The Relevance of Aristotle to Modern Politics
“Current political situation is quite dire… one in which egalitarian values are subsequently buried and the “wealth of the nation” is more powerful than ever.”
By William Shaub, Online Editor
In Politica, the first great classic of political science, Aristotle famously surveys a wide variety of socioeconomic systems. Of all the types he explores, one can conclude that Aristotle found democracy “the most tolerable” (Book 4).
Aristotle’s support of democracy, however, was limited to his belief in restriction of the poor’s tendency to “covet their neighbor’s goods.” He asserts that if wealth is concentrated among elites, the poor will inherently use their majority power to redistribute wealth in an egalitarian fashion. This was, to him, a major flaw in democracy. In Book 4, Chapter 11, he writes, “In democracies the rich should be spared; not only should their property not be divided, but their incomes too should be protected.”
The renowned ‘father of the U.S Constitution’, James Madison, envisioned a nation based on Aristotle’s version of democracy. He held that “the wealth of the nation–the more capable set of men” should claim positions of power within a modern political society for the same reasons given by Aristotle. Madison warned his colleagues of the ‘flaws’ of democracy, making the case that if elections were open to all classes of people, the population would then use its voting rights to redistribute wealth.
Despite the similarities between Madison, the most influential Founding Father, and Aristotle, an unparalleled Greek scholar, a crucial difference lies within their respective ways of dealing with the ‘flaws’ of democracy. They both agreed on the symptoms of what real democracy would entail, but drew completely different responses to the ‘problem.’
Aristotle believed that the best way of suppressing the natural egalitarian urges of the poor was to reduce inequality. Despite the appearance here of an ideological agreement with American liberalism on the surface, Aristotle argues for a legitimate social welfare state: For democracy to really function, “Measures should be taken which will give all people lasting prosperity” (Politica, Book 4). He recommends that “proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor” and proposes “common meals” and even “public land” (Book 5).
A severely different approach was taken by Madison. His solution was to restrict democracy by removing it from those who simply were not “the wealth of the nation.” While recognizing what Aristotle found to be the natural egalitarian urges of the poor, situated at the forefront of real democracy, he arranged a system designed to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
If one carefully reads the Constitution, substantial elements of this approach can be found. Several Madisonian historians, in fact, view it as a Madisonian document that’s been rather consistently interpreted throughout U.S history from his perspective on limiting democracy. Jennifer Nedelsky in Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism: The Madisonian Framework and its Legacy, describes it as “Delivering power to a ‘better sort’ of people and excluding those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power.”
Madison’s solution, I believe, can be accurately described by Adam Smith’s definition of civil government:
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” – Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, pg. 236)
Therefore, if we accept Madison’s approach to be that which is implemented successfully in modern politics, the current political situation is quite dire. This situation is one in which egalitarian values are subsequently buried and the “wealth of the nation” is more powerful than ever.
To measure precisely how powerful the “wealth of the nation” is today, let’s raise a hypothetical question: What if Aristotle were elected president by a large popular majority and his political party took both houses of Congress? He enacts several badly needed social welfare reforms similar to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA jobs program. He nationalizes large banks to the community level. Congress passes more progressive taxation and proposes higher corporate taxes.
The answer is the U.S would experience an enormous amount of capital flight (businesses, the rich, capital, jobs, etc. would leave), which would drain the economy and plunge the country into a recessionary period. Capital would flow elsewhere, because investment is simply too much of a gamble when the investors lose political power. There are countless examples of this, usually in the third world or countries victimized by colonization.
Take Nicaragua, which experienced extreme capital flight under the Sandinista regime in the 1980’s. The Sandinistas tried to carry out a social democratic state after years of colonial-style oppression. The result was capital (investment, money, jobs, etc.) fleeing or threatening to flee the country for ‘better climates for investment and business.’ Even the threat of a capital strike is capable of destroying an economy as fragile as Nicaragua’s was in the 1980’s. In response, the Sandinista government had no choice but to try to convince corporate elites (who believed that the Sandinistas held the wrong priorities) to return or stay, and this became a cycle of economic despair.
The power of what the courts describe as “collectivist legal entities” has arguably eclipsed the boundaries of Madison’s prophetic framework. One could make a strong case that the framers, including Madison, would have been appalled by the modern attacks on classical liberal values. While the relevance between Aristotle and modern democratic values may be close, it’s unimaginably far from the reality of our current political situation.
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