Tyranny of the majority
The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses"), used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule, envisions a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots. In many cases a disliked ethnic, religious or racial group is deliberately penalized by the majority element acting through the democratic process.
Supermajority rules, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, and the introduction of a Bill of Rights have been used to counter the perceived problem. A separation of powers has also been implemented to limit the force of the majority in a single legislative chamber.
The phrase "tyranny of the majority" was used by John Adams in 1788. The phrase gained prominence after its appearance in 1835 in Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, where it is the title of a section. It was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, who cites Tocqueville, in On Liberty (1859). The Federalist Papers refer to the broad concept, as in Federalist 10, first published in 1787, which speaks of "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."
Lord Acton also used this term, saying:
The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.—The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877
The concept itself was popular with Friedrich Nietzsche and the phrase (in translation) is used at least once in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human (1879). Ayn Rand, Objectivist philosopher and novelist, wrote against such tyranny, saying that individual rights are not subject to a public vote, and that the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and that the smallest minority on earth is the individual).
In 1965, Herbert Marcuse encouraged the tyranny of the majority in his essay "Repressive Tolerance" on the idea of tolerance in advanced industrial society. He affirmed that "tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery." and that "this sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested."
Public choice theory
The notion that, in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannise and exploit diverse smaller interests, has been criticised by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action, who argues instead that narrow and well organised minorities are more likely to assert their interests over those of the majority. Olson argues that when the benefits of political action (e.g., lobbying) are spread over fewer agents, there is a stronger individual incentive to contribute to that political activity. Narrow groups, especially those who can reward active participation to their group goals, might therefore be able to dominate or distort political process, a process studied in public choice theory.
Anti-federalists of public choice theory point out that vote trading, also known as logrolling, can protect minority interests from majorities in representative democratic bodies such as legislatures. Direct democracy, such as statewide propositions on ballots, does not offer such protections[weasel words].
Confederate politician John C. Calhoun developed the theory of the concurrent majority to deal with the tyranny of the majority. It states that great decisions are not merely a matter of numerical majorities but require agreement or acceptance by the major interest in society, each of which had the power to block federal laws that it feared would seriously infringe on their rights.
That is, it is illegitimate for a temporary coalition that had a majority to gang up on and hurt a significant minority. The doctrine is one of limitations on democracy to prevent the tyranny.
A possible, but not widely used definition of "Tyranny of the majority" is the following: A Tyranny of the majority is when a majority through legislation treats a minority differently due to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin.
A simpler, metaphorical definition might be "Two foxes and a hen voting on what to have for dinner."
- Administrative law
- Argumentum ad populum
- Authoritarian personality
- Dictatorship of the Proletariat
- Elective dictatorship
- Enabling Act of 1933
- General will
- Individual anarchism
- Minority rights
- Social anarchism
- Tragedy of the commons
- John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7.
- A Przeworski, JM Maravall, I NetLibrary Democracy and the Rule of Law (2003) p.223
- John Adams, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Vol. 3 (London: 1788), p. 291.
- Vol. 1, chap. 15. Earlier, Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), said that "The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny."
- See for example maxim 89 of Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: First Sequel: Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 1879
- Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.
- The Repressive Tolerance by Herbert Marcuse
- Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)
- Lacy K. Ford Jr., "Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought", The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 19–58 in JSTOR