There is always an oligarchy, whether or not it is explicit. Where there is no recognized aristocracy – where, i.e., there is a liberal political order – oligarchic society inevitably devolves sooner or later to anarcho-tyranny.
Liberalism is founded upon two fundamental principles: Equality and Liberty. The former implies the latter. If all men are equal, then no man is suited either by nature or historical happenstance, nor therefore is he legitimately entitled, to exercise authoritative sway over his fellows, so as at all to constrain their liberty. If all men are equal simpliciter, then all men are free equally and perfectly, and none may rightly rule.
But of course, Liberty and Equality are contradictory. You can’t have both. The only way to let men be free is to let them be unequal. The only way to make men equal then is to eliminate their liberty, so as to make them all the same. To make all men equally free – which is to say, equally powerful – is to institute anarchy; and the only way to do it is by tyranny. Thus, our current state: anarcho-tyranny.
Of the two Liberal ideals, Equality is the weaker. Men are certainly equal qua men, so that all are governed and protected by the same Natural Law of Man, and any just polity will apply the same basic law to all men. But no concrete actual is equal to any other (equality can be achieved only through identity). There is then no such thing as concrete equality. It is a contradiction in terms. So hierarchy is natural; is the only possible way to order things in congruence with reality.
In an aristocratic hierarchy, not all the same laws will apply to all men. Only the basic laws will apply to all men. The upper classes will have to obey *more* laws than the lower, and they will labor under heavier social duties. The nobler your class, the greater your powers, and the greater therefore your responsibilities; for, with any power comes the duty to use it aright. The more then are the powerful constrained by law and duty. The nobler a man, the more is he called to comprehension of all things, and a meet adeqation thereto – to nobility and righteousness withal. Only thus can he be fit to rule, or up to the job.
Locke is certainly right that government can be deemed legitimate only insofar as it enjoys the consent of the governed. A people who hate their oligarchs – whose oligarchs have failed in their rule – will somehow get themselves new oligarchs. A sovereign who has lost the support of his people has lost the Mandate of Heaven. He has to go.
[Excursus: This is just how kings used to understand their office, back in the ancient day. If things were for whatever reason going disastrously badly for his people, the king’s duty was in the last resort to sacrifice his own life to the gods for their sake, in one act both offering up their most excellent victim and opening social room for some replacement. The king’s death forced a paradigm shift for the whole social order, reordering it and so increasing its chances of meeting its predicaments. The custom under which the king led the van in battle was an instance of that royal sacrifice. So writ small was the king’s largesse, scattering bread or gold in his train, endowing churches and monasteries, sponsoring festivals and tournaments, and so forth.
The royal sacrifice is the apotheosis of noblesse oblige. It was expected of all noblemen, each in and for his domain.]
NB nevertheless that it is not the consent of the people that determines the legitimacy of the government, but vice versa. The people feel as they do about the government on account of the facts on the ground, and it is those facts that tell whether government is legitimate. The feelings of the people about those facts are, not a cause of the government’s legitimacy, but one of its effects, and thus no more than an index of legitimacy. A people can sooner or later tell when they are well governed, and when they are not. It is rare that a people feel their government ill when it is well. It is foolish to ignore those feelings. But it is the reality to which those feelings are a response that determines the legitimacy of government.
Government is legitimate that is in fact succeeding at governing, that is governing well and toward the good. And government can thus succeed only insofar as it is itself virtuous – knowledgeable, intelligent, foresightful, prudent, sagacious, righteous, courageous, energetic, truthful, and so forth – or else, exceedingly lucky. But even luck favors the wise and the righteous, mutatis mutandis, for diligence is the mother of luck; and there is ever a tide in worldly affairs, a flux and vector in the Tao, so that absurd good fortune is not ever wholly devoid of meaning, is not merely adventitious even when it favors the foolish, the young, the imprudent.
Fortune sometimes picks out a man for nobility from among hoi polloi; she has ever her reasons, however obscure to us; or else, the world is just insane.
The virtues deeply and obviously mark the canny courageous man who is competent to lead his fellows, who sees usually farther, thinks more quickly and more carefully than they. Such men have authority among men, who can recognize it, and who, seeing it, find the virtues in their own parts calling out to them, to make themselves his. This is easily seen in any small group of men seeking a common objective, in war, business, the hunt, sport, or the arts and crafts: in any such group, one emerges organically and without conscious effort as leader, and two or three others as his natural lieutenants and successors. Then all defer to that leader and to his lieutenants, and in groups of healthy minded men, none ever chafe thereat. On the contrary, they all admire the leader, and emulate him. It is a great privilege to follow a good captain.
But this admiration and emulation can happen only in response to men who are in fact admirable, and worthy; who are more excellent than their fellows in a whole suite of important virtues. Else, there is resentment, and turmoil, as at a clueless boss or wrong-headed President.
Almost all men who have spent any very appreciable time in a group of men have seen this dynamic at work.
[Excursus: one of the greatest happinesses a man can enjoy is to find himself boon companion in a company of fell and excellent leaders, any of whom all the others would gladly follow (“Who wants to be Head Boatman this trip? Terry, will you? OK, good.”). There is a repose and pleasure in that mutual admiration and loyalty and trust that is hardly to be equaled. It is the apotheosis of manhood; is the achievement of manhood.
The serene joy of this mutual and happy subjection and joint leadership, one for all and all for one, a communion of mind (I have signaled intelligibly to my brothers in arms over a distance of half a mile on either side with no more than a slight tilt of the head – all then pulled their boats as one to the same spot on the shore) is the ideal and aim of the human urge to Equality. That Equality cannot be mandated or legislated or administered. It is not a fruit of any possible policy. It can be achieved only among men who have all been tested together in action, and found their fellows all equal to the challenges of adversity and adventure. The Equality at which liberalism aims is a pale simulacrum of that, the real thing: which is to say, companionship, in which anyone would share his bread with all the others without a second thought, and feel enlarged thereat.
And the jokes in such a company! O, the deep, deep laughter, that comes with common insight, far down into the harrowing and beautiful silly depths of life! Never was such laughter. Never was such friendship.]
Government then is legitimate that has this real authority; that is, i.e., really noble.
Liberty is on much firmer ground than Equality. Equality is a shibboleth. Liberty is just a fact – or rather, as the essential character of the acts that effect all facts, is just the forecondition of fact as such: to be is to do, and to be able to do. To be then is to be free, eo ipso. But freedom – being – is possible only within the limit of superordinate constraining principles that aim and order acts toward certain really achievable goods. Freedom prerequires order. It prerequires hierarchy. Take away the hierarchical order that furnishes the Receptacle of free action, and all you have left is chaos. That’s why there is always an oligarchy.
Lockean liberties are durable then only under an aristocracy and king. Not anarcho-tyranny, but monarcho-liberty.