Democracy and Tyranny

If you ask most people to compare democracy and tyranny, they will say that they are polar opposites, since no particular person can gain or abuse power without the consent of the majority. While even this is not true, as proven by Adolf Hitler’s rise to democratically-elected power, it is far from the end of the story. It is never considered whether the majority could oppress a minority, or even whether the majority could oppress itself.

First, let us address the majority oppressing the minority by looking at Social Security. Let me quote from my last article for this site:

With words like this FDR convinced an entire generation to trade away their liberty, and the liberty of their fellow citizens, in return for the promise of a brighter future. Roosevelt convinced a good part of the American population that the government could make better decisions for them than they could themselves. They saw the promise of mighty civic heroes acting to save them from the vagaries of circumstance.

The decision to give up control of one’s life to another, of course, is one every individual is free to make. The problem here is not that people are choosing to do this for themselves, but rather they are choosing to do it through the state, an institution that affects everyone. We all participate in and pay for FDR’s “great defense” program, even though a good number of us would rather not. Because FDR’s program is run through the state, a democracy, our preferences were ignored in favor of the majority.

Haughty equality vs. humble equality — posted 11/24/2005

How is Social Security tyranny? The issue is simple. I am oppressed by Social Security because I am forced to sacrifice some of my property by the state. I was never asked whether I would like to sacrifice some of my property to participate in the Social Security system. A majority, voting decades before I was born, made the decision that everyone should sacrifice some of their property to fund the Social Security system.

Many would argue that, since it was a democratic majority, it is not tyranny. From my vantage point as an individual, it makes no difference who decided I should give up property without my consent; I am oppressed because I am forced to do so. Simple, is it not?

Now, I can already hear some people saying that this Quincy fellow is just a selfish curmudgeon who doesn’t want to help his fellow Americans. While I am a generous person by choice, I resent being forced to do things without my consent. My perceived generosity, though, is neither here nor there in regards to the point of this essay.

Considering that most of the people who would raise the above objection have a certain view on another issue, let us examine that as our next case. Here’s the question: Would it be tyranny if the majority of people voted to ban abortion for everyone?

Ah, now the issue is not as clear cut, is it? If you believe that women should be able to get abortions, then such a vote would be horribly wrong in your mind. If you believe that they shouldn’t, such a vote would be a vindication. In this case, just as in the Social Security case, a majority voted to impose its will on a minority.

This brings us to another question: Does the size of a group that holds a position reflect the rightness of that position? While it should be clear from the last 5 millennia of human history that a majority can be terribly wrong, this is still a commonly held fallacy. Let us consider the case of the Catholic Church during the inquisition. It held the majority view that the earth was flat and everything rotated around it. As we know, from the work of Columbus, Galileo, Keppler, and Copernicus, these views were incorrect. Each of those four men contradicted the views held by millions, but these four were right and the millions were wrong.

If not democracy, then what? That is a good question. I’ve spent the last several paragraphs illustrating the problems of democracy, but I have not yet offered a better way. You may not believe this after reading the above, but democracy is part of the answer. The other part of the answer is the realization that certain things are so sacrosanct that they must never come up for a vote. First among these are the rights to life, liberty, and property. Second are those liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. They are so important that, no matter what the majority wills, they cannot be abridged. This concept, that the law and natural rights are more important than the wills of men, is vital to ensuring that democracy does not become tyranny. It is something we must learn, or re-learn, before it is too late.

  • QTaco

    A flat earth was never part of of Aristotelian cosmology, and I am highly doubtful if the Catholic Church ever held it as dogma. It certainly did not hold it at the time of the inquisition. The Ptolemaic system certainly included a spherical earth, and a good estimate of its size. (Google tells me some early Christian thinkers did attempt to reject the spherical earth, however they were never dominant, and the works of Ptolemy come to Europe centuries before the Inquisition). Copernicus was an officer of the Church, had his work commissioned by the Church, and accepted by the Church, so it is funny you should mention him. The Church held very refined cosmological views given the data it had, and was collecting, certainly vastly superior to that of the majority of uneducated peasantry. (As it needed to, to make a sensical calender for religious purposes). Columbus didn’t discover the world was round either. It is ironic that you should in attempted to debunk ” a common fallacy”, you repeat some common historical myths yourself.

    In fact it is a fairly terrible example for shedding light on the correctness of large majorities, since it involves a) a small elite, b) in an undemocratic system, c) without the free of information (with respect to Galileo) that many consider central to the strength of democratic decision making, d) that gets involve in difficult issues of correctness and proof in science ( a person of almost any intelligence would have believed a geocentric Earth to be a better than the alternative for most of the period you imply, and with good reason).

    I do agree with your point that majorities are far from infallible, although in answer to your question “does the size of the group affect its rightness”, I think it does, and mobs can display surprising intelligence. If I may humbly suggest however that if you wish to demonstrate that “the people” have no perfect knowledge, you find a better example.

  • Quincy

    Wow… you (I) learn something new every day. Thanks for the info, QTaco.

    Also, if you have a better example, please feel free to share.

  • tkc

    As I am fond of saying, “The two wolves and the lamb voting on what is for dinner is a democracy but from the point of view of the lamb, it is tyranny.”

    Also, to paraphrase F.A. Hayek, a government that is democratically elected is not enough. The government must be limited too. This comes from ‘The Road to Serfdom’. The essential limitations you’ve already covered.

  • Regis

    I think this is a better way of saying it. :)

    Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote. — Benjamin Franklin