The word Aristocracy is derived from the Greek word ‘aristo’ meaning best and ‘kratos’ meaning rule, that is, rule by the best. It is a form of government in which the sovereign power of a State is vested in a small number of citizens, who are theoretically the best qualified to rule in the interest of all. More generally, however, the term comes to signify the system of government in which the right to govern is vested in a small privileged class.
By extension, the term aristocracy is also used as the collective designation of the leading persons of a State or of those regarded as superior in rank, talent, intellect or wealth. These advantages are passed from one generation of the aristocratic class to another. Status, power and wealth are inherited. In an Aristocracy, though the power of government is vested in or wielded by a few, theoretically the administration of government is carried out for the welfare of the people.
However, whenever the interest of the people as a whole are made subservient to the selfish interest of the ruler, aristocracy becomes a form of government known as oligarchy. Athens before the period of the Persian war of the 5th Century B.C and Sparta during its entire history were aristocracies. The same was true of Rome during the period of the Republic, which form the 6th to the 1st Century B.C. and of Britain in the 18th century. At present the term aristocracy is used loosely and in a great variety of combinations to denote a select few with superiority in various categories of life. For example, an aristocracy of birth, wealth or brain.
Advantages of Aristocracy
1. Aristocracy leads to the emergence of the community of a ruling class. This group inherit and bequeath to their prosperity high traditions of Public Service, and can be trusted to administer public affairs with a complete personal integrity and honour. This is why they possess a great position independent of politics.
2. It is a natural institution. It is the best and most natural arrangement that the wisest should govern the people especially when it is assured that they will govern for the interest of the people.
3. Aristocracies are conservative, and this element of conservatism is necessary for the political stability of the nation. Aristocracies tend to avoid rash political experiments; they advance by cautions and measured steps. As Montesquien noted, they have the great virtue of moderation.
Disadvantages of Aristocracy
1. It is the tragedy of all aristocracies that they have degenerated so quickly into oligarchies. Oligarchy means government by a minority of the society, a minority that is not necessarily distinguished by aristocracy title or privileges.
2. A second defect of aristocracy is in its excessive rigidity. It is the mark of a good government to adapt itself to changing social and economic conditions. Unfortunately aristocracies, in the effort to preserve their powers are unwilling to adjust to these new socio-economic conditions.
3. By their nature, aristocracies are authoritarian. This is because majority of the citizens do not have any direct or institutionalised role in policy making: they do not participate in election, and are not organised into political parties or clearly identifiable interest groups.