The tyranny of majority

Group of people

Sometimes I get the feeling people do not really understand what this whole democracy business is all about. I am sure that you too many times have seen arguments like „that is what majority wants, so we have to do it that way“, or „religion is in schools because the majority is religious“. So, let us see if these kinds of arguments have any merit or make sense.

Superficially, it seems you can indeed say, for example, the Catholic religion is being taught at schools because the majority of the population is Catholic. Does that make sense? Let us see.

Let's start by saying that democracy does not really equal majority rule. Democracy is a SYSTEM of government. Democracy means that citizens elect representatives to form a governing body. In this context, majority rule is a way of choosing those representatives. Democracy also means that those in power are RESPONSIBLE to the majority and to the individuals.

Of course, there is such a thing as a direct democracy – this means that citizens do not rely on representatives, but make the decisions directly. This is how the Ancient Athens used to do it. Citizens voted directly on the bills and laws – not all citizens, only males and Athenian citizens. "It was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was not open to all residents: to vote one had to be an adult, male citizen i.e. neither a foreign resident, slave or a woman"

Source: Athenian democracy -

Of course, as you can imagine, this system is not without criticism and is far from perfect. First of all, it’s simply too much work – it is impractical. People do need to get on with their lives. Next, this is where the most minorities problems can occur. Almost nothing beneficial could possibly happen to any group that is in minority. And maybe the biggest complaint is that the voter doesn’t understand all of the implications of the thing he is voting for.

As direct democracy is not the point of this article, let’s just conclude that it would more easily enable for a tyranny of the majority than representative democracy does. This article is written by a layperson, and it lacks any technical jargon, yet for the majority of people, it is simply too tiresome to read. People do not want to be REALLY informed about the issues, they want somebody to summarize it for them. Until that changes, direct democracy IMO can’t really work.

Basically, there is an inherent weakness in democracy – majority can place interests over the minority, so theoretically, without further restrictions, it would be possible to vote for a system where slavery is allowed – if that is what the majority wants. One can easily imagine a huge amount of problems with having a majority deciding EVERYTHING. If we are philosophically inclined, we can say that pure democracy can ultimately be used to overthrow itself. It is not so difficult to imagine a situation where the majority decides not to be able to decide anymore – and in effect, democracy could serve to install a tyrant. In short, if left unchecked, democracy can be used to overthrow democracy.

So, it should be clear from those two absurd examples, that there cannot be an unlimited possibility to vote on anything. It simply cannot exist. There have to be limits on what the majority can decide. Not only that, but there must be a protection of the individual against majorities – if for no other reason, then because technically any of us can become the minority based on some criteria.

So, if we take these examples and apply them to religion in schools, for example, this would mean that the majority has the right to impose their religion upon the minority. That is only a small piece of what would actually happen because, for example, some religions teach that the bible story of creation is literally true – which would hurt the right to a proper education.

The governments have a responsibility to protect us from majorities – they cannot allow the tyranny of the king to be replaced with the tyranny of a larger group. This is why there cannot be votes on the issues of rights – we cannot have a system of power where some benefit at the expense of others.

If the voting is allowed on issues of personal rights, it is hard to see why voting should be allowed on the issue of gay marriage, for example, but forbidden on the issue of an interracial marriage. It is dangerous to allow such voting. Rights cannot be voted on. Or at least it should not be possible to vote on them.

So, what can be a right? Why would we grant gays rights to get married – or not – why would we grant – but what makes gay marriage a right?

Well, that is an extremely difficult question, but basically, anything which doesn’t inflict any harm on anyone – including those that practice it – there is no reason to limit it, there is no reason to make laws against it, there is no reason to discriminate anyone for doing it. Them doing it does not hurt you or the person doing it in any way, while with prayer in schools, for example, other children are indeed excluded and hurt.

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