Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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OCHLOCRACY. The rule of the multitude. Polybius was the first to use the term. The good governments, according to him, are royalty, aristocracy and democracy; the bad ones monarchy, oligarchy and ochlocracy. Barthélemy St. Hilaire does not consider this definition to be very exact. It is not correct so far as royalty is concerned, which is only one of the forms of monarchy; but the denomination ochlocracy is perfectly correct, much more correct than the word demagogy, which only indicates a means of popular government, and not that government itself. Aristotle calls democracy what Polybius calls ochlocracy. "Aristotle," says Barthélemy St. Hilaire, "always uses the word demos to designate the most numerous part of the political body. Whenever the word people is found in Aristotle, it must be understood to mean, not the totality or majority of the nation, which would include the slaves, but only the lowest class of the political body, that which prevailed at Athens, but which, in the greater part of the Greek republics, played only a secondary rôle." It seems to us that demos, in the political language of the Greeks, does not signify the lowest class of the people, nor even the mass of the inhabitants, including the slaves: demos (populus and not plebs) meant what is known in France as the commune, or, what amounted to the same among the Greeks, the nation.


—Ochlocracy is the rule of the poorest and least enlightened part of the nation, which is ordinarily the most numerous. But, although superior in numbers, as it can not represent the general will, it is at bottom only a government of the minority. The despotism of the greater number, like the despotism of a single individual, is established rather by usurpation than by consent. Who would freely conclude such contract? It is needless to say that these two forms of government are as often turned to individual advantage by officials (demagogues and viziers) as they are exercised by those whose power they proclaim.


—Ochlocracy is almost never provided for in constitutions. Was it an ochlocracy which the government established at Rome, when the lex hortensia gave the force of law to the plebiscita? Who does not see that the patricians had always the right to sit in the comitia by tribes? According to all appearances, it is true, their voice could be neutralized by the force of numbers; but it is so in every pure democracy. In Florence, in 1282, the lords were declared inadmissible to public offices, unless they disnobled themselves by causing their names to be inscribed on the registers of some trades-guild. Lastly, we have the law against the nobility during the reign of terror in the French revolution. At Athens ochlocracy was established under the favor of the law. Men of merit were then excluded, on account of their wealth or their birth, from all part in public affairs; the philosophers were persecuted, the allied cities oppressed or destroyed. But this Athen an ochlocracy had a great love of liberty, great political good sense, a taste for the arts, and sometimes even moderation. Athens and Florence are almost the only two examples of the direct power of the majority legally established. Most frequently this despotism of the multitude follows in the wake of a revolution which overthrows the power of kings or of nobles; it establishes itself arbitrarily, without rule, and without any regard for the general interest or the interest of all whose will it does not represent, or for individual interests, the most sacred of which are the rights of man, and which the author of the Contrat Social justly regards as independent of the general will. "In fact," says he, (book ii., chap. 4). "so soon as there is question of an individual right, upon a point which has not been regulated by general and anterior agreement, that right becomes a bone of contention. It is a case in which the individuals interested are one of the parties and the public the other, but in which I can neither see the law which is to be followed, nor the judge who is to declare it. It would be ridiculous, then, to leave the question to an express decision of the general will, which can only be the conclusion of one of the parties, and which for the other, consequently, is only a strange individual will, inclined to injustice and subject to error." If such be the character of the omnipotence of the state over the individual, such must be the omnipotence of one part of the nation over the other, and if "the life and liberty of a private person are naturally independent of the public person" (book ii., chap. 5), there is a much stronger reason why the life and liberty of a private person should be independent of a collection of private persons, like an oligarchy or an ochlocracy.


—The history of the Paris commune, in 1871, presents a good example of what an oligarchy is. Whatever was the latitude allowed its leaders, they were obliged to satisfy the general will of their soldiers: a power impersonal, diffuse, arbitrarily transferable, and which at a given moment resides entirely in the hands of a national guard as well as of a delegate (minister). The reason of this is, I think, that this kind of government, having the habit of legislating on all things in an absolute manner by exhausting at one stroke all legal sanctions, makes everything an affair of state. Besides, such a government is essentially military, both on account, of the incapacity of the people to conceive any other political organization than an army, and because of the violent circumstances which give it birth, and which drive it to extremes.


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