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.