What is an oligarchy?
The official definition is this: it is a small group of people that have complete control. It usually refers to a group that controls a country, though the concept applies to businesses and other structures as well.
Under the governmental definition of an oligarchy, a group of people, often designated as “royals” or “nobles,” maintains a consistent power base that keeps them in control over multiple generations. Very few people can enter into the oligarchy and each individual within it is specifically trained and expected to fulfill a role that maintains governing power.
In the business world, an oligarchy would be a family retaining control over a specific business, including the Board of Directors, for multiple generations. It is, by nature, exclusionary.
Here are the top pros and cons of an oligarchy that are worth consideration.
List of the Top Pros of an Oligarchy
1. An oligarchy keeps power consolidated.
With an oligarchy, there is never the uncertainty that comes with a transition of power. That is because power never really transitions. The same people are responsible for the daily needs of the domestic society. This allows the average person to pursue their own goals without worrying about what their government may ask of them. That separation allows those outside of the ruling class to focus on their business while the oligarchy focuses on what they need to do.
2. It encourages individualized expertise.
People who have the best talents and skills are generally given the highest positions of power within an oligarchy. Royal families may have designated individuals who are required to take over the crown, though the support positions are usually filled with the best possible advisor. Some oligarchies require members to spend several years in training, even going through their childhood, to be prepared for a specific position of leadership. With this focus on expertise, a better response can often be generated.
3. There are fewer pressures placed on society.
When an oligarchy is not acting in an abusive manner, it creates a division between the ruling class and the rest of society. The ruling class focuses on the daily tasks of governing without worrying about crops being raised, water being gathered, or other tasks being completed. Those outside of the ruling class can focus on their jobs or their creative pursuits with confidence in the ruling class providing them with the protection they require. An oligarchy allows people to care for themselves and their families with a greater level of effectiveness.
4. It provides a chance to apprentice in creative fields.
In the past, great artists were able to take on apprentices who also became great artists because of the structure of an oligarchy. People could focus on science, music, art, or whatever else they were passionate about. They could also teach people new skills from their creative passion to pass down this talent to new generations. Because there is less time worried about the processes of governing, there is more time to pursue other activities.
5. Anyone is still permitted to join an oligarchy.
Under a true oligarchy, those with the greatest skill levels are granted the most potential power in the governing structure. Although the noble class does attempt to consolidate these skills within their small group, a true oligarchy allows anyone to join the ruling class if they have skills that society needs. That means anyone can change their stars if they are willing to learn, work hard, and contribute to the forward momentum of the society.
6. It creates consistency.
The overall goal of an oligarchy is to maintain a certain status quo. There is movement forward, of course, but with a certain confidence that can only come through experience. The structure helps to limit risky decisions from being made because each voice within the small group would have certain levels of influence on the conversation. This makes it possible for the best possible path forward to be chosen on a consistent basis.
7. An oligarchy is not gender-biased.
Men and women serve equally within an oligarchy, especially if they are part of the ruling class. History has shown us that an oligarchy can support great kings and great queens. Women often serve on the Board of Directors, though this trait is somewhat rare for the larger companies in the United States. For a woman that comes from a powerful family with wealth, there is a dominant place in society for her.
8. An oligarchy can be representative.
The only requirement for an oligarchy is that a small group of people are in charge. How they get to hold this power is not restricted. Some might be born into their role. There are times when people are elected into their role as well. In the past, having land or money was all that was required to become part of the ruling class. Everything is handled within this group, so it can be representative of the general population.
List of the Top Cons of an Oligarchy
1. An oligarchy creates divisions within society.
Wealth is not necessary for a true oligarchy, though the wealth in any general society that has an oligarchy tends to be reserved for the ruling class first. That doesn’t mean the average person cannot become rich too. It just means that the nobles are born into their wealth, while the average person must work above and beyond to improve their skills, so they can get noticed. People outside of the oligarchy have fewer opportunities to gain wealth because of this structure, which means income inequality tends to be an inevitable result.
