Monday, July 19, 2004
Monday, July 19, 2004"The oldest and most fatal ailment of republics is the gap between rich and poor." - Plutarch
Since Aristotle, it has been a truism in political theory that a large and prosperous middle class is essential to a stable democratic regime. This is because they balance out the conflicts between rich and poor and generally have moderate attitudes, lacking the arrogance of the former and the envy of the latter. Without them, politics degenerates into class wars (with guns, not insults), and you end up with either a tyranny or an oligarchy.
But what do we really mean by middle class? Classical and early modern theorists assumed that a middle class would be composed of yeoman farmers. These freeholders would have the leisure time to participate in public life, and would not be materially dependent on wealthy elites. There were also purported to have special democratic virtues because of their lifestyle.
The definition of middle class is now obviously quite different. It has been reformulated as a measure of income (are you above the poverty line?) or prestige of your profession (although this division is usually split between working and middle class). The argument that you need a nation of small farmers has been dead since the industrial revolution. The new middle class is composed of white-collar professionals and blue-collar skilled labor.
This change in meaning has important consequences, however. What is different is the economic dependence of this new middle class on big corporate institutions. To get back some of independence have formed professional associations and unions. I would argue that this middle class also includes independent proprietors (mom and pop shops and the self-employed) who resemble the old yeomanry in most important respects.
So the equation goes as follows: to have a stable democracy, you need a prosperous middle class. Which means that you need either a lot of independent small businesses (NOT franchises), or strong unions.