The Tyranny of the Majority

‘Tyranny of the majority’ is an interesting phrase. I’m going to throw out my thoughts on it, without saying anything particularly profound or complex. In particular, I’m going to talk about the role this concept sometimes plays in anti-democratic ideologies or in suspicions of democracy – where ‘democracy’ is defined as the ideal of collective self-rule that representative political systems such as are now fashionable claim to offer but don’t.

So I think there are two sorts of things that people often have in mind when they speak of majoritarian tyranny, two sorts of ‘victims’. One sort is the ‘deviant’, those who are, for whatever reason, in violation of society’s norms, such as nudists, schizophrenics, asylum-seekers, transsexuals, baha’is, etc. The other sort is the rich person who falls foul of ‘the mob’, and has their ‘freedom’ taken away when the baying crowd strip them of their property.

Now I think the first of these is a valid fear, while the second is not – but that the first, valid, fear, doesn’t require democracy and indeed thrives on its opposite.

The second fear is of what has been called, first by its opponents and then later also by its defenders, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – or rather, the dictatorship of the proletariat is the full expression of this tendency, which is that when political power is distributed differently from economic power (say, equally for one, unequally for the other), an instability results in which either the economically powerful reduce the political power of the masses (e.g. by persuading them to alienate it to a group of representatives from wealthy backgrounds who can be lobbied and hobnobbed with), or the masses strip the economically powerful of their power – a process which seems ‘tyrannical’ because it means using political power (of whatever sort) to interfere sharply with the supposedly ‘non-political’ realm of ‘individual freedom’.

In such a case, the label ‘majority tyranny’ is a fairly simple piece of propaganda, the truthfulness of which could be preserved by simply saying ‘the majority ceasing to be weak and to play nice’. And one’s attitude to this is very much a political one – since I value democracy more than I value capitalism, I heartily endorse this sort of ‘majority tyranny’.

The other fear, the valid one, is that genuine individual freedoms will be taken away with majority support. I focus on the threat to ‘deviants’ because that’s the main form I think this would take – I don’t actually think that, for example, a direct democracy would impose strict limits on ‘normal people’, because it would be precisely ‘normal people’ making the decision, and so without the comfort and security of a superior position, they’d be very reluctant to strike such a blow at ‘themselves’.

Now as I said, this kind of ‘majority tyranny’ is a perfectly real risk, and anyone of a libertarian persuasion (left- or right-) should be concerned about it as well as about the state more narrowly. However, this concern is no argument against democracy relative to any other decision-making system. The persecution of minority races, or sexualities, or neurotypes, or religions, etc. – this has never been any less common in monarchies, military regimes, oligarchies, etc. than in democracies, representative or direct. Indeed, it has often been more common under them, because whipping up public hatred against a scapegoat is a useful tool for rulers to divert the resentment or rebelliousness that their own rule produces.

So while this is a problem that may remain after power is democratised, it is also a problem that is present just as strongly and usually more strongly in less democratic systems. So it’s no argument against democracy – simply in favour of liberty.

The move by which anti-democratic writers whose real concern is with ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ employ this legitimate fear of conformity and persecution in their opposition to democracy is to equivocate over ‘individual’, blurring between the individual who is against society because they have appropriated a large chunk of society’s wealth, and the individual who is against society because society has appropriated their right to self-definition. But the two groups are quite different.

4 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Majority”

  1. Pasha Says:

    Certainly the history of political systems leads us to few alternatives to a “democracy” for the reasons you espouse. To some degree the extremes of left and right differ only in rational and means. At least historically.

    The question is can there be learning applied to the question whereby a better system can be described? The US is close to a tyranny of the corporate elite. They who own the capital and ‘buy’ the favours of govt to support their continued profit, control and even exploitation.

    The question is always – do we succumb to a tyranny of the elite or a tyranny of the masses? It is the economic system that dictates the type of tyranny.

    I wish we had some hard answers



  2. ARPhilo Says:

    Democracy only works without government.
    The examples you give about people not voting against themselves don’t really apply when there is an oppressive government in place. For instance, take 9/11. The house and senate passed the Patriot Act and most of the public did not have issue with this. This is because they were terrified by propaganda and threats made by our government. As a result, freedoms have been being taken away one by one from citizens while those in power have immunity.

    Another example is prop 8. This is perhaps an argument against religion as well. Tyranny of the majority most definitely applies in CA.

    It’s also important to note that democracy and government don’t really mix in any way because if a democratic vote does not favor the government or corporate interests, it will be suppressed.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “The question is always – do we succumb to a tyranny of the elite or a tyranny of the masses? It is the economic system that dictates the type of tyranny…I wish we had some hard answers”

    Part of my aim here was to argue that this isn’t actually the choice – it’s tyranny of elite *and* masses, or tyranny only the masses. And it’s quite arguable that without elite tyrannt, mass tyranny will be easier to fight.

    “Democracy only works without government.”
    Indeed, I remember reading somewhere (I rather fear it was a crimethinc. magazine) the line ‘everybody loves democracy and hates the government. democracy without the government – that’s anarchy!’

  4. Dave Says:

    I agree with you. Oppression of any behavior deemed to be deviant, will exist within a given society without regard to the form of government. This is just human nature.

    Where direct democracy can help is to promote a dialog where differences might be aired and some form of understanding developed. This is very atypical in a representative system, where talking points are the order of the day and deals and back scratching are the only means to get/stay elected.

    The American system today is a tyranny of the elite, and the average person has no means to effect change. This works well for the elite. It is the framework through which 90% of American wealth has been concentrated in the richest 1% of Americans.

    While there may be some issues with tyranny of the majority, as ARPhilo posted with regard to Prop-8 in CA, the mitigating aspect is that said majority can more readily be influenced. Public opinion changes over time as more information is made available. Prop-8 will be reversed in CA, just like voting rights were gained for woman and minorities.

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