The Tyranny Of The Majority

As both Adam and Brad have noted, I stirred up quite a little hornet’s nest with my post earlier today addressing a liberal leftist who didn’t really seem to understand (or respect) libertarian thought.

I had hoped, perhaps naively, that it would result in a serious debate and exchange of ideas. Instead, in my absence during the day, it quickly devolved into a name-calling contest in which Brad and others were denounced as trolls rather than given the respect that someone with ideas deserves. As Adam said, had Ms. O’Brien or her readers come here and commented, I have no doubt they would have been treated with far more respect than they gave to their opponent on their home turf.

What these people seem to continually forget, is the fact that democratic majorities can be as tyrannical as the most despotic dictator. John Stuart Mill put it best in his great 1859 work On Liberty when he said:

The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.

In other words, the mere fact that the men and women who make government policy are elected by a democratic means, rather than inheriting their position by royal blood or privilege, or by blood, does not mean that the policies they enact cannot be oppressive. In fact, when government is put in the hands of a majority by democracy, it is often more oppressive than its non-democratic predecessors might be. Jim Crow laws, to pick just one example, were not imposed by Kings or Premiers; they were voted into law by men elected by a majority of the eligible voters of the Southern United States.

This is why the Constitution created a government of limited power. The Founding Fathers knew that unlimited power, even in the hands of a democratically elected government, could be the path to tyranny and despotism

Unfortunately, some people don’t seem to recognize that idea:

If We, the People, want to promote the general Welfare by initiating taxpayer funded universal health care, for example, ain’t nothin’ in the Constitution that says we can’t have it. People opposed to it can argue about why they think universal health care is not a good use of taxpayer dollars, and then the voters can decide which way they want to go. But when such a program is nixied purely on some ideological dogmas about “big government,” that’s essentially an argument against republican government, and against democracy itself. It’s an argument that says people may not govern themselves, and it’s a violation of the principles on which this nation was founded.

And there lies the fundamental problem that the author just does not understand. The Constitution and Bill of Rights clearly stand for the principle that if it isn’t in the Constitution, then the Federal Government can’t do it.

More importantly, though, it makes clear the point that, without limited government, individual liberty cannot survive for very long.

  • mike

    Interesting you should bring up Jim Crow laws…our esteemed colleague over at the Mahablog somehow tried to equate classical liberal principles with the enaction and support of Jim Crow laws.

  • VRB

    One has to be really well read to debate a libertarian.

  • mike

    Haha, that’s quite the compliment, VRB.

  • Brad Warbiany

    You’re not kidding, VRB! I don’t know about the other writers at this site, but my bookshelves are heavy and getting heavier every month.

  • Drunken Pirate

    For whatever it is worth, the way you guys were treated on the mahablog was disgraceful.

    I used to be a big fan of the mahablog, but lately I have lost a lot of respect for the author of that blog. It is becoming all too terribly apparent that she just wants her ego stroked.

    Just about the gravest sin a commenter can make on that site is to publicly disagree with her with rational, informed arguments. Her typical reaction is to fly into an irrational snit, hurl insults about the intelligence of the commenter, and then ban the commenter as a “troll”. She is way too full of herself, an ironic condition for someone who claims to be informed by Buddhist philosophy.

  • Kevin

    Let me throw out another democratically elected dictator, Adolf Hitler. Also, I seem to recall the Confederacy, one of the few nations in world history to have as one of its founding principles the enslavement of an entire race of people, was also democratically elected with the will of the majority of Southerners.

  • Doug Mataconis


    I agree with you, but I would point out that the Confederacy was created by representatives of about 1/4 of the voters of its population. Women could not vote in 1860, neither could blacks. I’d hardly call that democracy to begin with.

    Nonetheless, your point is absolutely well taken. And speaks the truth to anyone who claims that the CSA stood for anything other than the enslavement of human beings.