Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tyranny of the Majority

Every American child is brought up, from his first play-ground squabble, to accept the principle of "majority rules".  That is to say that whatever the majority wants, or thinks they can get, is what will be done.  On the surface that seems reasonable, but is it?  It is certainly practical.  It is certainly easy.  It is certainly satisfying.  I have come to the conclusion that, in many ways, it is one of the most profoundly flawed systems man has ever devised.

In the first place, who is this majority?  In most modern democracies/republics it is everyone.  One man, one vote.  Government is a craft; what does the average voter know about the actual work of government?  Precious little, if any.  Voting is the only task in the world that one needs no qualifications for, no real preparation, no experience, and even less reflection (unless, of course, one counts the act of running for office).   Regularly these deficiencies are counted as assets.  The vast majority of people called on to cast a vote are manifestly not suitable for the job.  Why should a kid who has never run a business, never owned property, never taken on a long-term responsibility have a say in what is done to effect those who have?  Why should a woman who doesn't even know the names of the candidates or what they are running for until someone hands her a ballot be allowed to fill it out?  Why should the opinion of a man who has demonstrated substantial disregard for others all his life be valued at all?  Stand on any busy street corner for five minutes and try to find one person, passing by, that you would allow to make any important decision for you.  These are the people who make up this majority, yet they are allowed to have their way on any number of issues every election.  The only difference between the majority and the mob or rabble is a matter of temper.

In a democracy/republic, if 51% of a population is wrong, that is, mistaken on a matter of public policy it becomes binding on the 49% that saw the error. That is bad enough, but the nature of such wide spread responsibility for an action is that no one is now responsible for this mistake in judgment!  There is essentially no one to blame and no one accountable.  The matter becomes even worse when it involves a moral issue, and there are moral issues at stake in government all the time, from the issues of war and peace, slavery (in our own recent past), to abortion and homosexuality today.  Is it wise to let such important issues be decided by people ill prepared to deal with them, and who know that they will not have to shoulder the responsibility for their decisions?  It is very possible for people to make decisions contrary to what is right and their own best interests believing that this is not the case.  Current American public policy makes this painfully clear.  As Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn said, "51 per cent of a nation can establish a totalitarian and dictatorial règime, suppress minorities, and still remain democratic...".  This is the almost the very definition of tyranny of the majority.  Once one steps back from the patriotic hyperbole, the flaws of such systems become quite evident.

I am not opposed to democracy/republicanism in every instance.  I believe that on a small scale or on the local level it is immensely useful, but it is personal government at that point.  The chance of a careless electorate making a poor choice is diminished because it is personal.  Everyone either knows the players or has some experience related to them.  This is the real danger of democracy/republicanism on a large scale: even a well educated, competent, moral, responsible voter, the ideal voter, cannot know the full ramifications of the choices set before him.  He only knows what someone else wants him to know about a candidate or an issue.  This fact is exacerbated in a media and special interest driven culture such as ours.  These are all issues that the founders of today's modern democracies/republics were aware of and debated seriously.  They came to the conclusion that it was worth the risk.  I am not so sure.

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