"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Saturday, August 5, 2017

On the Aristocracy of Wealth

The "ardent glow of freedom gradually evaporates;—the charms of popular equality . . . insensibly decline; —the pleasures, the advantages derived from the new kind of government grow stale through use. Such declension in all these vigorous springs of actions necessarily produces a supineness. The altar of liberty is no longer watched with such attentive assiduity; —a new train of passions succeeds to the empire of the mind; —different objects of desire take place: —and, if the nation happens to enjoy a series of prosperity, voluptuousness, excessive fondness for riches, and luxury gain admission and establish themselves—these produce venality and corruption of every kind, which open a fatal avenue to bribery. Hence it follows, that in the midst of this general contagion a few men—or one—more powerful than all others, industriously endeavor to obtain all authority; and by means of great wealth—or embezzling the public money, —perhaps totally subvert the government, and erect a system of aristocratical or monarchic tyranny in its room. What ready means for this work of evil are numerous standing armies, and the disposition of the great revenue of the United States! . . . All nations pass this parokism of vice at some period or other; —and if at that dangerous juncture your government is not secure upon a solid foundation, and well guarded against the machinations of evil men, the liberties of this country will be lost—perhaps forever!"

The rule of a few—aristocracy. The rule of the wealthy—plutocracy. Where the few, being valued above the many, are determined principally on account of wealth, the two forms of government fuse into the aristocracy of the moneyed interest. The cardinal virtue is the fundamental desire for more—otherwise known as greed. Justice is limited to peerage, or amicitia (friendship) based on having wealth. This sort of justice, which can be derived from Cicero, is antithetical to justice as caritas seu benevolentia universalis (love, that is, universal benevolence), which comes from Plato, Augustine, and Leibniz.

 A society wherein aristocracy is defined in terms of money can be likened to an old industrial city wherein the masses are boorish and the few are refined. The latter spend their spare time at the two or three country clubs in town. On July 4th, the masses have a motorcycle parade and fireworks downtown while the wealth-aristocrats enjoy golf and swimming followed by dinner in the dining room and then a separate fireworks show on the golf course. It is literally the tale of two cities—only one of which is gated, though some of the many can watch the clubs’ fireworks from outside.

 In an aristocratic plutocracy, business executives and the moneyed of the professional class (e.g., CPAs, physicians and lawyers, but not clerics and professors—the Brahmans who have been uneasily professionalized but not as well compensated) are valued and thus they rule. In other words, the country clubs rule the strip malls. It is not only that money is allowed to buy political power; wealth is valued so much that is presumed to have the right to govern.

 Although wealth is the defining difference in a society wherein aristocracy is a function of money, refinement itself tend to go with the upper classes; and yet for all the lubricating manners, the country club set is limited by its value on wealth. In other words, corruption can coexist with the superficial manners typically found on the putting green. True refinement, it turns out, comes not from wealth, but, rather, from being educated. Hence, the greatest difference in a society, it turns out, exists between the pedestrian mall and the scholar rather than between the poor and the rich. Even so, in a society wherein aristocracy is defined in terms of wealth, the distance between the rich and poor is exaggerated, which in turn is seen as justifying plutocracy. Once a society can be characterized as an aristocratic plutocracy, it may be that only a mass rebellion can bring back the demos in governance; for the propertied will only consolidate their rule, and their property, unless or until they are forced to relent.


The Impartial Examiner, Essay (March 5, 1788), 5.14.15, in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 290-91.