Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

Tyranny of the majority
Spectator ^ | 18 May 2002 | Roger Scruton

Posted on 05/20/2002 8:38:05 AM PDT by Korth

Democracy is a procedure that people adopt in order to make collective decisions. It is not the only such procedure. Nor is it always the best one. Some decisions should be made by experts; some should be made by those in authority or those appointed by the law. Some decisions should not be made at all. But people are attracted to democracy, since it seems to confer legitimacy. This doesn’t mean that the majority is always right, or that democratic decisions are necessarily wiser than the alternatives. It means that, whether a choice is right or wrong, the people as a whole are more likely to accept it if they think of it as theirs.

‘Brrr! It’s a bit parky out here today.’

A democracy depends upon a durable constitution, which will filter out extremist passions and reconcile conflicting interests. And a democracy is stable only if people are prepared to accept an outcome for which they did not vote. It takes a lot of history to establish a durable democratic constitution, and a lot more to produce the political culture that enables people to accept being governed by their opponents. Roman law, Christian institutions, the mediaeval doctrine of Estates and the Enlightenment ideal of free citizenship all belong to the pre-history of democratic government as we know it. That pre-history has not occurred outside Europe and its diaspora, which is why we should not be surprised if democracy has seldom taken root elsewhere.

We should be a little more surprised that democratic procedure is giving way to autocratic fiat in so many areas of our own national government — yet more surprised that we, the British people, seem so unable or unwilling to resist the change. I doubt that the ordinary British subject in 1945, having lived through a war in which we had risked everything and suffered much, could have believed that, half a century later, most of our laws would be imposed on us by unelected bureaucrats in Belgium — the country that had done least to defend itself against Hitler. I am certain that no British subject of that generation would have believed that our national weights and measures would be ruled illegal by foreigners, and the metric system imposed in their stead, without so much as a debate in Parliament. And had it been suggested then, as it is suggested now, that a British subject might be sent for trial in a foreign court, for the ill-defined and ideologically motivated offence of ‘racism and xenophobia’, itself not a crime in English law, by a foreign police force granted diplomatic immunity in our country, the first reaction would have been ‘Why on earth did we fight this war?’ Yet a whole section of our political and opinion-forming class seems to endorse these changes and to be prepared to pour scorn on those who resist them. Even for writing this paragraph I risk being branded as a ‘Little Englander’, a once neutral description which is now a term of abuse.

Although our governments have an ever-dwindling power to legislate, at least we are free to elect or eject them. But for how long? When the Austrians elected a government that displeased the Eurocrats, the latter decided that Austria must be punished by sanctions, despite being a member of the Union. And when the European process has required a referendum in order to proceed to its next stage, a ‘No’ has never been accepted. The Danes and the Irish have tried saying no, only to be told that they must try again.

It is not only the European Union that has confiscated legislative powers from Parliament. All international bodies set up by governments have a similar tendency. The crisis afflicting British farming is due in part to the Common Agricultural Policy and to the regime of regulations issuing from Europe. But it is rendered far worse by the World Trade Organisation, which forbids the protective measures without which farming in a cold climate is economically unviable. Previous governments, being genuinely democratic, asked themselves whether it is in the interests of the British people to maintain a flourishing agriculture and to be self-sufficient in food. They came up with a resounding ‘yes’, and legislated accordingly. Today they cannot legislate, and therefore forbid themselves to ask the question. It is embarrassing, after all, to confront your own futility.

This failure to resist the diktats of trans-national bureaucracies goes hand-in-hand with a carelessness towards democratic procedures at home. The Scots can now vote on all English matters, despite having a parliament of their own from which the English are excluded. This violates a long-standing principle of democratic government, which is that of territorial integrity. India was once ruled from Westminster, by a government elected by the British people; but it would have been a gross insult to the Indians to tell them that they were therefore democratically governed. Yet we, the English, have to endure this insult every day, and it is particularly galling when reiterated by a government composed largely of Scots.

Yet more important, to my mind, is the erosion of the political culture on which a democracy depends. The rights of minorities are no longer factored into the political equation, and little effort is now made to secure the acquiescence of those who are adversely affected by the law. Our democracy grew from a system of territorial representation, according to which a Member of Parliament is elected to represent the interests of his constituents — and that meant all of his constituents, however they had voted. Tony Banks recently told the House of Commons that it does not matter how many thousands of people march through the streets of London to demonstrate against the proposed ban on hunting, since ‘none of them would vote for us in any case’. Gone was any suggestion that Mr Banks is in Parliament to represent the people of his borough. He is there, according to his opinion, to represent a party, and those who share the party’s views.

