Aristotle, Madison, Dahl (long)

Michael Hoover hoov at
Fri Mar 31 21:42:40 PST 2000

Middle Class ... Middle Strata ... Middle Rank. These terms, despite their imprecise and contested definitions, identify a social group occupying space between rich and poor. Certain political thinkers have believed that a "middling condition" can serve as a balance between the two, sustaining order and stability in the process.

Aristotle, James Madison, and Robert Dahl each construct "middle element" political models where what is best is that which is practical. And, that which is practical arises from a notion of equilibrium. Aristotle's "polity," "Madison's "repub1ic" and Dahl's "polyarchy" are attempts to balance oligarchical and majoritarian principles. In each instance, mixed, representative goverment becomes the mechanism through which this balance might be achieved.

Private property looms large in "middle element" theories. The idea of property as an enforceable claim made by a person to some use or benefit of something is made substantive when the state creates and enforces exclusive rights to private property. Thus, property as an individual right, becomes an individual's share in political power. The result is "thin" democracy: limited participation, narrow political discourse, and social inequality.

The Greek society of Aristotle's day was a civilization founded on slavery and dedicated to misogyny. Only a teleological functionalism, in which each end is predetermined and destined to fulfill its essence, could have sustained his inflexibility about the "nature of things." Aristotle's thought is characterized by a belief in the "golden mean" -- moderation between the extremes of "excess" and "deficiency." Only by reducing some to an inferior status, whereby they are incapable of governing themselves, could he have justified the exclusionary politics that he advocated.

According to Aristotle, a political state should be composed of "freemen" of equal status and similar condition. United by friendship and fellowship, citizens would pursue the common good in seeking to secure conditions that make happiness possible. Because large states would be too impersonal to give rise to such feelings, Aristotle took as a model of political association the institutions of the Greek city-state. This small-republic theory of government presumes the proper end of political life to be 'human development' through participation in public affairs.

Aristotle posited a governmental arrangement that could check and balance differing class interests in society. He believed that social stability is endangered when either an "inequality of goods" or an "equality of honors" exists. Opposing both rule by an impoverished mass and that of a wealthy few, Aristotle sought to "fix a proper medium". Where the middle class outweighed both the upper and lower, a "polity" could be "permanently established".

The Aristotlean dialectic works itself out through convergence towards the mean. Virtue is thought to consist of a "certain medium" and the greatest happiness is believed to be manifest when citizens enjoy a "moderate fortune". Neither the rich nor the poor could submit to the rule of the other because of "their hatred to each other". Thus, Aristotle argued that power must be accompanied by goodness before it can be legitimate. Proper rule must be "middle element" rule.

The early America of James Madison's day was contradictory. Property was a liberating and democratizing force for a landowning and relatively self- sufficient white male population. Such was not the case for African slaves, women (few had gained right to vote in late colonial era via inheriting property, principally through widowhood, but all were disenfranchised 20 years after constitutiona was written), indigenous peoples, non-propertied whites (except in Pennsylvania). Despite these circumstances, some perceived an absence of class divisions and a culture of localism contributing to self-governing communities, what Jefferson called "small republics" where each citizen could become active in public affairs.

Madison's structuralist theory of government can be traced to Aristotle by way of Montesquieu in which an appropriate constitution with separation of powers is a prominent feature. Madison appropriates both Aristotle and Montesquieu in defining tyranny as the "accumulation of all powers" (the latter) in the "same hands" (the former). However, he turns classical republicanism on its head by arguing against small-republic government.

Madison rejects desire to eliminate "factions" through social homogeneity and moral consensus. Conflict is inevitable and the best that can be expected is some degree of balance between differing interests. Reminiscent of Aristotle, Madison tells us that the crucial social split is between "those who hold and those who are without property." He then proceeds to make a case in favor of representative government and a large-republic. In Madison's view, limiting popular participation and dividing authority geographically will impede majority attempts to redistribute property inequalities.

Contra the classical republicans, Madison does not suggest that the business of politics is to cultivate human faculties. Rather, government should function to protect private rights and interests. Madison's characterization of human motivation is Hobbesian and his use of human reasoning capacity is instrumentalist. His is a class conflict orientation to politics. The central problem was how to contain this struggle. The primary focus was on limiting the potential power of the unpropertied masses.

Madison's contributions to the *Federalist Papers* argue for a strong central government. As such, he moves close to a Hamiltonian elitism that is not consistently reflected in the body of his writings. He would later regard the "class of citizens" between the two extremes to be the "best basis of public liberty" and the "strongest bulwark of public safety." And, he would come to favor lessening inequality through legislation that reduced "extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity" and raised "extreme indigence towards a state of comfort."

The liberal democracy of Robert Dahl was predicated on the political passivity of a majority of the population. Much mainstream political science in the United States has attempted to justify this condition by appealing to the "trickle-down" benefits of economic growth and/or to the data compiled by behavioral empiricists about the political apathy of the masses. In fact, it has been suggested by some that survival of democracy d epends upon the leadership of an "enlightened elite and a politically quiescent many." Democracy is reduced to a market equilibrium system and citizenship is replaced by consumer utility behavior.

Dahl's theory of "polyarchy" recognizes that disproportionate influence is exercised by individuals who use "their resources for political purposes." In addition, he downplays Madison's fear of the "unpropertied masses" by suggesting that they disenfranchise themselves. Interestingly, Dahl discounts majoritarianism and posits, instead, rule by multiple minorities. More importantly, he redefines the meaning of democracy in procedural terms.

According to Dahl, a "consensus" exists among the minority who are most politically active. Elections take place within this prior consensus. In effect, power flows from an oligarchy to which the majority "consents" either through their vote or by their inaction. At best, the political role of most people consists of having an indirect say in public decisions. The result is a political system that is relatively efficient at "encouraging moderation."

Dahl emphasizes political competition. He suggests that this competition will bring out other elements of liberalism such as respect for individual rights of person and property. These other components are important because they extend to the "middle element" of the population - that is excluded from competition in the political arena. This theory, associated with late industrial capitalist society, presumes that a moderately well- off "middle-element" will be neither so envious nor so dissatisfied to overthrow constituted authority. The later Dahl would propose some measure of redistribution of wealth and income as a means of sustaining this middle element.

Michael Hoover (in a rare violation of my e-list rule of thumb: 2 screens and I'm out)

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