The tyranny of the majority

By Charles Bloomer
web posted November 20, 2000

"The tyranny of majorities may be as bad as the tyranny of kings." Arthur James Balfour, 1848-1930

The American founding fathers were incredibly wise. They had experienced firsthand the tyranny of kings and realized that concentrating power in one person was dangerous. They designed the American governmental system such that power would be spread among three equal branches of government. Rejecting the divine right of monarchy, they felt that government was only legitimate when governing by the consent of the governed.

The founding fathers also realized that pure democracy was nothing more than a fancy term for mob rule. They knew that the majority was not always right. They gave us a country not ruled by the majority, but ruled by law - a nation of laws, not of men. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address in 1801 said, "Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable;...the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression". The law provides protection when the majority is wrong.

The American founders gave us a constitution that was intended to act as a damper on the emotions and passions of the public, and as a restriction on overbearing government that would pander to those emotions and passions. This constitution would protect a minority when that minority was right.

Every civilized society needs laws, needs rules to govern behavior. Without laws, we are subject to the impulses of the majority or to those with the means to enforce their whims. In the late 18th century, the king had the power to enforce his desires, no matter how oppressive. Later in the same century, the French Revolution showed the brutality of mob rule - emotional, irrational democracy in action. The French atrocities may have been democratic, that is, sanctioned by the majority, but they were still atrocities.

The American revolution, by contrast, was violent but not destructive, except to the existing tyranny. That's because American revolutionary leaders had the foresight to see that the existing tyrannical system had to be replaced with a system based on law. Humans are emotional by nature. Law is objective; justice is blind. The flaws in our system of governance are caused not by the nature of law, but by the emotional application of the law by people. Injection of irrational emotionalism into the law subverts the intent of the law, and opens the door for abuse, oppression and tyranny.

Our constitution is the foundation of our American way of life. The laws that flow from the constitution provide the framework for our behavior in our society. In general, we accept the laws that govern us because we acknowledge the need for structure, for rules, for limitations on our actions. We accept these laws and other rules - what Frederick Hayek calls "rules of just behavior" - because we believe that they are in our best interest. We would not accept a majority ruling that abolished the Bill of Rights, or one that legalized murder because we know that these actions would not support the general welfare of our nation. Instinctively, we know that the majority is not always right.

Despite the rantings and blatherings of politicians and media types recently, America is not a democracy. We are not ruled by "the will of the people". America is a republic with democratically, though not necessarily directly, elected representatives. Being democratically elected gives representatives credibility and legitimacy. This does not mean that our representatives in government should bend unquestioningly to the will of the people. We expect our representatives to use their good judgment and to do that which is in the best interest of the nation. In addition, we expect them to support and uphold the basic foundations of our system - the constitution and the rule of law.

In political science, democracy is an interesting concept, but in reality it doesn't work. Democratic theory ignores human emotions and passions. The theory does not account for selfishness, bias, prejudice or ignorance. These real life attitudes make necessary laws and rules to prevent the potential abuses of power caused by unbridled emotion.

Thanks to the American founders, we enjoy unprecedented freedom and liberty. But that freedom and liberty could slip through our fingers if we are not vigilant. We can be governed by the rule of law, or we can be subjected to the tyranny of the majority.

(c) 2000 Charles Bloomer. Mr. Bloomer is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right. He can be contacted at clbloomer@enterstageright.com.

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