You probably heard about a recent study that the media interpreted as showing evidence that the United States is sort of an oligarchy.

Cue ominous music.

The authors of the study in question didn't use the word oligarchy because the study doesn't support that conclusion. But the media sounded the oligarchy sirens anyway because that's how one creates news where there is none.

MSNBC, a skilled manufacturer of artificial news, led with this headline: "U.S. more oligarchy than democracy, study suggests."

The first bit of context that MSNBC and others in the news removed from the story is that the United States isn't, and never was, a democracy. The founders of the country created a republic that is designed to be more like an oligarchy than a democracy. The founders surely assumed that rich, educated landowners would be the ones getting elected, for the most part, and they preferred that. A poor(ish) person could get elected but the odds were low.

So the headline could have been "Study shows that the U.S. government is working exactly as the founders hoped."

The next bit of context omitted from the story is the compared-to-what. Has anyone studied how well off the poor and middle class are under our current system compared to how they would be under a pure democracy? How would we know if the alternative is better or worse? No modern country has ever tried a pure democracy.

Clearly the wealthy have more clout in creating legislation and so they tilt laws in their favor. But are those oligarchy-favoring laws 2% of the total laws on the books or 98%? And if the answer is 2%, are those few laws the ones that matter the most in some way? And how much better or worse would the country be if we were less of an oligarchy/republic and more of a pure democracy with laws created by folks who, on average, had trouble getting through high school?

I'm not defending oligarchies, or even republics. I just want some data that is useful for forming an opinion. But all I get is the news media saying rainfall is bad for your hair while ignoring the context that we're in a drought.

In a perfect world, the most well-informed and intelligent among us would be leading the government and creating unselfish legislation. But human nature makes that option literally impossible. So why compare our current government to one that is impossible? We might as well compare our government to the system at Hogwarts in which the best wizard is in charge. That's just as impossible as a fair government run by elites.

As citizens, our only protection from the abuse of government power is the skill and objectivity of the watchdog press. How's that working out so far?

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree

I'm one step closer to getting my much deserved Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +102
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 27, 2014
" Obviously rich people work directly in the creation of laws and legislation so they tilted in their favor . , But is the natural law oligarchy - law 2% or 98 % of the book ? and if the answer is 2 % , some laws are the most important people in a certain way ? and how better or worse if our country will be less of an oligarchy / republic and more of a pure democracy the law was created by people who , on average , had difficulty through high school ?

I'm not protecting oligarchies , or even republics . I just want some data that is useful to form an opinion . But all I get is the media saying that rainfall is bad for your hair while ignoring the context we are in a drought.

In a perfect world , full of information and most intelligent among us will lead the government to create law and not selfish . But human nature makes that option means impossible. So why governments compare our current one that is not ? We can also compare our government system at Hogwarts , in which the best guides are in charge . It is just as impossible as a fair government by elites . "
the rich and powerful , they create legal and beneficial to them , I agree with this point of governance , it khoogn good for the common people , but it was inevitable that power , they may be more the so-called power after that .
<a href="http://www.hopy1.com">hopy</a>
Apr 23, 2014
If it helps. I can give the perception from the other side of the Atlantic on this one.
Accurately or not, the US has, for at least the last couple of decades, appeared a bit of an Oligarchy to Western Europe for the following reasons:
- Your rich-poor divide is pretty much the largest of the developed world which is baffling as you're still the richest country up there.
- The level of required political donations to run for any government post is simply unthinkable here. In Europe, people for varied origins (even sometimes farmers or postmen for example) can run for office.
- Only two parties ever elected into anything. That leaves only as choices the party that should represent your views but does a poor job of it versus the party you actively hate. Other democracies typically have half a dozen parties of medium size which means that no matter your left-right position, you have more than one pick and forces major ones to actually try working for those votes. Also means you get coalitions that have to compromise to run the country.
- The NSA. One step closer to making George Orwell's vision a reality. (although the UK does have the same problem with GCHQ)
- The US is very often the source of most business friendly but democratically questionable international initiatives or tendencies such as heavy handed anti piracy laws and abolition of net neutrality (which were thankfully both rejected by the EU) and Irak (also known in France as Jacque Chirac's one good decision).

