What is a Plutocracy?

Plutocracy is a government controlled exclusively by the wealthy either directly or indirectly. A plutocracy allows, either openly or by circumstance, only the wealthy to rule. This can then result in policies exclusively designed to assist the wealthy, which is reflected in its name (comes from the Greek words "ploutos" or wealthy, and "kratos" - power, ruling).

Key Takeaways

  • Plutocracy is a system of rule by the wealthy, directly or indirectly.
  • Indirectly, it can take the form of regulatory framework and programs designed to benefit only the wealthy.
  • Commentators state that rising income inequality has converted America into a plutocracy.

Understanding Plutocracy

A plutocracy doesn't have to be a purposeful, overt format for government. Instead, it can be created through the allowance of access to certain programs and educational resources only to the wealthy and making it so that the wealthy hold more sway. The concern of inadvertently creating a plutocracy is that the regulatory focus will be narrow and concentrated on the goals of the wealthy, creating even more income and asset-based inequality.

Modern Usage

"Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy," President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography. Roosevelt wrote this at a time when the wealthy paid little or no income tax and could afford summer homes in Newport that made the White House look shabby. 

Although many people talk about the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States, plutocracy is more a concept than a governing model in any modern country. That's true even in a country run by billionaire Donald Trump and by a Congress whose total wealth Roll Call estimated was at least $2.43 billion, 20% more than the collective riches of the previous Congress. That said, there's still plenty of regular people in Congress, who sleep in their offices because they can't afford the costly rents in the Capital in addition to paying for housing in their home district.

Some argue that the 115th Congress in particular leans the most toward plutocracy, with tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and the elimination of rules and regulations thought to hinder business and profits.

"A plutocracy is a system of rule by people of wealth, which describes our situation in the United States far more accurately than the term democracy. We have been an Empire ruled as a plutocracy since our founding," maintains author David Korten.  

Princeton University Prof. Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin I. Page concluded in a study that "Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Others have come to similar conclusions. According to 2017 research by Thomas Hayes and Layle Scruggs, political science professors at the University of Connecticut, concentration of state incomes with select individuals produces a sharp reduction in social welfare schemes. "... income concentration at the top has become so skewed, and politicians so reliant on their support for re-election, that representation in America may have veered quite far from the ideal of one-person, one-vote in recent years," they wrote.

Examples of Plutocracy

Plutocracy has been present since ancient times. The Roman Empire was considered a form of plutocracy in which a Senate consisting of the wealthy aristocracy had the power to elect local administration officials and proposing new policies. In recent times, America is held as an example of a nation with elements of plutocracy due to the disproportionately powerful influence wielded by the wealthy in the country's election and policy-making process.