‘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.