Oligarchy is a power structure where a small group of people, often a family, is given governmental control. This group typically has several distinguishing characteristics among them, including their wealth, political, religious, or military ties, or nobility. Oligarchies in which a family rules results in power being passed down from generation to generation.
While oligarchies have a reputation for being tyrannical and oppressive, many governments around the world use some form of oligarchy successfully. This includes appointing representatives to determine national policy, which can be seen in the United States. Oligarchy becomes tyrannical and/or oppressive when there is a limitation in the separation of powers and when the rule of law is violated.
Oligarchy, like other forms of government, has its pros and cons. Oligarchies consolidate power with those who have the expertise, especially those in familial oligarchies, because family members are raised and conditioned to take over specific positions within the government. When working correctly, oligarchies reduce societal pressures by tackling societal issues absent from the worry or involvement of the people. Additionally, its primary goal is to maintain the status quo, and therefore, nations do not have to worry about reckless or risky decision making by a single leader. Lastly, an oligarchy realizes and allows highly qualified people to join the ruling group and be in charge.
Unfortunately, oligarchies can encourage income inequality and can disrupt the economy. Wealth is, unfortunately, funneled towards rulers instead of those in the working class. Additionally, an oligarchy can inhibit growth over time due to only a few new perspectives entering the ruling class. Lastly, an oligarchy can create puppet leaders – weak leaders who consolidate their power to stay in charge.
Several nations still use oligarchy in their governments, including:
- Saudi Arabia
- South Africa
- North Korea
- United States
One of the most well-known oligarchies is Russia. An oligarchy has ruled Russia since the 1400s. Those who are wealthy in Russia have to maintain contacts within the government or lose their power. The U.S. Treasury released a list of Russian oligarchs, naming 200 total, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Roman Abramovich, owner of the Chelsea Football Club and the Millhouse investment company.
Whether or not the United States is considered an oligarchy is split. Americans enjoy many features of a democratic government, such as elections and freedom of speech; however, it is believed that powerful corporations and affluent individuals have a significantly larger influence on policymaking than ordinary citizens. While the United States is a democracy, many economists and researchers believe it is one is at least heading in the direction of one.