Sunday, February 20, 2011


Democracies were thought vulnerable to two distinct forms of majority tyranny. The first is political or legal tyranny that operates through the formal procedures of majoritarian rule. Where all aspects of government, from public opinion and juries to the legislature, the executive, and even some judges, are a function of the majority, its power is absolute. As Tocqueville put it in the first volume of Democracy in America (1835), “politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything”.
The second type is the moral or social tyranny the majority exercises through custom and the power of public opinion. “As long as the majority is still silent,” Tocqueville observed, “discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent.” More insidious than the overt tyranny long practiced by monarchs and despots, which was physically brutal but powerless to inhibit the exercise of thought, under this new form of “democratic despotism,” as Tocqueville would come to call it, “the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved”.
("Tyranny of the Majority." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Retrieved February 18, 2011 from
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. You need only to look at how this impacted blacks in the US to understand how evil majority rule over the minority is.
The US 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. 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!”
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. On the other hand, if each man governs his own life, 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.
Democracy is not a system with a permanent majority, but shifting coalitions of minorities. If that is right, then the principle of reciprocity appears to eliminate concern that majority rule will systematically disregard the interests of minorities, even racial minorities. Putting aside disagreement on the merits, then, why do legislatures fail to respond to minority interests?
(Who Cares About Voting Rights? The Tyranny of the Majority by Lani Guinier, Book Review by Mark Tushnet at
What is left out of the dictionary definition of democracy is what constitutes "the people." In practice, democracy is governed by its most popularly understood principle: majority rule. Namely, the side with the most votes wins, whether it is an election, a legislative bill, a contract proposal to a union, or a shareholder motion in a corporation. The majority (or in some cases plurality) vote decides. Thus, when it is said that "the people have spoken" or the "people's will should be respected," the people are generally expressed through its majority.
Yet majority rule can not be the only expression of "supreme power" in a democracy. If so, as Tocqueville notes above, the majority would too easily tyrannize the minority. Thus, while it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse use its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority. For one, a defining characteristic of democracy must be the people's right to change the majority through elections. This right is the people's "supreme authority." The minority, therefore, must have the right to seek to become the majority and possess all the rights necessary to compete fairly in elections—speech, assembly, association, petition—since otherwise the majority would make itself permanent and become a dictatorship. For the majority, ensuring the minority's rights becomes a matter of self-interest, since it must utilize the same rights when it is in minority to seek to become a majority again. This holds equally true in a multiparty parliamentary democracy, where no party has a majority, since a government must still be formed in coalition by a majority of parliament members.
Democracy therefore requires minority rights equally as it does majority rule. Indeed, as democracy is conceived today, the minority's rights must be protected no matter how singular or alienated that minority is from the majority society; otherwise, the majority's rights lose their meaning.
The danger of majority tyranny lies not just in the infringements of individual rights or the marginalization of a political minority, but in the oppression of minority groups in society based simply on criteria such as skin color, ethnicity or nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. Judicial checks on majority tyranny were supposed to expand political and civil rights over time.
On a practical level, the application of majority rule and minority rights relies on a set of rules agreed to by everyone in a political community. How are majorities determined? What are the limits of debate and speech? How can members in a community propose a motion or law? Should a minority be allowed to prevent the majority's will by abusing its rights? There is no one answer to these questions, and many democracies have answered them differently.
"In our age the power of majorities tends to become arbitrary and absolute. And therefore, it may well be that to limit the power of majorities, to dispute their moral authority, to deflect their impact,to dissolve their force, is now the most important task of those who care for liberty" - Walter Lippmann in American Inquisitors.
Ever since Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety in 399 BC, the core critique of democracy has been the concept of tyranny of majority. Socrates’ death showed us what a majority can do and where democracy could go wrong, even inadvertently. Socrates questioned the concept of majority getting empowered blindly in a democracy. Borrowing his thinking, one would question why for instance, in a group of 10 members, a group of 6 would be given all the power to rule over the remaining 4. Does being majority also imply being just and right? Not necessarily, the group of 6 would protect their interests even at the cost of the interests of the remaining 4 as shown amply in world democracies.
(Telangana : A case of Tyranny of Majority at

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