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Plutocracy Overview & Government | What is a Plutocracy?

Instructor: Lisa McLeod-Simmons

Dr. Lisa McLeod-Simmons holds a PhD and has been an educator for more than 25 years.

Explore plutocratic governments. Learn the definition of plutocracy and how it differs from oligarchy. Discover who plutocrats are, along with what causes plutocracy. Updated: 08/12/2022

What is a Plutocracy?

A plutocracy is a type of political system dominated by the wealthy. The purpose of a plutocratic government is to benefit the elite people of the society. The government, its political structures, and leaders have no other purpose than to generate public policies and design regulations that benefit those with significant wealth. The plutocracy definition is the rule of those who hold wealth or those who will ensure that the wealthy retain power and control over decision-making. Consequently, plutocracies are often associated with countries with wide gaps in income between the rich and poor.

What is the origin of the word plutocracy?

The word ploutokratia is a word of Greek origin meaning "rule of the wealthy". The word ploutos is translated as wealthy, and kratos means power or ruling. In Greek mythology, Ploutos was the god of wealth and abundance. Some Greek myths say Ploutos was blinded by Zeus, the king of the gods so that he would distribute wealth evenly among people. Greek tales also chronicle how the eyesight of Ploutos was restored so that he could distribute wealth based on merit.

The Greek god Ploutos, the source of the word plutocracy, is often depicted holding a cornucopia. Sometimes referred to as the horn of plenty, the cornucopia is a symbol of wealth.

Image of a Greek jar with a man holding a cornucopia.

Who are Plutocrats?

Plutocrats are political decision-makers who create public policies that directly provide an advantage to those with vast incomes. Their political interests extend only to maintaining and increasing the riches of those who already hold a disproportionate amount of a country's wealth. However, the term plutocrat does not simply refer to anyone with political power. It is reserved for those who themselves are wealthy. Whether an individual or a class of people, plutocrats work to populate government with other such people or groups. They work to ensure that the affluent remain in power and help accumulate wealth for the prosperous few.

Plutocracy vs. Oligarchy

Oligarchy refers to a form of government in which the political leaders are a small population elite, making it a minority rule. However, a plutocracy is a specific type of oligarchy in which the ruling few are wealthy. Not only is political power held exclusively by the wealthy, but the purpose of their rule is to consolidate and increase their wealth using their political power. Plutocrats can come to hold power in various ways, but most commonly, it is through peaceful means. However, while plutocracies have historically been formed without violence, they are often associated with political corruption.

In comparison, oligarchy does not focus on a particular source of rule. Instead, any elite sector, like the military, religious leaders, or an intelligentsia, can hold power. Frequently, oligarchs come to power through revolution or political violence. For example, military juntas (a group of the military elite) typically rise to power through a military overthrow of the government, such as the Chilean junta led by Augusto Pinochet.

General Augusto Pinochet was the leader of the ruling military junta in Chile. The junta took power in a military overthrow of the government.

Colored photo of a man in military uniform.

Features of a Plutocracy Government

There are several key characteristics of a plutocratic form of government that focus on the economic interests of the wealthy elite in society.

  • Plutocratic leaders: In a plutocracy, there is a ruling elite who are very wealthy. Only this affluent minority holds power and determines public policies.
  • Beneficiaries of plutocratic rule: Plutocratic political systems are constructed in such a way that a few can ensure that political decisions and public policies are geared toward maintaining and enhancing the wealth of the ruling elite.
  • The general public: The welfare of the general public is largely disregarded by plutocrats. This results in a significant wealth gap between the rich and the poor. Eventually, this can lead to political unrest in society.
  • Rights and liberties: Plutocracies do not necessarily restrict the core rights or liberties of the general citizens. Nevertheless, the general public does not play a role prominent in governance and has no control over governmental structures and processes.

Plutocracy Causes

Plutocracies are not generally considered formal governmental structures. They are not grounded in political theory as other forms of government are, like democracy. Nevertheless, several factors are associated with the development of plutocracies.

  • Economic conditions: Plutocracies are often seen in countries with significant income inequality between the rich and the poor.
  • History of oligarchic rule: States that have a history of rule by the few and limited public engagement in politics are more likely to develop plutocratic characteristics.
  • Culture of social inequality: Societies with cultures of inequality and histories of disproportionately promoting one group over others through public policies can create a political environment ripe for plutocracy.
  • Corruption: Political systems with a history of corruption can have a greater tendency to develop plutocracies. Kleptocracies, governments in which corrupt political officials gain personal wealth by misappropriating public resources, can lead to the establishment of plutocratic political systems

Regardless of the causes of plutocracies, the outcomes are generally the same. When a country's financial assets and resources are diverted from the general public and programs benefit society, there can be significant consequences.

  • Political outcomes: Democracy can be weakened when decisions are no longer made by and for the people.
  • Economic significance: Key resources, especially scarce ones, are often not well managed and can be depleted, and this can weaken the economy of the nation.
  • Societal ramifications: When a wealth gap continues for a long time, it can lead to social unrest and even political violence.
  • Psychological implications: Plutocrats often develop a sense of entitlement can lead to a lack of empathy for others. This can, in turn, result in public policies that are increasingly aimed at directing a society's wealth and resources toward the already wealthy and away from those in need.

Plutocracy Examples

The practice of acquiring political power for economic gain has occurred since ancient times. Elites seeking to consolidate and expand their wealth are found in autocratic and democratic political systems across the globe. Two famous examples of plutocracy are the Roman Republic and the Gilded Age in the United States.

Roman Republic (509 B.C. - 27 B.C)

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a plutocracy?

A plutocracy is a type of political system dominated by the wealthy. An example of a plutocracy is Ancient Rome during its Republican period (509 B.C. - 27 B.C) and the Gilded Age in the United States (1876 - 1900).

Is plutocracy a form of oligarchy?

A plutocracy is a form of oligarchy. Oligarchy means that an elite holds political power. A plutocracy is a specific form of oligarchy in which the ruling elite are a few wealthy people.

What exactly is a plutocrat?

A plutocrat is one of the ruling elite of a plutocracy. Plutocrats hold political power and exercise that power for their benefit rather than for the general welfare.

What country is a plutocracy?

A country containing a plutocratic form of government in which a few wealthy rule for their benefit. Plutocratic countries include the Roman Republic and the United States in the Gilded Age.

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