Plutocracy is an underrated political form.
It’s not a panacea. Like every other form of government, it has obvious flaws. But on the margin, America should be more of a plutocracy rather than less.
The degree to which America is already a plutocracy is controversial. Some work suggests wealthy citizens get their way more than middle class or poor citizens. Here "wealthy" one is wealthy if they are the top 10% of Americans. My sense is that that work has largely been refuted. The wealthy and middle class get their way more than poorer Americans, but many overstate the influence of the wealthy alone.
This may be surprising given the amount of money spent on politics. Yet the amount of money spent in politics is low! The 2020 election spending was ~11 to 15 billion which is in the same ballpark as the annual amount of money spent on almonds by Americans. The NRA spent low hundreds of millions over the past two decades – i.e. the annual marketing budget of a large and well valued company and not even a tenth of the largest company's annual marketing budgets. Counterintuitively, the case that money makes a difference in whoever wins an election is poor. Where money can plausibly make a difference are in issues that are too complicated, obscure, or nonpartisan for the public to care about. Like tax policy.
There are two key reasons why plutocracy may be bad. First, it’s a violation of political rights. Second, it has worse policy outcomes. The first reason is not compelling, but the second contains wisdom.
In modern democracies, many endorse the slogan “one person, one vote”. Behind this is the conviction that each citizen should be enfranchised to make political decisions and that they should have (roughly) as much say as any other citizen.
Supporting this is the idea that the masses ought to determine the future of their polity. Doing so defines the political community, enables self-determination, and promotes egalitarianism. Plutocracy makes some citizens more powerful than others, which is to day that it allows some to self-determine more than others. Worse, it clearly violates political egalitarianism. Hence, it’s a violation of political rights.
The reason I don’t find this compelling is that people don’t fundamentally have a right to vote. Since they don’t have a natural right to vote, concerns about political inegalitarianism don’t get off the ground. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t posses the legal right to vote – most should – but that’s because giving the right to vote has good consequences. If it turned out that restricted suffrage had better consequences, then I’d favor restricted suffrage.
Remember, that voting is violence. It’s a way of playing a part, no matter how small, of enforcing law. The enforcement of law is, of course, violence. I don’t think people have a right to force others to follow their political preferences. Not in the same way that people have a right to free speech, self-defense or practice whatever religion they please. Indeed, just as one has a right to a competent jury during trial, one has a right to a competent electorate. That bar is largely not met.
What about the second idea, the idea that giving power to the wealthy has bad consequences? The best argument for it is that no one coalition should have vastly more power than others. Republics and democracies are good because they avoid some of the worst cases for the masses. Democracies don’t let their citizens die of famine, autocracies do. The question is whether moves toward plutocracy push us too close to autocracy. All things considered, we should be skeptical of this. The median voter is a moderate nationalist socialist. The wealthy are better informed, more liberal, cosmopolitan, and less hawkish. These are not views that ruin states. The kind of reforms that should be on the table are things like voter competence testing, gerrymandering, and removing campaign spending limits. These are not extreme measures.
This isn’t to say that making America more of a plutocracy is the best intervention for improving governance. I doubt it makes it in the list of the top 10 best proposals. But, in a world where it’s fashionable to hate on the elites, here’s a lukewarm cheer for the rich.