Posts Tagged ‘tyranny of the majority’

Tyranny by minorities

June 12, 2013

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

James Madison on how Obama populism should be checked

February 3, 2013

“The inference to which we are brought is, that the causesof faction cannot be removed, and that the relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects. If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interests both the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed….By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” James Madison, The Federalist No. 10

The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to protect Americans from the tyranny of majorities as well as minorities. The separation of powers is key to that protection. That is why Americans should not castigate the majority in the House of Representatives for defending minorities against Obama populism. Each member of that House takes an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution. Restraining the passion of some transient majority when it attempts to invade the individual liberties of known minorities is the fulcrum of the republican ideal of government. The House of Representatives failed in that duty when dealing with the first stage of the fiscal cliff. Let us hope that it will not fail again.

Thinking constitutionally

August 17, 2011

As Americans approach the 2012 election campaign, after three years of unconstitutionality under the Obama administration, it is truly important that they should reflect on the enormous privilege that they enjoy as citizens of a constitutional republic. In no small part, their freedoms and their economic success is grounded on the fine crafting by the Founders at Philadelphia so many years ago.

It is always tempting, when provided with a windfall electoral majority, as was the Democratic Party in the 2008 elections, to throw parchment to the winds and to brutalize favored policies through elected majorities. The Democratic Party severely tarnished its reputation by taking such a route, most notably with respect to the GM and the Chrysler bankruptcies, and with respect to the Obamacare fiasco.  The nation will long have cause to rue these illegal actions.

It is quite possible to get away with such behavior when a supine  Supreme Court, fearful of alienating a new black  president, renders itself unconstitutional.  But that is the very moment to cherish what the Founders brought forth, and to honor the principles and the specific words of the United States Constitution.

So my hope and expectation is that the GOP will not follow the example of the Democrats, should the political situation reverse itself in 2013.  Only when the People themselves love and adhere to their constitution can it long survive. And without that constitution there is no evidence that Americans are any better than other nationals in avoiding the pitfalls of the tyranny of the majority.


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