2. This structure tends to be restrictive.
An oligarchy often retains control over their society by restricting access to certain elements of it. The ruling class could decide to fix prices on certain items so that only the wealthiest in society could afford to have those things – like an education. They could decide to provide certain benefits, like access to grain, only to those who qualify by wealth or a minimum number of working hours. They can even limit available supplies, create artificial inflation, or simply declare that no one should do business with certain groups of people.
3. It tends to disrupt the domestic economy more than help it.
The overall goal of an oligarchy isn’t to build wealth or progress forward. It is to retain power. Only when there is a guarantee that the ruling power will not go away is when the actual benefits an oligarchy can provide become possible. If there is any threat to the oligarchy, real or perceived (or even invented, then the domestic economy tends to be disrupted to prevent a loss of power.
4. Violence and protests are common in an oligarchy.
For the oligarchy to remain in power, there must be a certain measure of obedience that is provided by those outside of the ruling class. If that obedience is not seen, then the ruling class becomes frustrated with the structure of society and attempts to “restore order.” When that occurs, those in society become frustrated because the promise of being able to pursue their own interests becomes limited. These two groups then clash with each other, which can lead to protests, violence, and even war, in extreme examples.
5. Economic growth tends to slow over time.
An oligarchy can help to spur high levels of economic growth. It tends to inhibit growth, however, when observed on a long-term basis. This happens because over time, an oligarchy tends to reduce its levels of diversity instead of increasing them. This trait happens because the ruling class typically consolidates its power within a few individuals to maintain the status quo of leadership. Without diversity, growth is naturally inhibited because there are fewer opportunities for innovation to occur.
6. It creates figureheads instead of real leaders.
In the average oligarchy, the leadership is not strong. It is weak. The leaders recognize that they are weak, so they attempt to consolidate their power. This action may help them to retain the power they want, but it comes at a steep cost. Consolidation requires allies. Those allies are going to call-in markers whenever they need something from the ruling class. Over time, the leader may have zero control over the direction of governing, though they may have an official title and be the “face” of the leadership.
7. An oligarchy can happen anywhere.
An oligarchy is not limited to government structures that are monarchy-based or businesses that are founded by families. One could argue that the United States has turned into an oligarchy as well. Since 1979, the people who have earned income levels in the top 1% have seen their incomes rise by 400% compared to the rest of the general population. Two-thirds of that increase was experienced by the top one-tenth of one percent. The folks in this exclusive club have similar social circles, work in similar jobs, and maintain a certain exclusivity from the rest of the general population.
8. Consistency in an oligarchy leads toward sameness.
At the beginning of an oligarchy, there may be several different perspectives offered. This diversity of opinion can lead to amazing things. Over time, however, as power is consolidated, the different voices tend to go away. Decisions become made from singular perspectives instead of a multitude of experiences. This leads to stagnation in society. Not only does this affect the economy, it also affects the values of that society. It can change the moral attitudes of that society. It can force people toward a conclusion that they don’t want, yet have no choice but to take it.
9. Most oligarchies do not have one clear ruler.
In the average oligarchy, there are several powerful people that run the government or organization instead of there being one clear ruler. It can be structured like a monarchy, but does not need to be. In recent government examples, South Africa and the Soviet Republic became oligarchies because of the reinforcement of power of one political group, supported by a smaller group of people in its leadership.
10. There is an internal bias that never goes away.
An oligarchy meets on a regular basis to determine how to proceed with needed aspects of society. The group will appoint people to complete specific tasks that they deem are necessary. If robberies are a problem, then a member of the oligarchy would be appointed to oversee the issue. They would likely be placed in a judiciary role and asked to determine what to do with people who are convicted of the “crime” involved. An oligarchy could name anything as a crime. Robbery is obviously theft and usually determined to be detrimental. What about writing a blog that is critical of the oligarchy? The group could decide to punish that just like they punish robbers.
The top pros and cons of an oligarchy show us that if it is structured in an honest and honorable manner, society is given numerous opportunities to benefit. What becomes problematic for this type of structure is that people who have power tend to want to keep it to themselves. Instead of letting new people in to create progress, changes to society occur so that a “chosen few” are able to keep the power for themselves.
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