The Validity of Epistocratic Government in a Single-Town Setting

Are other forms of government possible?

(From TeacherLocker ®).

When discussing the distinctive properties of a Republic, Montesquieu asserts that “excepting particular circumstances, it is difficult for any other than a republican government to subsist longer in a single town”. Nonetheless, Montesquieu solely critiques a single alternative — that of a monarchical regime. According to Montesquieu, a principality would not endure in a single town, as the limitations of such a small entity (constrained territory, population, resources, etc.) would prohibit the prince from enjoying the full extent of his powers. Montesquieu claims that — as a result of said imbalance betwixt the prince’s powers and the means through which he can enjoy them — the prince would therefore proceed to oppress his subjects. Additionally, Montesquieu argues that — given the limited nature of the single town — the prince would thus have trouble standing up against a foreign army, or even a domestic rebellion. Montesquieu therefore concludes that the only form of government that can actually endure in a single town is that of a republican configuration.

Given our recent studying of epistocratic forms of government, I began to ponder whether Plato’s “Philosopher Kingship” (or any other epistocracy for that matter) could thrive in a single town setting? Arguably, given the constrained nature of the town’s population, it would not be outrageously challenging to identify the “wise” minority (or single individual) who ought to rule; as a matter of fact — once again based on the town’s manageable population — it seems possible that the citizenry could come to a consensus regarding the characteristics of a “wise individual” (i.e. setting the guidelines for their “Philosopher Kings”). But — invoking Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s assertions — is it genuinely conceivable that there will exist, in such a small setting, a fellow so incredibly wise that the aptitude of his policymaking will exceed that of “any group at all”? Hence, due to the fact that deliberation is assumed to increase the “correctness” of any decision, should not the town’s prosperity be enhanced further under a more democratic form of government (one that incorporates multiple viewpoints)? As pointed out by Aristotle — and this seems to pertain specifically to a more localized setting — it seems unreasonable to believe that, in the typical small town, there shall be a person “so much wiser than others that there is nothing to gain and much to lose” by taking the rest of the citizenry’s proposals into account. Thus, even though it is conceivable that a single town could both delineate the characteristics of a “wise” person and then identify said individual(s) amongst its populace, it is hard to digest that such an individual could be so wise as to outweigh the benefits of a deliberative democracy altogether.

The only possible counterpoint I can think of involves the more homogenous nature of a single town. Arguably, small towns lack the level of diversity common amongst a more sizeable populace. Thus — given the greater similarities betwixt the single town’s citizens — would deliberative democracy be largely unnecessary (since consensus would be more likely in a greatly-homogenous society)? Moreover, Estlund’s demographic objection — i.e. that the selected “wise” ruler may possess an epistematically damaging feature (bias) — seems to lose its weight in a single town setting: why would the citizenry care (or be undermined) if their ruler holds a bias that — assuming the greater homogeneity of their community — they are quite likely to possess themselves?

Overall, given the fact that — to the best of my knowledge — epistematic rule is yet to be applied in a single town setting, the validity of Montesquieu’s assertion that republican forms of government are the sole option for said localized environment is yet to be determined.


Montesquieu, Charles De Secondat, Thomas Nugent, J. V. Prichard, G. D. H. Cole, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Spirit of Laws. Chapter XVI. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1955.