The word “aristocracy” has been corrupted so that it often seems to mean something like, powerful families who don’t have to work, who radiate arrogance and spend their time at fancy parties, saying and doing things they shouldn’t and yet getting away with it. I think that’s the sort of image that comes to mind for us today. That’s certainly not the only way the word has been used though, and the way it was used in the past served as a placeholder for an idea that’s important for us to consider.
If we begin with the classical sense of aristocracy, I think we’ll find that we all pretty much desire aristocratic government, and our disagreements are only really about how we get from here to there. If that’s so, then thinking about aristocracy is an important task.
Literally, aristocracy is the “rule of the best”. It boils down to making sure that the most powerful positions of leadership are filled by the people who are best equipped (with intellectual, moral, and practical capacities) to make wise decisions on behalf of the political community. More easily said than done, of course!
The reason why I say that this is ultimately what we all want in politics comes down to two considerations: there have to be positions of political leadership in a political community, and we really don’t want those positions to be occupied by people who might make bad decisions, if there are better people available to do the job.
The difficulty is in discovering how to ensure that it is really the best who rise to the top. We all think of ourselves as the best and everyone else as worse, but we can’t all be correct about that. Any test for the job could be cheated on, or could be “gamed,” and more fundamentally, any test could be challenged, since it’s being designed and administered and adjudicated by those who are less than best. And if the choice of leader is too open, too flexible, then the community will be undermined by division and factions.
So we all have our favoured ways of making sure the selection process is most likely to choose those who are the best, or nearly the best. In the past it might have been the greatest warrior, or the person from the most distinguished family. Today it is more likely to be the person who is best known, most liked or most approved. We give our approval today to those who seem most wise — that is, to those whose stated opinions align most closely with our own, ceteris paribus.
Clearly, choosing leaders for wisdom by rewarding them for thinking most similarly to the mob is going to be a problematic undertaking, but it points nonetheless to the fact that the political system we should want is indeed the political system that we all do want, even if the question of how to bring it about remains as perplexing and unresolved as ever.