But Now You Know

The search for truth in human action

The Tyranny of the Majority, vs the Unanimity of Liberty


T
he Founding Fathers despised democracy. They called the idea of 51% voting to impose its will the “violence of majority faction“. Poor Thomas Jefferson spent a great deal of effort and political capital proving he wasn’t a closet democrat. When writing Democracy in America, French philosopher Alexis DeToqueville coined the phrase Tyranny of the Majority referring to an idea from Plato’s Republic.

Majority rule imposes the will of a mere half of the population, plus one vote, upon minorities in each issue.

It is just as wrong to violate someone else's rights, even if you outnumber them and have a vote

It is just as wrong to violate someone else's rights, even if you outnumber them and have a vote

You need only to look at how this impacted blacks in the US to understand how evil majority rule over the minority is.

The Founders sought to solve this problem, by banning democracy in America, setting up a Republic where the majority could never legally vote to violate the natural rights of the minority. The only powers allowed to the Federal government were those listed in the Constitution, with the 9th and 10th articles of the Bill of Rights banning it from doing anything else, even if the majority voted for it.

Majority as Consensus

Of course the Federal government has been corrupted enough to overstep its legitimate authority, but that’s another article.

The modern apologists for majority rule, who unfortunately have managed to get the word “democracy” spun into a positive thing in public schools, defend their tyranny over minorities by saying “hey, at least we can be sure that there isn’t a larger group who opposes a vote, than the group who supports it”.

Advocates of liberty, though, object that you still should not violate the will of ANY people, in a free society. They say that you have no more authority to violate the rights of another because you are a large group, than if you are one man trying to impose your will on your neighbor. At least not legitimately.

Of course, the obvious retort is “hey, the only way to solve the problem of having minorities on issues is to have a unanimous vote…and that’s impossible! If we depended on unanimity, then nothing would ever get accomplished at all!”

majority-rule-orourkeBut this isn’t true:

Unanimous Self-Government

A free market is based, purely, on unanimity.

This is because the fundamental principle of liberty is private property:

Each person is a government of one, over his rightful possessions, starting with his own body.

But if someone wanted a vote on what everyone in the country is going to have for supper tonight, the odds are that he would not be able to get everyone to agree on the same thing. So if this were a power of the government, up to half of the population, minus one vote, would have their right to choose what to eat violated.

Of course that’s if there are only two options…which is a sort of farce of an election in the first place. With a real selection of all things people might reasonably desire for supper, probably more than 99% of people will be forced to eat something they would not have chosen.

And, let’s face it, with how goofy people are, you’re almost always going to end up being forced to eat something you don’t even like, much less want for tonight.

Eccentric sitcom character Mrs. Slocombe used to emphasize a decision by saying "and I am unanimous in that!"

Eccentric sitcom character Mrs. Slocombe used to emphasize a decision by saying "and I am unanimous in that!"

On the other hand, if each man governs his own life, as in a free market, then you may choose not only exactly what to eat, but even when to eat it.

Every time you are hungry, there is a vote, and you are unanimous. Sure, it’s limited to what you can afford, but what better way to determine what a meal is worth than that? Imagine if the majority were always voting themselves caviar and steak, bankrupting society.

With majority rule, you only get rare input at all, and only one option is selected, with most people being losers in the process.

But with the free market, you vote every instant, of every day, and are able to reverse yourself at will.

Of course, this also applies to groups, not just individuals, because their membership is purely voluntary, unlike an authoritarian government:

Sure, your chess club or paintball team may have majority votes, but your participation in them is purely consensual. Each moment of your life, you are free to leave, and if you stay you are voting unanimously for your own membership.

If you leave an organization in a free society, they are not going to blockade your house until you’re forced to fire on them, and then claim you started a hostilities, invade, and conquer you.

democracy.sucksIf the majority of your local town council votes to condemn your perfectly sound family home, just to put up a strip mall that will bring them more tax money and campaign contributions, it does this in violation of the unanimity of private property rights, and you can’t simply withdraw your membership.

Don’t worry; in two years you’ll be allowed to cast a single vote against at least one of those politicians who stole your home…if you still live in town, and at a legal residence, not in a cardboard box.

