What is Democracy? (61): A Euphemism for the Rule of Some Over Others?

How can a system of majority rule be called the rule of the people? There are always winners and losers and the majority rules over the minority. Even democracy is therefore a system of coercion, domination and the separation between rulers and ruled. The majority coerces the minority so that it respects its decisions. The power to set rules that other people can be coerced to obey by threat of penalty is the power to control other people’s lives, and that’s morally questionable. Calling it a democracy doesn’t change the fundamental problem.

Hence, a real democracy seems to require a system of decision by unanimity. In any other system there are always people who do not decide and who do not have autonomy or freedom in the sense of control over their own lives. Is there a difference between being ruled by one person and being ruled by the majority? Not really I guess, just that in the latter case domination is harder to see.

However, unanimity is usually not feasible, and is probably undesirable as well. If anything, democracy promotes plurality. Unanimity, or better apparent and enforced unanimity, is more typical of authoritarianism and is therefore hardly a better route to freedom.

Perhaps we can solve this problem in the following way. In a democracy, there is a majority whose wishes are given priority at a certain moment, but only temporarily. And there is a minority whose wishes are temporarily rejected. The minority’s wishes can always be presented to the general public, even after a decision has been made. These wishes can be promoted and defended, and they can perhaps become a new and future will of the majority. The majority and minority are not fixed groups, and they differ over space as well as over time: for each issue or decision, the majorities and minorities are different. In a well-functioning democracy, no one is part of a permanent and crosscutting majority or minority.

These two attributes of majority rule – possibility to change the majority over time, and separate majority decisions for as many problems as possible – maximize the chances that every individual can fulfill as many of his or her desires as possible. Unanimity rule would seem to offer a 100% chance, but given that unanimity is not realistic, majority rule is the best we can get. It guarantees that as many people as possible can fulfill as many of their desires as possible, because everyone is in the majority for some decisions and even when they’re not they can become so in the future. The minority, the group of persons supposedly living under the rule of the majority, is not a homogenous or unchanging group. It always consists of other persons and this makes the yoke of the minority a bit easier to carry.

However, that is only true in a well-functioning democracy. Asymmetric power relations in non-ideal democracies can increase some groups’ chances of being in the majority. If they have a lot of money or good lobbyists, they can steer decisions towards their wishes. And that can bring back the specter of the rule of men over men. Furthermore, demographics can be such that certain ethnic or linguistic minorities are permanently relegated to the political minority, for instance when the majority ethnic group consistently votes as a block and against the interests of the minority. In that case, democracy will have to provide some form of political autonomy or federal self-rule to the minority.

Another way out of the problem of majority rule is to argue that all rights, including the right of a majority to decide political matters, imply the power to control the lives of others. My right to property gives me the right to exclude others from it; my right to free speech gives me the right to stop others from violating my freedom of speech, etc.

More posts in this series are here.