Which Constitution Distributes Political Power Most Justly?

When people consider which political arrangements are best, they may mean: in which political arrangement is political power distributed most justly? In chapters ⅸ and ⅻof book Ⅲ of the Politics, Aristotle examines this criterion for judging constitutions.


To a dyed-in-the-wool democrat, justice in distributing power means to distribute it equally to all. To a believer in aristocracy or oligarchy (or “meritocracy” as its advocates are more likely to call it today), justice means distributing power to those who by some criteria or other are most deserving of it or most well-disposed to use it well. To a monarchist, what is just is to put the reins of power into the hands of the legitimate monarch, whose role in life is to be the shepherd of the state.

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” read the revised com­mand­ments of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary barn­yard in Animal Farm, and Aristotle ev­i­dent­ly con­curs. Justice means equality, he writes, but only among equal persons. Among unequal persons, inequality is more just.

The simplicity of equality-for-all is part of its attraction. For when you start to try to make distinctions and distribute political power to people in an unequal fashion, conflicts are bound to emerge. Distributing power to people according to their merit seems like a great idea if you are the one who gets to judge what counts as merit, but if that joker over there is doing the deciding, you’re likely to end up on the short end of the stick, and that’s no good at all.

Rich people are apt to overweigh “financial success” as a criterion of merit, and may wonder aloud if only people who pay sufficient taxes for the support of government ought to be allowed a voice in how the government is run. People whose views match those of the majority can think of plenty of reasons why it is just for the majority to rule. When the president is a Republican, Democrats wail about unchecked executive power; the flip-flops begin as soon as the office changes hands. I suppose if anyone seriously proposed distributing political power according to height, short sophists and tall sophists would appear on cue to give weighty reasons why it ought to be distributed one way or the other.

So we have to be careful in analyzing the arguments for how to distribute political power: they often get polluted by self-interest or partisanship in this way and end up having little to do with justice or with the project of forming the best sort of constitution.

Differing philosophies of what the state is for can underlie some of these disagreements too (though those philosophies may also differ from self-interested motives). Rich oligarchs may suggest that the whole point of forming a state is so that property-owners can band together to protect one another’s property and to facilitate and enforce agreements among one another; in this case, someone who contributes more to the common defense or who is put at greater risk from flaws in the common plan ought justly to have more authority in the arrangement.

But Aristotle says that there’s more to a state than this. Multiple states can form commercial and military treaties among themselves as well, but this doesn’t imply that they are forming a polis together.

A proper polis will also concern itself with the improvement of the citizenry as a whole, and so therefore with the promotion of virtue. A state that merely concerns itself with internal and external defense is an impoverished semi-polis.

Common rules of commerce, mutual defense pacts, intermarriage, common religious practices… any of these may be necessary, but together they remain insufficient to define a polis. “The state is an association intended to enable its members, in their households and the kinships, to live well; its purpose is a perfect and self-sufficient life.”

Besides, what is important is that the political power be held by the people who use it best, not necessarily those who have done the most to earn it. Otherwise, you would have something like an orchestra in which the best instruments were distributed amongst the patrons rather than the musicians.

For these reasons, says Aristotle, the criterion of merit we ought to choose when determining how to distribute political power is this: Those who contribute most to the association of people living together for the sake of noble action are entitled to a larger share of state authority. This is in theory independent of nobility of birth or of wealth (though both of those things may make it easier for someone to acquire and practice the virtues).

This is an important reason for the pathology of the current political system in the United States. The way we distribute political authority is in large part to give it to a small group of people who are distinguished from the rest of us by having won elections. But the virtues (if you can call them that) that permit one to win an election are not those that would help one to administer a government wisely or well or for the common good; quite the opposite. So we end up with a case like one of Aristotle’s reductiones ad absurdum: choosing the players in an orchestra by who is wealthiest or choosing your rulers by who wins a footrace.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics