In chapters ⅷ –ⅸ and ⅺ–ⅻ of book Ⅳ of the Politics, Aristotle discusses the form of constitution he calls “polity,” which he’s mentioned in passing several times before, hinting that it’s might be the practically best (although an aristocracy of the virtuous may be the ideally best).
The Trouble with Oligarchies
Oligarchies, aristocracies, and democracies are similar in that they make decisions by majority rule (subject to legal/constitutional limits). They differ in how they answer the question: a majority of whom? In oligarchies it’s a majority of the rich, in aristocracies of the virtuous (or perhaps wealth and good birth as a proxy for this in pseudoaristocracies), in democracy it is a majority of the free-born.
The advantages of putting more power in the hands of the rich, as oligarchies do, include 1) that the rich tend to be better educated and to come from better families, and 2) they are less inclined to lives of crime as they already have the sorts of goods people commit crimes in order to obtain.
But wealth is an unreliable predictor of virtue. If your oligarchy comes under the control of unvirtuous people, it will not create good laws, and those laws which are good will be disregarded, and this will create a downward spiral as more unvirtuous people will be attracted to positions of political authority in a state which is corrupt.
“Government by good laws” requires both that people live within the limits of the laws, and that the laws are good ones. It’s possible to be obedient to bad laws, but that’s of little benefit. “Obedience may be given either to the best laws available to them in the circumstances, or to the absolutely best,” Aristotle says, but then abruptly drops the subject before telling us what obedience to a “higher law” might entail.
When there’s a good overlap between the virtuous and the wealthy, an oligarchy with some democratic trappings makes for a good, aristocratic government. When there isn’t much such overlap, a democracy with some oligarchic trappings curbs the corruption and overreach of the oligarchs, and makes for a tolerable constitution.
Polity Is a Mix of Oligarchy and Democracy
Polity, says Aristotle, is such a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, one that puts more weight on the democratic side.
In some ways a polity is at sort of a midpoint between an oligarchy and a democracy, and so you can distinguish one (or nudge a state in the direction of one) by policies that lie half-way between those typical of oligarchies or democracies. For example, if in an oligarchy the rich are fined for failure to serve jury duty, and in a democracy the poor are paid for attending jury duty, perhaps a middle ground in a polity would be to do both or neither.
A well-mixed polity of this sort can be described as either a democracy or as an oligarchy depending on how you look at it. Aristotle says that the Spartan constitution is of this sort: it has democratic features in that there isn’t a lot of distinction between the rich and poor (they get the same education, wear similar clothes, eat at the same tables); but there are some oligarchic features too (the powerful Board of Elders, exclusively peopled by oligarchs). “A constitution which is a really well-made combination of oligarchy and democracy,” Aristotle says, “ought to look like both and like neither.”
Such a constitution is not kept stable by majority opinion, he says, but only when there is a consensus of each “section… of the state” that such a constitution is the best to be had.
A polity is the best candidate for a one-size-fits-all constitution. It may not be the best possible constitution, or the best in all circumstances, but it’s the one that’s most likely to succeed most of the time.
Polity Is Dominated by the Middle Class
A polity empowers neither the poor (who are prone to petty crime and wickedness) nor the wealthy (who are prone to grandiose crime, greed, and arrogance), but the ordinary middle class. This is advantageous for many reasons.
The middle-class find positions of authority to be neither beneath their dignity and to be avoided nor as sinecures to be sought out (and so are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities well). The arrogance of the wealthy also makes them less likely to stay within legal limits, while on the other hand the poor can be slavish and fail to show good leadership; these things also point to the advantage of a dominant role for the middle class. The leadership of the wealthy can resemble the dominance of a master over slaves, which leads to resentment and envy among the citizenry; the leadership of the middle class, on the other hand, more resembles a partnership among equals. Some of the best lawgivers have come from the middle-class (Solon, Lycurgus, Charondas).
In short, a state is in good hands if it has a large middle class and gives that class exceptional political power. Such a state is also more stable, and less likely to collapse into tyranny than are democracies and oligarchies. It also is less prone to factionalism and intrigue.
When economic inequality becomes great, such a state is hard to maintain, and either the rich or poor take control, leading to the corruption and decay and instability of oligarchy or democracy. Because great economic inequality is the norm (in Aristotle’s day), polity is unfortunately rare. The poor and rich, rather than settling on a middle-constitution they could both tolerate, tend to fight for all-or-nothing dominance and prefer defeat to compromise.