The debate over hunting shows that the principle of toleration, without which no democracy can endure for long, is readily abandoned whenever the victim is some detested minority of Englishmen. Procedures have been arbitrarily applied, and as arbitrarily set aside, in the interests of an implacable majority in the House of Commons. The government’s own commission of inquiry is being ignored, and the Parliament Act is likely to be invoked, even though there has been no manifesto commitment to a ban. The ‘tyranny of the majority’ against which John Stuart Mill warned in Considerations on Representative Government is now a reality — and the worst of it is that it is a majority of the House of Commons only, and not of the people as a whole, still less of those qualified to judge how pests ought to be controlled or rural society organised.

Mill argued that the tyranny of the majority could be avoided by a constitution, designed to balance short-term passions against long-term interests and majority power against minority rights. The question then arises, who is to enforce the constitution? The makers of the Scottish Parliament rejected the traditional idea of a second chamber and proposed a system of committees instead. These committees were empowered to scrutinise proposed legislation and to recommend its rejection or amendment on constitutional grounds. When the Scottish rural affairs committee examined Lord Watson’s anti-hunting Bill, it decided that it must be thrown out, as unjustified, oppressive and unworkable. The recommendation was simply ignored. That is the kind of conduct against which Mill was warning us: superficially democratic in appearance, but profoundly tyrannical in fact.

Not content with rubber-stamping European Directives by the hundred every year, Parliament is constantly inventing new forms of regulation, new crimes and new ways of controlling us, with seemingly no awareness of the fact that people are best regulated when they regulate themselves. Ours is a society based on citizenship rather than ideological conformity or totalitarian control. And citizenship exists only where governments respect the distinctions between the private and the public, the social and the political, the rule of custom and the rule of law. Citizenship requires us to refrain from legislating, wherever society can maintain itself in equilibrium without the burden of law. And the more the law intrudes into our lives, expropriating the realm of custom and extinguishing private choice, the less do we behave like citizens. The rise in crime is directly proportional to the increase in the number of laws: and while politicians imagine that the laws are the solution to the bad behaviour, they are, in fact, the cause of it. For these laws, fired at random into the crowd, serve merely to kill off the sense of responsibility, while bringing the law itself into disrepute. If innocent pastimes like hunting are to be described as crimes, then it is no condemnation of rape or burglary to describe them likewise.

If we look back to the origins of democracy, we will find something very different from today’s hyperactive parliaments, driven by ideology, big business and pressure-groups, and passing law after law without bothering to check the result for mistakes of grammar, still less for mistakes of thought. Democracy arose because people wanted freedom, not control. It was born from the resistance to autocratic power, from the demand for taxation by consent and not by force, and from the recognition that armies should be composed of citizens not slaves. The real purpose of democratic government is less to impose laws than to prevent them. The ideal democratic government is one that goes from year to year without passing a single Act of Parliament, without trespassing on a single social custom and without violating a single established right. Such a government can exist — but perhaps only in the hands of an elite which sees the value of doing nothing. Or, to put it in the terms favoured by Aristotle, democracy should be part of a mixed government, in which the will of the democratic majority is tempered by aristocratic liberty and monarchical pomp. It should conform to the saying of an aristocratic prime minister, Lord Salisbury: ‘Delay is life’.


TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Government; Philosophy; Politics/Elections; United Kingdom
KEYWORDS: britain; democracy; europeanunion; worldgovernment

1 posted on 05/20/2002 8:38:05 AM PDT by Korth
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: Korth
Amen! To think there are people on this site who LOVE "ballot initiatives." Direct Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner.
2 posted on 05/20/2002 9:55:35 AM PDT by Clemenza
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Korth
Democracy is a procedure that people adopt in order to make collective decisions. It is not the only such procedure. Nor is it always the best one.

I think I will disagree with the author on that quote. To quote a great thinker on such matters, "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the 'worst' form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time."

3 posted on 05/20/2002 10:04:15 AM PDT by TheDon
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Korth
California is an example of how democracy can be corrupted by the purchase of votes by the government. The left has continued to grow a base of welfare leeches to stay in power. The tax leeches outnumber the taxpayers in the voting booth. The means of overturning the tyranny of the majority is to exit the scene and leave the leeches to collapse under the weight of their own stupidity. We are fortunate to have the ability to escape the tyranny by stepping across a state line.
4 posted on 05/20/2002 10:17:35 AM PDT by Myrddin
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Clemenza
I could not agree more. I just paid $8.65 for one can of Copenhagen here in Washington State. So I guess I will have to start breaking the law and start buying it in Idaho or on the reservation. The power to tax is the power to destroy and it's always fun when they are doing it to someone else. Lets impose a $10.00 tax on all organically grown food and give the libs a taste of tyranny.
5 posted on 05/20/2002 10:18:30 AM PDT by usurper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: Korth
Another good post
6 posted on 05/20/2002 10:24:34 AM PDT by Free the USA
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Korth
Bump for later reading.
7 posted on 05/20/2002 10:27:59 AM PDT by Bump in the night
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Clemenza
"Amen! To think there are people on this site who LOVE "ballot initiatives." Direct Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner."

