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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Democracy does not merely mean ‘majority rule’
The concept of democracy does not merely mean ‘majority rule’; it means that individuals enjoy certain rights against the State which will trump the will of the majority.
A basic principle of democracy is majority rule and the protection of individual and minority rights, which, although seemingly contradictory, are the very foundation of democratic government. According to May, majority rule is the only reasonable decision rule that is “fair”, that is, and that does not privilege voters by letting some votes count for more or privilege an alternative by requiring fewer votes for its passing. Stated more formally, majority rule is the only binary decision rule that has properties like fairness; decisiveness.1 Majority rule is a means of organizing government and deciding public issues without taking away the basic rights and freedoms of minority groups or individuals. Minorities, by virtue of their religion, ethnic background, geographic location, income level or as the losers in elections – are guaranteed basic human rights that no government or majority should remove. With their rights guaranteed, minorities can contribute to their country’s democratic institutions. Because a majority can win a vote under majority rule, it has been commonly argued that majority rule can lead to a tyranny of the majority.2 The concept of democracy, in its pure and its practical forms, does indeed mean ‘majority rule’. Moreover, it does not mean that individuals enjoy certain rights against the State which will trump the will of the majority. It is submitted that individuals enjoy no rights that trump the will of the majority. The reason for this assertion lies in the genesis of the individual rights themselves. It is true that there are certain individual rights that are considered inalienable and which can bring the State to account. However, it is vital to recognize that those rights themselves, their status and application are born out of the foundation and fundamental processes of majority rule. In sum therefore, there are individual rights capable of ‘trumping’ state powers, but those rights are themselves born of the democratic process and therefore ultimately subordinate to that overarching mechanism, concept and power.
1 May, Kenneth O. 1952. “A set of independent necessary and sufficient conditions for
simple majority decisions”, pp. 680–682.
1 Mark Fey, “May’s Theorem with an Infinite Population”, Social Choice and Welfare,
2 John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7
The real picture of Democracy:
Democracy is by far the most challenging form of government – both for politicians and for the people. The term democracy comes from the Greek language and means “rule by the (simple) people”.3 Democracy is a political form of government in which governing power is derived from the people, either by direct referendum (direct democracy) or by means of elected representatives of the people (representative democracy).4 We vote for our representatives and the one with the most votes goes on to act for the majority; the majority being the collective people who voted for the representative. That representative speaks on behalf of the majority who voted him in and votes in such a way as to embody the will of that majority. However, this system is not flawless. What about those who are not in the majority? This group is known as the minority. While the minority is not being indirectly represented by the politician like the majority, the minority still retains their basic rights and expects the majority to show consideration for those rights as well. The minority also knows that while they may not be in the majority at this time they will not always be in the minority on every issue. The minority accepts that in order for our government to work competently the will of the people, in the case the majority, must be fulfilled.5 The framers of the Constitution insisted that an indirect democracy approach to government would be the best methodology in creating our new nation. To ensure that the will of all people would be carried out and that the minority would still maintain their basic rights a system of “checks and balances” was established and the right to free speech and assembly insured through the Constitution.
3 Demokratia, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, “A Greek-English Lexicon”
4 “Democracy Conference”. Innertemple.org.uk. http://www.innertemple.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=250&Itemid=198. Retrieved 2010-10-14.
5 Cole, John et al. The Library of Congress, page 113
Majority rule is a means for organizing government and deciding public issues; it is not another road to oppression. Just as no self-appointed group has the right to oppress others, so no majority, even in a democracy, should take away the basic rights and freedoms of a minority group or individual. The notion of majority rule with respect for minority rights guarantees that no political power will ever be more dominant than the other.6 It also makes certain that while the majority may have the obvious power the will of the minority will also be considered. That is why this attitude toward government is so important. There are several current examples in modern societies about the concept of majority rule with respect to minority rights. A hot topic right now, the issue of same-sex marriages, is a perfect illustration of this model of government. The majority of the nation feels that same-sex marriages should not be permitted in the United States. However, in respect to the minority opinion (that same-sex marriages should be legal), many of the citizens in the majority group feel that same-sex couples should be allowed civil unions. As a form of government democracy requires adherence to the basic principle of majority rule, given that this is the only way to determine the will of the people as an entity. That is to say that the will of the majority prevails in the governance of society and the formation and application of its laws. It is submitted that the necessary corollary of the principle of majority rule is the subjugation of the minority. In simple terms, democracy will not function if individual or minority views and rights are given full voice. Democracy dictates that the majority view will be sovereign in all circumstances. Individual rights may be honored, but only those licensed by the majority will, which sees its manifestation in the actions of the State in a functioning democracy.
Likewise, Aristotle endorsed the rule of law, writing that “law should govern”, and those in power should be “servants of the laws.”7 The “majority rule” is often described as a characteristic feature of democracy, but without governmental or constitutional protections of individual
6 Daniel Smihula. National Minorities in the Law of the EC/EU in Romanian Journal of European Affairs, pp.51-53.
7 Aristotle, Politics 3.16: “it is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians, and the servants of the laws.”
liberties, it is possible for a minority of individuals to be oppressed by the “tyranny of the majority”. An essential process in representative democracies is competitive elections that are fair both substantively and procedurally. Furthermore, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and able to vote in their personal interests. The concept of democracy does indeed boil down to majority rule. Individuals will continue to enjoy certain rights against the State which will trump the will of the majority at the tolerance of and by the design of the majority view itself.. The majority can at any time and by the means of its choosing vary or abolish even the highest and most sacrosanct individual rights.8 The ultimate trump card is thus held by the majority will in any true and functioning democracy. The enshrinement and protection of certain inalienable human rights is certainly a characteristic of many sophisticated, modern democracies, however, those rights are not a component of those democracies and they exist only while the majority will exists to safeguard them. The concept of democracy when reduced to its essentials is rooted in majority rule. Moreover, while it is true that individuals enjoy certain rights against the State which will trump the will of the majority, these rights only exist with the forbearance of the majority, and the ultimate trump card is held by the majority view, which ultimately drives the legislative process within a true functioning democracy, and which can vary, augment or even nullify any individual right as it sees fit.
According to Raz, rule of law generally “is not to be confused with democracy, justice, equality (before the law or otherwise), human rights of any kind or respect for persons or for the dignity of man”.9 Individuals enjoy certain rights against the State which will trump the will of the majority only where the majority has taken the specific decision to allow it to be trumped in certain specified situations. Therefore ultimate and unchallengeable authority remains vested in the majority will, which may choose to acquiesce in narrowly defined situations, but which can reverse that decision or amend the qualifying criteria for a certain right at any given moment if __________________________
8 “What’s wrong with majority voting?”. Consensus Decision Making. Seeds for Change. 2005. http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/consens#wrong. Retrieved 2010-10-15.
9 Raz, Joseph. “The Rule of Law and It’s Virtue”, The Law Quarterly Review, volume 93, page 195 (1977); reprinted by Culver, Keith. Readings in the Philosophy of Law, page 13
and when the will of the people evolves. No right, not even the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life, in the self-proclaimed greatest of all democracies the United States of America, constitutes a trump card against the will of the majority, unless the majority chooses to let it be so. In some US states, the majority will has determined that the right to life trumps the authority of the state and capital punishment is banned, whereas in other US states the majority will has determined that the right to life can be sacrificed in event of criminal conviction for certain offences and individuals are executed quite routinely.
On the surface, the principles of majority rule and the protection of individual and minority rights would seem contradictory. In fact, however, these principles are twin pillars holding up the very foundation of what we mean by democratic government. It is clear that there is a fine and delicate balance to be achieved even at the level of an international legal matrix between the interests of the state and the rights of the individual. This balance and tension is apparent even in the most permissive and libertarian of modern societies. In the final analysis it is submitted that there is no such thing as truly or perfectly free speech. There is no such legal concept in the United Kingdom or in any other modern democracy in the world today. It is obvious that democracies are systems in which citizens freely make political decisions on the basis of majority rule. However, it must be conceded that rule by the majority is by no means not necessarily democratic in practice, given that all such systems depend on votes actually cast and counted. The concept of majority rule with respect to minority rights boils down to one word: compromise. Without this concept and the resulting compromises government would not be the model of efficiency it is today.
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