Edmund Burke was a massively influential philosopher in conservative thought. While in many ways Burke was a progressive (such as his anti-imperialist views on India and Ireland), his more conservative beliefs in support of a ruling, landed elite still hold sway over some modern conservatives today. However, I propose that history has shown the failure of his ideas. Aristocratic states always become oligarchical, and I will hereby discuss why I think his beliefs are flawed, both in concept and in practice; additionally, I will discuss why both democracy and autocracy are generally superior systems, and how that has been shown historically.
First lets examine the failure of Burke’s support of the status quo, with the landed elites ruling the state. I will point to three examples: the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth, the Roman Republic, and Sparta, starting with the oldest of these.
Sparta was a de-facto oligarchy. 90% of the population were slaves, called Helots. Compared to slaves in the other ancient Greek city-states, Helots received extremely poor treatment. There existed few to no protections to ensure their safety, they were forced into grueling and unending labor, and they were even murdered as part of a process of training soldiers. The Spartans’ poor treatment of the Helots led to them constantly living in fear of a Helot rebellion. This made them reluctant to use these Helots for anything beyond manual labor, limiting their manpower when it came to arts, sciences, military, etc. While this did allow their aristocrats to spend their life training to become elite soldiers, it also made these soldiers incredibly difficult to replace. The Spartans’ inability to adapt prevented them from exploiting opportunity or evolving to deal with various threats, making their empire first weak, then decrepit, and then allowing the Romans to easily steamroll their force of merely 1000.
For these reasons, the other city-states of Greece despised Sparta. Even when they united with the Spartans to take down Athens, which had by this time become a tyrannical empire, poor relations and Sparta’s inability to adapt prevented them from capitalizing on this to increase their standing. Athens was able to quickly recover from their defeat in the Peloponnesian War and within several decades reclaimed their power in Greece. Phillip saw the weak and hated Sparta as an excellent scapegoat when conquering Greece, keeping them as a boogeyman to ensure the other city-states’ loyalty to him. By the time the Romans rolled around, Sparta was barely able to lift a finger to their armies and was crushed with minimal effort.
Next we get to the Romans. Initially, the Roman Republican system favored the elite, but small farmers were still the backbone. This strong middle class enabled Rome to conquer its neighbors, then defeat the other great Mediterranean powers, then become hegemon. However, the influx of slaves gave favor to the ultra-wealthy landowners who, contrary to Burke’s assumptions that the large landowners would protect the smaller ones, forced the small farmers off their lands. This left the middle class disenfranchised and unrepresented, allowing the elites to take over the empire through bribery and corruption. The majority of Roman citizens now lost their political representation, their land, their wealth, and became urban poor. Eventually, their discontent would fuel demagogues who became progressively more violent and radical, leading to a series of dictatorships and eventually the fall of the Republic. Contrary to Burke’s assumptions, the landed elite did not act in the best interest of the majority, but rather acted in their own interests at the majority’s expense. The majority became disenfranchised, poor, angry, and eventually, openly hostile. This led to the fall of the Republic and the rise of a more efficient autocracy.
While Democracy tends to represent the interests of the majority better than an Autocracy, the latter does come with some benefits over either Democracy, Aristocracy or Oligarchy. Aristocracy, meanwhile, makes great nations weak, unadaptable, corrupt, Oligarchical, and screws over the poor, working, and even the middle class. There have been benevolent dictatorships, but there has never been a benevolent oligarchy.
While both of the previous examples I mentioned showed how Oligarchy/Aristocracy is inferior to, and often corrupts democratic institutions, but now I will show how the same is true in relation to autocracy.
In the 15th,16th, and early 17th centuries, the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth was a great and powerful empire. However, by the 17th century the system began to falter. While the election of the monarch by the nobility had worked previously, ensuring that competent rulers were elected, by the 17th century the nobility became divided, bickering amongst itself. These petty conflicts of interest reduced the authority of the monarch, preventing the empire from being able to react to foreign threats. This peaked during the Deluge, and while the Russian and Swedish empires remained behind efficient and competent rulers, Poland-Lithuania continued to bicker amongst itself. Had a monarch been able to take a strong stance against this bickering nobility, they may have been able to overcome this bickering, unite the empire, and fight back these threats. But the unwillingness of the nobles to give up their power and adapt led the commonwealth to ruin.
People tend to act in their own best interests, that’s a simple and objective fact. While exceptions do exist, they are the minority. This is true independent of a person’s class, race, education, or birth. In a Democracy, the majority vote in their best interest, and thus the state acts in the best interest of the majority. In an Autocracy, the ruler can chose to get his power either from the elite or the people. According to Machiavelli, rulers are better off siding with the people, and this has generally been proven to be true. While an autocrat may become a puppet of the oligarchs, there is at least a good chance that he will act in the interest of the majority to retain his power. In an Aristocracy or Oligarchy, the elite will act in their own best interest. It is not typically in their interest to act in that of the commons. While some will become entrepreneurs, this charity seldom addresses the underlying factors which plague the lower, middle, and working classes. Their unwillingness to abandon the status quo which retains their power leaves the state which they control unable to adapt, eventually leading to its decay, then demise. Tyranny of the Majority is a credible concern, but Tyranny of the Minority is arguably worse. Socrates recognized this, hence why he didn’t endorse democracy, but also did not endorse oligarchy. Aristotle recognized this, hence why he thought that even a corrupt democracy was better than an Aristocracy. Machiavelli recognized this, hence why he supported a republic and advised monarchs to draw power from, and act in the interests of, their people, not their nobility.