: is the U.S. just in domestic economic matters (production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services)? Is the social economy being governed justly? How can we know? If so, how do we continue such rule? And if not, then what can be done about it?

This essay attempts to answer the easiest of these questions through the lens of Aristotle’s democratic philosophy. These questions then become: “Is the U.S. economically just?” and “How do we know?” Let us begin with Aristotle, who writes of material/economic justice and how it does not work:

What, then, ought one to say is the extreme of injustice? Again, taking all [the citizens] into consideration, if the majority distributes among itself the things of a minority, it is evident that it will destroy the city. Yet it is certainly not virtue that destroys the element possessing it, nor is justice destructive of a city; so it is clear that this law cannot be just… But is it just, therefore, for the minority and the wealthy to rule? If they act in the same way and rob and plunder the possessions of the multitude, is this just? If so, then the other is as well (Book III, chapter 10, sections 2-3).

What Aristotle describes here are two (of the three) corrupt forms of government: oligarchy (the rule by the rich) and democracy (the rule of the masses/mob). He concludes that it is as unjust for the masses to plunder the possessions of the rich as it is for the rich to plunder the possessions of the masses. He concludes that if one is just, then so is the other; in other words: neither is just. In fact, both are extremes of economic (re)distribution and as such necessarily unjust. And the discussion of the extremes bring into the discussion of the mean, or moderation.

The “mean” is an important concept for Aristotle. He argues that moderation is virtue, and that extremes are vices. He writes:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); exercise either excessive or defective destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate to both produces and increases and preserves it. So too it is, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, become in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean (Nichomachean Ethics Book II, chapter 2).

Similarly: for Aristotle, excessive wealth or poverty destroys virtue and ultimately the citizen and the city. The cardinal virtue at threat here is Justice, which – defined by Aristotle as the “virtue characteristic of partnerships” (Book III, chapter 13, sec 3) – is the proper governing-goal of a city. And as mentioned earlier, neither too much can be allowed to the wealthy elites or too little to the masses – and they are not allowed to plunder one another. Both are destructive of virtue and ultimately justice. This is easier to understand when one considers that being just individually means participating in Reason so as to develop individual virtue. If one hasn’t the means even to eat, or has to endure excessive hardship to merely survive then it is difficult, if not impossible, to allot time to such lofty activities [Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is most instructive here] – such a restriction is to deny the individual of what makes one human.

For Aristotle, the concerns of both classes – the wealthy elites and the un-wealthy masses – must be taken into consideration and managed appropriately. In other words, proper government must balance both the needs of the masses and the needs of the wealthy. For Aristotle, this is the art of democratic rule: moderation.

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This analysis begs several questions. Is the U.S. moderate in its economic distribution? Is the U.S. ruled moderately with the interests of the wealthy elites and the masses appropriately balanced? What is the appropriate balance and distribution of wealth, exactly? Here, Aristotle gives few specific instructions. For each city/nation is different and its laws will necessarily reflect these differences; although, their pursuits of justice will/should remain identical. Given this lack of specificity on Aristotle’s part, however, it is still possible to answer such questions.

Of all the data and the methods available to us for answering these questions, the first this essay will focus on is that of economic productivity relative to income. The rationale is as follows: as a nation gets richer, those who work more often or harder to increase national wealth should see concomitant raises in personal income. It should be noted that these 2 indicators are but one way of measuring this question and in no way should be construed as being complete or total, but it will shed some light on the matter.

The Economic Policy Institute published a study in 2012 that looked at, among other things, these data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They found that from the year 1979-2007, income gains from the increase in productivity and GDP have gone primarily to the top 1% of families. In fact, 59.9% of the gains went to the top 1%, with 36.6% going to the top 0.1%, and a mere 8.6% of these gains to the bottom 90%. In this same time frame, total productivity has increased by roughly 70%. However, the average hourly compensation has only increased by about 34%. Keep in mind that increases in productivity prior to the early 70s rose commensurately as hourly compensation in the previous decades. Since 1973, however, hourly compensation has stagnated while productivity has increased. What happened to all the ever-increasing income (roughly a difference of 35% of output/income that hasn’t been given in terms of wages to the workers who are actually producing goods and services)? In short, the owners of the capital – the 1%, but really the 0.1% – have been collecting it all for themselves. So the question: is this fair? Or rather: is this just? Does this distribution take care of both the wealthy elites and the masses of workers in ways proper for each?