OK. But what about the tyranny of the Minority?? This is happening under our Republican form of government. Our representives are ignoring the welfare of the average Joe by ignoring the the threat of illegal immigration, allowing vocal leftists to impose their values on our children in the public schools and passing laws that empower the trial lawyers. The tyranny works both ways.

8 posted on 05/20/2002 10:34:05 AM PDT by FreedomSurge
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: Korth
Good article, but British history misleads Scruton. Wealthy, liberty-loving Whigs were able to ride the democratic wave into power, but eventually the democratic tide would sweep them away. In other countries, and even in a later phase of British history, democracy was much more about masses and power than about liberty.

It's curious that the decline of socialist ideology hasn't produced a slackening of the regulatory momentum Scruton deplores. Maybe it's because the regulations promoted by middle class "progressive" busybodies can't simply be ascribed to mass or socialist or working class or populist movements that scare the middle classes. The fact that upper middle class professionals propose and administer such regulations may comfort and reassure other segments of the middle and upper classes.

9 posted on 05/20/2002 10:49:57 AM PDT by x
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: FreedomSurge
Depending upon where you live, the average Joe (and especially the average Jane)may be a gun grabbing state-worshipping nincompoop who keeps voting for more and more "public projects" and more and more pork. The majority of this nation is NOT conservative, unfortunatly, so a direct democracy would make some of us suffer even more than we are now.
10 posted on 05/20/2002 11:39:00 AM PDT by Clemenza
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Clemenza
I Don't disagree with you about the potential for there to be a tyranny of the majority. Our very republican government was set up to avoid this problem. The populace was supposed to elect their betters to represent them. However, what seems to be going on now is a tyranny of the minority. How else can special interests, such as the feminists, force their agenda down the throats of the rest of America?
11 posted on 05/20/2002 12:11:11 PM PDT by FreedomSurge
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 10 | View Replies]

To: x
It's curious that the decline of socialist ideology hasn't produced a slackening of the regulatory momentum Scruton deplores.

There is no decline in Socialist ideology in Britain. The post-Thatcher British Labour Party--as indeed the Social Democrats on the Continent as well--now recognize that "Nationalizing" industry and commerce were a disaster. Thus they accept private buisness. But the Socialist egalitarian mania to establish a uniform Socialist value system is as fanatical as ever. Just look at some of the absurd things that the EU has gotten into--such as Feminism, Homosexual rights, and efforts to force the acceptability of third world immigration. No one in the British Government is antagonistic to that part of the EU agenda.

And there is not that much difference, really, between a Statist and Corporate Bureaucracy, if both are required to accept the idea of an undifferentiated humanity, in which equality, not liberty is a goal.

Of course, the Founding Fathers intended to establish a Republic at the Federal level, with a duty--among many others--of helping the States preserve their own Republican forms of Government. The great danger, they needed to guard against, as Madison made clear in the Federalist Papers, was a Democracy.

A procedural Democracy, where elections are decided by a majority vote among those qualified to vote (and there is one of the rubs in modern America, we have mindlessly enfranchised people obviously unqualified to vote) is one thing. So long as the powers of the Government, itself, are strictly defined and clearly limited, the potential for mischief is controlled. But a substantive Democracy--such as they claimed in Communist Russia and Nazi Germany--where the Will of the majority is the supreme law of the land--is just possibly the worst of all forms of Government. Again, that latter was most certainly not what was vouchsafed to us.

William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site

12 posted on 05/20/2002 2:07:37 PM PDT by Ohioan
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

To: Korth
This is an excellent discussion, and every word of it applies to the United States in its "relationships" with the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. We, too, are losing sovereignty daily to those two organizations.

We in the US have one saving grace that Britain lacks (maybe). Their Constitution is unwritten, and is merely a compilation of the laws of Parliement and other sources such as the Magna Carta. Their Constitution is revisible at will by Act of Parliament. Our Constitution is of a different form. Ours is in writing, and (in theory, anyway) cannot be revised except by act of the people, through both the Congress and the legislatures of the various states.

As long as we have a majority of judges, and Justices, who understand that their task is to enforve the law as pressented, not to change it when they choose, then our bulwark against loss of sovereignty is greater than that of the British. But the Democrats in our government think exactly like the Liberals in the British government, They think that if they can cobble together a majority, that means they have a right to do whatever they want.

And in the Senate, the Democrats think that doing what they want includes blocking the confirmation of judges who believe in obeying the law -- including the Constitution -- as written. In short, the same forces that are eroding British self-determination like a sand castle before the incoming tide, are also at work in the United States.

The destruction on these shores will take longer, because it is more complex institutionally and because we are not yet as far down that sad road. But unless we change direction, that is EXACTLY where we are headed.

I heartily commend this long but worthwhile article to all FReepers. I have seen the future, and it isn't pretty.

Congressman Billybob

Click here to fight Campaign Finance "Reform" - CFR

Click here for latest: "More Mush from the Wimp."

13 posted on 05/20/2002 2:13:35 PM PDT by Congressman Billybob
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson