As the age of democracy truly dawned, during the eighteenth century in Britain and the United States, political philosophers feared tyranny over minorities by majority coalitions. Edmund Burke noted that ‘the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.’ America’s founding fathers- men such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – expressed similar concerns. The naive ambitions of the French revolutionaries quickly degenerated into mob rule, the Terror, and Madame Guillotine. Alexis de Tocqueville, evaluating democracy in the fledgling American republic, actually coined the phrase ‘the tyranny of the majority.’
Yet the term ‘tyranny of the minority’ seems a better description of 21st century democracy.Because most voters demonstrate little time or energy for politics, small groups with a strong commercial, personal or ideological motivation exert disproportionate influence. Politicians respond positively to policies that offer concentrated benefits to a few while dispersing the associated costs across a wider public. They do so because money and votes pour into their pockets while the rationally ignorant wider public are unaware of what has happened.
John Kay (Financial Times June 12, 2013) cites a powerful instance of such a minority-based tyranny. On election night in 2001, a promising political career came to an abrupt end. The British member of parliament for Wyre Forest in England’s Midlands was overwhelmingly defeated by a retired doctor, campaigning on the single issue of the closure of facilities at Kidderminster hospital. The lesson is engraved on the hearts of every British politician. When any similar proposal is made for rationalization of the National Health Service, the local member of parliament is always and everywhere at the head of the protest demonstration.
Well, you may think, far-sighted politicians should be willing to withstand such minority pressures in the interest of the nation that they represent. Such indeed was the judgment of Edmund Burke when he publicly outlined the requirements of a genuinely functional democracy in an address to his electorate in Bristol:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it for your opinion.”
“Burke asserted that parliament was not a congress of advocates of competing interests, but a deliberative assembly seeking to identify a common interest. Vulnerable to the exigencies of campaign funding, besieged by lobby groups and obsessed with news headlines, the modern politician has drifted a long way from that ideal.” John Kay, ‘A tyranny of the minority in an age of single-issue obsessives,Financial Times, June 12, 2013