The other metric this essay will use to help answer this question is inflation – the rising cost of goods and services over time – relative to income earned. Using data from the Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics the inflation rate from 1979 to 2007 is 196.34%. (This means that over an almost 30-year period, something that cost $5 in 1979 cost $9.82 in 2007.) Similarly, median household income in 1979 was $50,342 and in 2007 it was $57,717 (both figures are measured in 2015 dollars). This is a median household income increase of 13.65%. Compare this to the 196.34% increase in the cost of living – a difference of 182.69%! It is difficult to imagine that such a difference is just in any meaningful sense, let alone allows for the masses to maintain a standard of living reflective of the wealthiest nation on Earth (without going into debt, that is).

Granted, this is only one way of looking at the question, and any single analysis cannot provide a final determination for a question this complex. That said, there are other similar trends that underscore systemic disequilibrium: decreasing employment and social benefits; weakening of labor unions; increased prevalence of lobbying for rich corporations; increased prevalence of legislation benefitting the very wealthy; increase CEO pay relative to average workers (which increased almost 800% from 1980-2010 while the typical worker only saw a 5.7% increase over the same time); an effective corporate tax rate in the teens, and sometimes zero or even negative; subsidies for wealthy corporations, the most recent being the bank bailouts which highlight an exceptionally hypocritical – if not a contradictory and simultaneously self-destructive – “capitalist” ethos that governs those “too big to fail;” as well as a continued lack of meaningful and aggressive oversight of financial institutions and processes, to name but a few.

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So what does all this mean? First, that it is important to always define terms and concepts. Aristotle’s conceptions of “democracy,” “justice,” and the “mean” aren’t typically what come to mind when one comes across these words. Despite the non-association, most people would probably agree that an important element of democracy is balancing the various interests of a nation, particularly the wealthy and the masses; that justice is – or at least should be – a concern of the state; and that moderation, or the mean between excesses, is an ideal to which an individual and nation-state should strive.

Second, that the analysis presented in this essay illuminates some disturbing trends. One, that despite an ever-increasing level of productivity, wages and income for the vast majority of workers in the US have effectively remained the same for the last 40 years. Two, that until the early ‘70s, productivity and worker compensation rose together; after that, productivity rose and compensation leveled off. Three, inflation, too, has increased non-stop. Four, that inflation has vastly outpaced what little increases to income there has been since the ‘70s. All together, what emerges is a picture of a socio-economic system that since the 1970s has rewarded the wealthy disproportionately more than the masses despite an ever-increasing level of productivity.

If Aristotle’s notion of balancing the interests of the wealthy against those of the masses is sound policy, then what is clear is that the U.S. socio-political system is out of balance, in favor of the wealthy. The conclusion implied here is that a re-redistribution is necessary in order to bring the system back in to balance. As mentioned earlier, this is but one analysis, and that many more are required to verify this phenomenon and conclusion. Also, mentioned, however, is that there are a myriad of social, political, and economic phenomena that have been taking place that, collectively, support this analysis and conclusion. There is, also, no shortage of data and studies confirming what has been concluded in this essay so verification will not be a difficult task. What is difficult is deciding how to rectify the problem. But the political solutions tend to fall into one of two camps: policies that directly benefit the wealthy (with the hope/assumption that those benefits will “trickle down” to the masses), or those that directly benefit the masses (which are often qualified in ways that show deleterious effects upon the wealthy’s ability to benefit the whole [economy], usually by not being able to create jobs): the qualifications for both solutions – that is, the way they are framed – are indicative of a power-structure at play that goes a long way in explaining why conditions have gotten to the point at which the U.S. finds itself currently.

Third, it should be clarified that while a re-redistribution – or a rebalancing, to use Aristotle’s language – does entail an equalizing it does not entail and equalization. In other words, a re-redistribution does not mean that all are now millionaires or that everyone has the same amount of income and/or wealth; instead, it means that, for the vast majority of people, their compensation in income is brought up to levels commensurate with current levels of productivity, national wealth, and standards of living – in other words: what they have earned through their collective work over the last four decades. As Aristotle maintains: for the sake of civil society, the property of the wealthy must be maintained and not pillaged, but so, too, must be that of the masses. It follows that if the masses have been plundered – as the data suggest – then their property is to be confiscated and returned.

In conclusion, the answer to the question – “Is the U.S. economically just?” – is “No.” Increases in productivity and inflation have outpaced income for the vast majority of U.S. citizens and both domestic and global trends do not support the interpretation that this is some unfortunate accident. (And the means by which this redirection of wealth has occurred would be an interesting topic for another essay…) For the sake of good empirical procedure, this essay encourages further analysis, but this author is certain these conclusions are easy to verify given the decades of previous research, analysis, and policy recommendations.

The U.S. is at the tipping-point of a phenomenon 40 years in the making – 20 of which has been spent forewarning the arrival of this point. Will its democratic government rule justly, bringing the nation back into balance? Or will it continue to unevenly stack the scales, threatening the foundation of its polity?