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.

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Voting for Priorities: Possible Structures of Direct Democracy

In considering the possible mechanics of a directly democratic society we should note that different decisions are different. In particular, there is a difference between decisions that involve discrete choices and those which involve a continuum.

For example, electing a representative/selecting a delegate is a discrete choice – you cannot send half of one person and half of another. Setting aside the extent to which on important and/or simple questions, they can be sent with binding mandates, so that their identity is unimportant, for all the fiddly negotiating and compromising, the elector is making a discrete choice.

What this means is that information gets lost, in particular through “wasted votes”. 60% of people vote one way, and the votes of the dissenting 40% have no effect. If this is summed over elections done in a great number of assemblies, and then summed over the different rungs of assemblies at higher and higher levels, a lot of votes will be wasted, and so there is a lot of ‘noise’ in the result.

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Civil Wars and Bafflement

Civil wars are, I think I can safely say, generally not very nice. This post will not be directed at the central question of how to stop them happening. Rather, it will be directed at a related question: how to make them less confusing.

One of the reasons why civil wars can be confusing is that so often it is either hard or impossible to identify one side as ‘legitimate’ and the other as ‘illegitimate’. The government claims that the rebels are unelected usurpers, trying to bring down the people’s representatives! The rebels claim that the government are corrupt and have forfeited the people’s trust! The rebels moreover claim that the government is oppressing Ethnic Minority X! The government claims that if the rebels take control over X-land, then the majority citizens there will become a minority and will be hideously oppressed! It’s all rather baffling sometimes.

Obviously not all bafflement can be removed from life, but I believe there is a structural factor which makes extreme bafflement almost inevitable. That factor is the separation of the institutions of legitimacy from the institutions of efficacy.

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Defining Political Systems

People sometimes say, in relation to direct democracy, that it ‘would never work’ and is ‘obviously impractical’, meaning by this that it would be vastly impractical to decide every single political question by a vote of a vast, billion-strong popular assembly.

Which is of course true, but also beside the point. We live in a representative-democratic political system. But we do not live in a system where every position of power is elected, nor where elected representatives decide every political question, setting aside any question of whether that would be good or bad. Our civil service, our judiciary, our armed forces and police, are all run on principles other than representative democracy – setting aside questions about the economic ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’.

Yet our political system is representative-democratic, not because the representative structure (elections) is applied universally, regardless of any other considerations, but rather because the representative structure is applied selectively, in such a way as to be dominant. Not every single position of power is elected, but the most important ones are, and the ones that are typically can direct or exert strong influence over the ones that are not.

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Some Very Brief Speculations on a Just Society

Let us suppose three general rules as premises:

1) For any group of people, that group will be powerful in proportion as it is organised. A group of individuals, or smaller groups, acting in isolation from each other will be less able to exert much influence.

(This is why, for example, many of the most famous anti-colonial leaders were so keen on the idea of forming large federal organisations for their people – pan-Arabism, pan-Africanism, etc.)

2) For groups above a certain (perhaps variable) size threshold, acting in concert will require some co-ordination by some sort of representative organisations acting on behalf of the rest of the group’s members.

3) For any representative organisation acting on behalf of a smaller group, its tendency to act contrary to its members interests, to be ‘unaccountable’, will be inversely proportional to the independent strength of the individuals and smaller groups that it acts on behalf of.

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