The Italian sociologist, political theorist, and economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) is chiefly known for his influential theory of ruling elites and for his equally influential theory that political behavior is essentially irrational.
Vilfredo Pareto was born in Paris on July 15, 1848. His father, an aristocratic Genoese, had gone into political exile in France about 1835 because he supported the Mazzinian republican movement. He returned to Piedmont in 1855, where he worked as a civil engineer for the government. Vilfredo followed his father's profession after graduating from the Polytechnic Institute at Turin in 1869. He worked as director of the Rome Railway Company until 1874, when he secured an appointment as managing director of an iron-producing company with offices in Florence.
In 1889 Pareto married a Russian girl, Dina Bakunin, resigned his post with the iron company for a consultancy, and for the next 3 years wrote and spoke against the protectionist policy of the Italian government domestically and its military policies abroad. His reputation as a rebellious activist led to an intimate acquaintance with the economist Maffeo Pantaleoni. This association led to Pareto's interest in pure economics, a field in which he quickly became proficient and well known. His reputation gained him an appointment in 1893 to the prestigious post of professor of political economy at Lausanne University.
In 1894 Pareto published his first noted work, Cours d'économie politique, which evoked a great deal of commentary from other economists. Two years later he inherited a small fortune from an uncle, a windfall which caused him to think of retiring to pursue research. At this point he began to develop the theories for which he is most famous, elitism and irrationalism in politics.
In his own earlier political career Pareto had been an ardent activist in behalf of democracy and free trade, as had been his father before him. The reasons for the marked change in his political outlook have been much disputed, ranging from the Neo-Freudian analytical account, to the interpretation which stresses certain developments in his own career, to the explanation which maintains that, quite simply, he changed because of the results of his own vast studies. By the time his next book, The Manual of Political Economy, was published in 1906, his ideas on elites and irrationalism were already well developed. The following year he resigned from his chair of political economy at Lausanne to devote all his energies to researching his theories.
Pareto retired to his villa at Celigny, where he lived a solitary existence except for his 18 Angora cats (the villa was named "Villa Angora") and his friend Jane Régis, a woman 30 years younger than he who had joined his household in 1901, when his wife left him. In 1907 he began writing his most famous and quite influential work, The Treatise on Sociology; he completed it in 1912 and published it in 1916. (The work was published in English translation as The Mind and Society in 1935 in a four-volume edition.) In 1923 he secured a divorce from his wife and married Jane Régis. Later the same year he died.
Pareto's theory of elitism is sometimes simplistically explained on the basis of his aristocratic heritage. However, as recent scholarship has shown, throughout his life and in his published works he often expressed extreme distaste with the titled Italian aristocracy, just as he was anti-socialist, anti-government-interventionist, anti-colonialist, anti-militarist, anti-racialist, and "anti-anti-Semitic." Attracted to fascism when it first came to power in Italy, he later opposed it. He is perhaps best described as an iconoclastic individualist.
The Mind and Society is at one and the same time a debunking of Marxism and of the bourgeois state. Pareto's method of investigation is inductive or positivistic, contemptuously rejecting natural law, metaphysics, and deductive reasoning. On the basis of very extensive historical and empirical studies, Pareto maintained that in reality and inevitably the true form of government in any state is never a monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, or democracy but that always all social organizations, including states, are governed by a ruling elite. This ruling elite, which has greater vitality and usefulness than other elites, dominates them until it in turn is overturned by a more powerful elite—Pareto's theory of "the circulation of elites." Political behavior itself, both of the masses and of the elites, is basically emotional and nonrational. The function of reason is to justify past behavior or to show the way to future goals, which are determined not by reason but by emotional wants.
Elitism is today, in one variety or another, the leading approach to the analysis of empirical political behavior by political scientists. Consequently, the literature on the subject, and on Pareto, is enormous. A good general introduction is James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943). Pareto's name is almost always coupled with Gaetano Mosca's. For an approach which stresses the difference, even antagonism, between the two, see the introduction to James H. Meisel, ed., Pareto and Mosca (1965); the first nine essays in this work discuss various aspects of Pareto's life and work. See also George C. Homans and Charles P. Curtis, An Introduction to Pareto (1934), and Franz Borkenau, Pareto (1936).
Powers, Charles H., Vilfredo Pareto, Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1987.
Vilfredo Pareto, (1848-1923), Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vt., USA: E. Elgar Pub., 1992.