Oligarchy and Gerontocracy

For those of us who hope that the democratic republic will turn out to be the only long-run-stable form of governance, the biggest threat comes from the self-perpetuating semi-meritocratic oligarchy; the hereditary principle eventually promotes too many dopes, let alone the problems of minorities and succession struggles.

The best example of the self-perpetuating semi-meritocratic oligarchy at the national level is the Communist dictatorship, which kept control of the Soviet Union for more than 70 years and seems likely to go on even longer in China and Vietnam. (Singapore is a comparable case, despite its democratic trappings.) But corporations, universities, and professional-services organizations such as law firms also embody the process where the current leadership co-opts its own successors.

The most successful implementation of that model is the Roman Catholic Church, which has enjoyed some 15 centuries of continuity (modulo the Avignon period and a few anti-popes here and there).

As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy. The Chinese innovation of pushing Politburo members out to pasture at around age 75 may turn out to be a truly epoch-making development.

The Soviet Union never solved that problem. Brezhnev hung onto power far into senility; by the time he finally died – to be succeeded by two other members of the Over-the-Hill Gang – the writing was probably on the wall.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals – mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction – but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara until he was long past it.

So – from a secularist perspective – here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world – continuing the work of John Paul II – is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.