Please note this is a perception and not necessarily accurate but it does sum up why this study does not surprise us much.
Apr 22, 2014
"The first bit of context that MSNBC and others in the news removed from the story is that the United States isn't, and never was, a democracy. The founders of the country created a republic that is designed to be more like an oligarchy than a democracy. The founders surely assumed that rich, educated landowners would be the ones getting elected, for the most part, and they preferred that. A poor(ish) person could get elected but the odds were low."

Generalizations like this aren't accurate or helpful. What is meant is that some of the founders wanted more of an oligarchy than a democracy. But this wasn't true for all of the founders. The issue of democracy was at the heart of the American Revolution. It was a large part of what divided Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Because of the fight for democracy, democratic rights were overtly stated in the Bill of Rights.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 22, 2014

I'm of two minds on this. On one hand (side of the brain?), I want someone running the country that is way smarter than I am. On the other, I don't trust them to do what's in my best interest.

If we had a true democracy, which is just now possible - everyone in the country could have one vote on every single issue through the internet voting, I don't trust that is a smart way to function. Can you imagine the advertising manipulation, let alone the waffling back and forth due to lack of attention span, apathy and mood? It would just turn into proxy voting with 535 people with 300 million proxies.

We need 'A Few' running the country.

I just don't have an answer how to get the right Few to agree to do it.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 22, 2014
No government has stood the test of time. It is in our nature to adapt and survive. The sad part is, we could adapt and change our government by its very nature, but like you said, it's literally impossible due to the very nature of ourselves.

That is why I am trying to conquer my own island nation (just one island) with a population of just me, a BBQ and the occasional mermaid that washes up on shore.
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 21, 2014
A problem in the US is that one party is a tool of the oligarchy and when an issue blows up that could have been prevented by better regulation such as the 2008 mortgage meltdown the oligarchy party gets pushed out of office then we end up with one party rule. Ironically Texas has some of the lowest defaults on mortgages because it had better laws setup from the savings/loan disaster in the 80s.

I suspect a large percentage of driven/wealthy individuals are the type of people who are addicted to money which means no amount of money is ever enough for these people. Theses addicts push for laws that help themselves regardless of what it does to other people (think Koch brothers and any kind of carbon tax/fee).
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 21, 2014
Research shows that the U.S. government is working exactly as the founders hoped. The number difference of 2% and 98% could evoke our thoughts. <a href="http://www.friv4go.com">friv 4</a>
Apr 21, 2014
Phantom II:

When governments seem to cede anything to "the people", it's usually a brokered deal where "the people" will probably end up worse off than before. The big kids have a way of getting and keeping all the marbles.

I doubt that simply hacking down the federal government would work any better than, say, taking cops out of big cities to prevent police brutality. You'd just get brutalized by private sector goons.

"Economic fascism," when it comes, will not be the result of federal tyranny but of a lapdog government codifying whatever the biggest corporations want. What they generally want is to close down any threat of serious competition, any regulation of products or practices, and any responsibility for the consequences. And if there's a way to channel taxpayer money to their pockets, that too. Best of all, there won't even be the illusion of concern for the nation, its people or its future.

But there might be a law requiring you to wear a flag pin.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 21, 2014
"As citizens, our only protection from the abuse of government power is the skill and objectivity of the watchdog press. "

Sadly, that is an endorsement for election of Republicans. ABCNNBCBS plus the Times and the Post will enthusiastically and aggressively serve as watchdogs of Republican government. Unfortunately they will not do the same for Democrats in power. In neither case are they objective, but if we want them to be watchdogs we need Republicans in power. And that's a shame.
Apr 21, 2014
Part of your post is right on. Part of it is way off the mark.

We are a republic, but we're not the one the founders intended. Minor civics lesson follows.

The United States was founded as a federal republic. That meant that those who lived here legally were actually citizens of two !$%*!$%*! the state in which they reside, and the federation of those states called, not so cleverly I guess, the United States of America.

The states were allowed to organize their governments and pass laws in just about any way they deemed prudent. The founders, after the Declaration of Independence and the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary war, then wrote a document called the Constitution. The purpose of this document was to specifically deliniate what powers the states were giving to the federal government, as well as to assure the states that all powers not specifically given to the federal government would be reserved to the states and to the people.