You might even try to get 51% of all voters in your city to set aside all other issues and vote for the single challenger to each of those bad politicians.

Of course, if your private property rights were protected as they should be, you wouldn’t be in this predicament. Maybe you should just push for laws protecting those rights in general, so such things couldn’t happen in the first place.

While majority rule imposes tyranny over minorities, capitalism, through private property rights, protects even the smallest minority, that of the individual, with unanimity.

Words of the Sentient:

The political principle that underlies the market mechanism is unanimity. In an ideal free market resting on private property, no individual can coerce any other, all cooperation is voluntary, all parties to such cooperation benefit or they need not participate.

— Milton Friedman, The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits, The New York Times Magazine

Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority

— James Madison, Federalist Papers #10

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

— John Adams, , letter to John Taylor, April 15, 1814

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August 28, 2009 - Posted by | Economy, Philosophy, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 Comments »

  1. I cannot put into words how angry that picture of the scale makes me

    Comment by Anon | October 26, 2015 | Reply

    • Then why bother commenting at all? As it is, you have not even established which way it angers you. For example, maybe you’re angry because the tyranny of the majority is so evil that it oppressed blacks. Or maybe you’re politically correct and think that entirely accurate graphic shouldn’t be allowed. Or maybe you hate scales. Or object to the abbreviation of the word “pound”.

      Comment by kazvorpal | October 26, 2015 | Reply

  2. […]   Mr Reid needs to be reminded that the purpose of the filibuster is to prevent the tyranny of the majority that our forefathers were rightfully so concerned about , to allow the minority to be heard and […]

    Pingback by Dingy Harry Promises To Open Pandora’s “Nuclear Option” Box | YouViewed/Editorial | November 21, 2013 | Reply

  3. […] from a potentially over-bearing majority. As the American political satirist P.J. O’Rourke put it (rather frivolously, in this context): “Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. […]

    Pingback by Despite its popularity, the death penalty would allow the state to kill innocent people! « My Blog InCaseofInnocence | May 25, 2012 | Reply

  4. Big fan of real liberty…not so much of being a “subject” of anyone or anything.

    We have lost so much of it, we hardly know what liberty means!

    Comment by Tony | April 10, 2010 | Reply

  5. Lots of people blog about this issue but you wrote down some true words.

    Comment by AgenseUtese | November 24, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] and the joy of having yet another Tyranny of the Majority government ruling over you, in the form of that union’s quasi-elected crony management. You […]

    Pingback by Why Workers Dislike Unions « But Now You Know | September 7, 2009 | Reply

  7. Good to see that people still know what they are talking about. So much BS around these days!

    Comment by fleet vehicles | August 30, 2009 | Reply

  8. […] The Tyranny of the Majority, vs the Unanimity of Liberty « Capitalism is Unanimity […]

    Pingback by Majority Rule <- P.J. O'Rourke « Words of the Sentient | August 29, 2009 | Reply

  9. Ben Hoffman-
    Jefferson supported a separation of church and state which PROTECTED religion from government, not kicked people of faith out of state-sponsored territory. This is a modern-day conservative interpretation of the separation of church and state. Also, he did not support an income tax, which was unconstitutional at the time. He was an idealist who favored a limited form of government. Look at the fine print in the history books.

    Comment by purecommonsense | August 28, 2009 | Reply

  10. Jefferson was a liberal. He was for a graduated income tax, for a separation of church and state, for public funding for higher education, warned of corporate power in government, and rejected the belief in supernatural entities in religion.

    You might do better to quote John Adams. He was more of a conservative.

    Comment by Ben Hoffman | August 28, 2009 | Reply

    • Ben, you’re going to have to cite some hard evidence to support this rather bizarre rewriting of history.

      Jefferson was a classic liberal, which makes him the polar opposite of a modern Liberal. He believed in the very most limited government. Were he alive today, his platform would be nearly identical to that of Ron Paul, and he’d probably cite Reagan as his favorite president, based on political platform.

      Adams, on the other hand, was a believer in relatively centralized government authority, like a modern Liberal. He wanted to censor speech he found offensive, to print money without restraint, to gather power in the hands of the Federal government, et cetera. He was still far less authoritarian than a modern Liberal, but more along those lines, along with Hamilton.

