How can the wealthiest people make democracies worse? Plato investigates the question in Book VIII of the Republic. Socrates suggests there that, in pursuit of more and more wealth, oligarchic citizens within the democracy will exploit the lower economic classes, even to the point of undermining their own oligarchic economic interests. In other words, the oligarchs’ lack of virtue leads in time to an inevitable backlash within the democratic polity.
There can be a few rich citizens getting wealthy off the many, but the democratic populace will in turn harbor great resentment against this wealthy class that, in effect, rules over them and exploits them within the democracy. But the majority of the democratic citizens tolerate the effectual oligarchic rule because they are nonetheless still able to enjoy a very wide range of freedoms.
Yet if the democracy’s wealthy rulers do not give to the many an ever-expanding menu of freedoms, freedoms for which they have acquired a taste and which now they desire more intensely, then the many will turn on the rich oligarchs with bitter accusations:
“When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.” (Plato, Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett)
What form does this cursing of the oligarchs take? The process described by Socrates should strike us as uncannily familiar. When cynical citizens are alienated from the political process, so much so that they take it as proverbial that the governmental class is corrupt, then these disenchanted citizens look to a champion to attack the oligarchs ruling over them and with whom they are disgusted.
This article continues at [The Imaginative Conservative] Plato’s Tale of the Wolf-Tyrant: A Lesson for Our Times?