The states did not trust the government to live by those rules, amazingly enough. So ratification of the Constitution became contingent upon the federal government's agreement to add amendments specifically limiting certain aspects of the federal government's ability to pass laws that would affect the states. Imagine not trusting the federal government! Golly!

So twelve amendments were proposed, and ten were ultimately adopted. We call these the Bill of Rights. Some founders argued against the need, saying that since the federal government's only powers under the Constitution were strictly deliniated, and since the federal government legally couldn't do anything more, there was really no need. But the states insisted, luckily, and now we have those guarantees. Supposedly.

Not to get too far down in the weeds, but two things changed all that: the first being the Marbury vs. Madison decision, while the second was the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

Marbury vs. Madison effectively granted the US Supreme Court a power it was not granted under the Constitution - that is, to determine the constitutionality of federal laws and actions. Decisions the court then made in applying the Constitution to state laws following the adoption of the 14th Amendment allowed the federal government to override state law by calling them unconstitutional. Far different from what the founders envisioned.

Which brings us to the oligarchy question. When people think of an oligarchy, they usually think of a plutocracy (rule by the rich). Oligarchy is really defined as rule by a few individuals, regardless of what ties them together. I don't know if that fits our current governmental structure, but I suppose a case could be made for it.

What we are really moving toward, IMHO, is economic fascism. Fascism, as an economic system, is described best by saying it involves central governmental planning while allowing individual ownership of production. This is as opposed to economic socialism, where the government both plans and owns the means of production.

There is much evidence for that. Take the Obama administration's energy policy. It gives taxpayer money to chosen "green" business !$%*!$%* (which often then go bankrupt), while regulating the crap out of non-green energy producers such as the coal industry.

Or take the medical insurance industry. Obamacare has mandated what individuals' insurance policies must contain, regardless of any need. Why, for example, must a 55-year-old woman's insurance policy include birth control? This raises the cost of policies; the Obama administration's solution is to subsidize those policies by making other people pay for them. Either the taxpayer in general, or the individual policy holders who aren't getting subsidies, are having their wealth transferred to other citizens.

The root problem is that the federal government is too large, has too much power, and spends way too much money. The latest CBO estimates, even using unreal tax revenue predictions, say that by 2024 the federal debt will be somewhere around $26 trillion. The interest on the debt, assuming interest rates rise, will consume roughly all the tax revenues taken in by the government. Everything else the government spends will have to be borrowed.

If that doesn't worry you, it should. Who cares what form of government the academics say we have, when we're bankrupt?
Apr 21, 2014
The debate about whether the US is a "democracy" or a "republic" is an old, and (like most semantic arguments) fruitless one. Even the founders couldn't agree on the precise terminology.


It's also a distraction from the main issue -- which, pretty obviously, is whether government is adequately representing the will of the voting public. Definitions allow you to argue endlessly while sidestepping the real issue.
Apr 21, 2014
There is no such thing as a "fair government" regardless of how it is set up or who is in charge of it. Government cannot possibly be fair, as it represents a monopoly on the use of violence. The only "fair" system would be to have no government at all, and to allow disputes to be settled by voluntary transactions rather than the blunt use of force.
Apr 21, 2014
In the end, there's a pretty simple test.

1. Where does your food come from? Do you have choices? Do you feel free to produce it yourself or trade with your neighbors for it?
2. Where does your shelter come from? Do you have choices? Do you feel free to produce it yourself or trade with your neighbors for it?
3. Where does your medical care come from? Do you have choices? Do you feel free to produce it yourself or trade with your neighbors for it?

Food, Shelter, Clothing, Medicine, Energy, Transportation, Communication, Education. If your government has too much say in how too many of your basic needs are met... you're probably not very free. I realize that's a pretty soft statement, but I'm not qualified to draw a clear line in the sand.
Apr 21, 2014
Since the smarter/stronger/greedier are going to rise to the top of any system, perhaps the best is one where the wealth and security of the oligarchs is clearly tied to the wealth and security of everybody else. And the government is positioned to enforce that connection (patriotism and ethics aren't nearly enough).

A fat and happy middle class enriches the top levels with its consuming habits while insulating against revolution; lower classes that are small in number and possess non-abstract liberties (being able to afford food, shelter, and freedom of action) are more likely to leave the street riots to momentarily dissatisfied students.

Most importantly, there has to be real and heavy cross-class mobility. Not just to keep the lower classes optimistic, but to replenish the oligarchy with actual talent.

