How to Preserve and Stabilize a Constitution

Having discussed the causes of constitutional decay and overthrow, Aristotle next discusses how to preserve and stabilize a constitution, in chapters ⅷ and ⅸ of book Ⅴ of the Politics.

Aristotle

This largely involves understanding what causes instability, and then working to head off or ameliorate this instability when it occurs. The impression I get from these chapters is that the statesman, like the captain of a ship, must be constantly vigilant. Here is some of his advice:

  • Beware of the accumulation of small, individually insignificant illegalities, as these can add up to a general contempt of the laws.
  • Give non-citizens a seat at the table, don’t deny the ambitious the honor they seek, don’t lock the masses out of the economy, and keep those parts of the government that are democratic in nature operating in a spirit of equality and power-sharing.
  • Short tenures of office reduce the problem of malevolent or incompetent office-holders, those with factional aims, or those with tyrannical impulses.
  • While it is good for the stability of a state that threats be kept well at bay, it can also be useful to have threats close at hand, because this will rally the citizenry around the flag and discourage internal division. For this reason it can be helpful to invent fanciful threats if none are handy.
  • If you use a property- or wealth-qualification in your oligarchy, be sure to index it for inflation and changes in property values so it doesn’t unintentionally evaporate, leaving a de facto democracy behind.
  • Power corrupts, so don’t give too much power to any individual, or if you do, do so only briefly.
  • Beware of concentrations of wealth. Try to head off the accumulation of power outside of the constitution by wealthy people; exile them if you have to if they grow too powerful. Balance any offices that have become dominated by wealthy interests. Endeavor to strengthen the middle-class.
  • You may need to set up some authority whose sole job it is to keep the polis operating in constitutional limits.
  • Ensure that political offices are not sources of financial profit for the officials who hold them. People will resent it if they think office-holders are robbing the public treasury or being otherwise corrupt. Also, if you cannot profit from being in office, then you can make your institutions nominally democratic but only already-wealthy people will be willing to take positions in them, which satisfies both the democrats and the oligarchs.
  • Publicly audit office-holders at the end of their terms in order to prevent theft of public funds.
  • Honor officials who develop a reputation for honesty in office.
  • Avoid “soak the rich” or redistribution policies, and don’t encourage showy expenditures on public goods by the wealthy. But arrange your laws in such a way that they do not facilitate the accumulation of great estates.
  • Especially discourage ill-treatment or injustice toward the poor by the rich.
  • To the extent that you have discretion, for the sake of improving the balance, give your attention and authority to those who are currently most excluded by your constitution. For instance, in an oligarchy, consult the people; in a democracy, consult the oligarchs. Similarly, your rhetoric should face in the opposite direction as your power base: as head of the oligarchy call yourself the champion of the common man; as head of the democracy vow to respect private property.
  • Ideally office-holders should have respect for the constitution, skill & experience, and those virtues and that notion of justice that is appropriate to the variety of constitution. But given that all of these qualities are rarely found in the same person, choose officials wisely and based on the requirements of the office. It may be that for some jobs, skill is so hard to come by that you must be willing to sacrifice some of your hopes for virtue or respect for the constitution in order to get a talented official.
  • Always remember that the health of the constitution depends on more people wanting to maintain it than to overthrow it. Avoid alienating any portion of the population, but instead try to bring everybody to the table. Beware of taking good-sounding principles to extremes: Either absolute democracy or absolute oligarchy will fall victim to its excesses.
  • Most importantly, educate the citizenry in the virtues necessary to the constitutional order. Make virtuous, lawful behavior the habitual norm through careful training. You must teach democratic citizens how to exercise their roles responsibly, and you must teach oligarchs theirs as well. Too often in an oligarchy, the sons of the rich lead idle, frivolous lives, and so it is the poor who become politically sophisticated and thereby revolutionary. Democracies also fail in this regard, and when they do so they confuse what is just and right with whatever whim the majority happens to will at any particular time.
Index to Aristotle’s Politics
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