      Jefferson, and the Founders in general, meant the first amendment to prevent the establishment of a state religion. It was not, in any way, intended to forbid religious expression on the part of government officials, or the placement of manger scenes in city parks, or the ten commandments in courthouses.

      The premise that he would support a redistributive income tax is laughable. Such a punishment of productivity violates every American principle of justice and liberty.

      The same goes for coercive funding of education.

      He was, of course, a Deist, like most of the Founders. This is not the same as rejecting all things supernatural, except insofar as he considered the Creator to be a natural phenomenon.

      Here, a collection of quotes from Jefferson that go against anything you’d ever see Clinton or Obama say, but that you could slip into any Paul or Reagan speech and it would be accepted as perfectly normal:

      Words of the Sentient:

      A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned – this is the sum of good government.
      – Thomas Jefferson

      Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?
      – Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)

      The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.
      -Thomas Jefferson

      The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.
      -Thomas Jefferson

      No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
      – Thomas Jefferson, Proposal Virginia Constitution, June 1776 1 Thomas Jefferson Papers, 334 (C. J. Boyd, Ed., 1950)

      In political economy, I think Smith’s Wealth of Nations the best book extant; in the science of government, Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws is generally recommended.
      -Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Randolph, 1790

      Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want of bread.
      -Thomas Jefferson

      As, for the safety of soceity, we commit honest maniacs to Bedlam, so judges should be withdrawn from their bench, whose erroneous biases are leading us to dissolution.
      -Thomas Jefferson

      Our legislators are not sufficiently appraised of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us.
      – Thomas Jefferson

      Comment by kazvorpal | August 29, 2009 | Reply

      • You’re taking quotes out of context, Kaz. Here is a paragraph from a letter Jefferson wrote to Alexander Hammilton:

        “The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”
        http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Letter_to_James_Madison_-_October_28,_1785

        That, my friend, is the philosophy of a liberal. :)

        Comment by Ben Hoffman | August 29, 2009 | Reply

        • Surely you don’t think the above advocates an income tax. It almost certainly refers to a property tax.

          But even then, it is just an isolated letter, not a proof of his position. You can find early letters by Reagan and Robert Heinlein advocating similarly silly pro-government-intervention nonsense. Were I wont to write letters back then, you could find me advocating a number of positions I now oppose, too.

          By the time Jefferson was president, and for all we know perhaps the very next day after he wrote the letter you cite, his distrust in government and abhorrence of such coercion was quite intact.

          You want quotes in context?

          His first inaugural address could have been uttered by Reagan, Goldwater, or Paul. It certainly could never have come believably from Obama or Clinton:

          The First Inaugural Address of President Thomas Jefferson
          Washington, March 4, 1801

          Friends and Fellow-Citizens:

          CALLED upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach h of mortal eye–when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

          During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.

          All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, do ring the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists . If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man,at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

          Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, ye tall of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter–with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens–a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

          About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti republican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people–a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

          I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it. Without pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country’s love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past, and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.

          Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.

          Comment by kazvorpal | August 29, 2009 | Reply

  11. Thanks K

    Comment by mangopie | August 28, 2009 | Reply

  12. […] The Tyranny of the Majority, vs the Unanimity of Liberty « Congress vs. the Bill of Rights […]

    Pingback by Capitalism is Unanimity « Words of the Sentient | August 28, 2009 | Reply

  13. “Poor Thomas Jefferson spent a great deal of effort and political capital proving he wasn’t a closet democrat.”

    That’s way wrong. He belonged to the Democratic-Republican party. The other party at the time was the Federalist party.

    Comment by Ben Hoffman | August 28, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes, one of the reasons he called his party that was to clarify that he was, in truth, republican, and any association of his philosophy with “democracy” was through the lens of the limited constitutional republic.

      In fact, members of his party tended to refer to themselves as Republicans, while the opposing Federalists tended to refer to them as Democrats, or Democratic Republicans, or even as Jacobins, associating them with the democrats of the French Revolution.

      Comment by kazvorpal | August 28, 2009 | Reply


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