Right now we've got a lot of point-one-percenters and their front men who are almost openly advocating a return to the historic model of a few lords over a world of serfs. Many hold their rank only because of the deployment of money and power mostly accrued by their predecessors. They require increasing distortions of law, social order and even religion, plus the suppression or co-opting of any innovation, to preserve their status quo.

Presently we have a parade of idiot heirs, beancounters and swindlers gutting American industry and the entire economy to wring short-term cash out of the system. They come perilously close to describing themselves as a master race, claiming to have earned everything by superior gifts and even divine grace; and in the next breath are crying that any taxation or regulation will crush them like frozen flowers. And they must not be crushed, because they are special. Better to let other Americans take the fall.

The grimly comic part is that they expect the shrinking middle class and ever more desperate lower class to happily agree and assent, or at least obligingly buy whatever wobbly and inconsistent cover story is out there. The ludicrous failure of the GOP in 2012, despite untold (literally) millions and an unpopular incumbent, is pretty good evidence for new oligarchs.
Apr 21, 2014
We tried democracy in the UK but historic class divisions keep getting in the way. If you are a member of the elite, you make rules to make sure you stay there. These rules may be subtle (stay in the group you were born in) or legal (it is illegal to behave in a way that those in power consider to be illegal).
Apr 21, 2014
You forgot to add your lead in about the blog being written for a certain audience and mismatching your message to another audience. So now when someone sends out crazy alerts that you prefer that baby killing sociopaths run the country and that the free press should be shuttered or at least censored you'll have nothing to refute the claims.
Apr 21, 2014
Considering how much our new corporations depend on the shady people in government and those who are purchasing the services of those shady elected officials, we'll never get a watchdog press.

Who pays for CNN's, MSNBC, Foxnews, and the four networks to stay on the air? The same companies that are paying for their puppet politicians to get elected.

You know what an interesting constitutional amendment would be: if your company or non-profit donates to a campaign do sends money to a company non-profit that does, you can't buy advertizing in the press. If you buy advertizing in the press, you can't have any money that winds up in someone's campaign coffers.

That means you can either buy off the politicians or buy off the news, but you can't buy off both.
Apr 21, 2014
Personally, I would prefer an oligarchy. At least then I would know the rules. And the business world has amply demonstrated that it is much less wasteful than government (or rather, government has amply demonstrated the opposite).

This is why I chuckle when I hear people foaming at the mouth about how the corporations run the country. I wish! If corporations really ran the country, we would do away with so much of the nonsense that we have now. Cable television is a much more peaceful and profitable attack plan than the military. And insane programs like the ethanol subsidies would be killed.

(What really cracks me up are statements like, "Corporations don't have your best interest in mind." So what? Even if you think the government does, it is so inept at supporting your best interests that you would be better off if they didn't know about you at all. And don't forget, if they have your best interests in mind, they also have to have everyone else's, as well; any one of which might conflict with yours. How else do you think we ended up with a 70,000-page tax code?)
Apr 21, 2014
There are in fact two watchdog presses. One that plays watchdog against conservative-leaning politicians and issues, and another that plays watchdog against liberal-leaning politicians and issues. Naturally, both of them do everything they can to perpetuate the idea that the other is not credible. Therein lies the fatal flaw. Even if you believe one side to be non-credible, you should still pay attention to what they are saying, because not only does it put the news from the credible source in greater context, but there's always the possibility that you may find yourself changing your mind on which source is credible and which is not.
Apr 21, 2014
... and perhaps a majority of the younger generation thinks The Daily Show is hard news. So much for the media limiting government. In a pure democracy, we would either be lead off the cliff by the sheep, or follow the advice of non-government leaders that seem to share our concerns and interests, since we would not have time or mental bandwidth to follow everything going on in government and also earn a living. ...which leads to a representative republic model, by golly.

Scott, I assert that we can make government work better by automating the actual functions and first level decision making of government. If all laws and regulations were uniformly and dispassionately enforced by the machines, this would produce huge selection pressure in favor of reducing the number of laws and regulations to a number that could fit into most people's heads. At least, it would help us get rid of obsolete buggy whip and spit on the sidewalk laws that are now just weapons of the powerful to ensnare and bankrupt people they don't like.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog