Published in Capitalism Magazine

[May 30, 2004]

Majority Rule: The Tyrants Next Door

By Wayne Dunn

There's a funny little radio spot that's been running lately. It's a (fake) phone conversation between a man who wanted his car painted midnight blue and a guy at the paint shop who tells him they've gone with "a stunning shade of lilac" instead. "We just thought it'd look better that way," the guy explains to the fuming customer.

A solemn voice at the end says, "When you don't vote, other people make decisions for you."

When you really think about it, though, the ad refutes its own intended message. The man did "vote" - he told them the color he wanted. But he lost out to those who "voted" differently. The voice at the end should've said: "Beware the tyranny of the majority."

Apart from its bad analogy, the ad implies that voting for something ensures a just outcome.

Tell that to former American Idol contestants Jennifer Hudson and La Toya London. Both were voted off the popular TV show despite being far more talented than some of the competitors who got more votes.

Of course, the show's a private enterprise and no one's rights were violated. Nonetheless, it illustrates just how easy it is for a majority to get it wrong.

In a political context, majority rule can prove not merely wrong but downright fatal. In ancient Athens, for instance, a majority of voters sentenced Socrates to death because of his controversial teachings. And just seventy years ago a voting majority in Germany elected the Nazis.

Fortunately, America's founders understood the evils of unlimited majority rule. Said John Adams: "It necessary to defend an individual against the majority in a democracy as against the king in a monarchy."

The Founding Fathers based our system not on the votes of the masses, but on the rights of the individual. Governments, they said, are instituted only to secure these rights.

But suppose that wasn't the case. Suppose freedom of speech or the right to worship, for example, hinged on majority rule. Would speech then be "free" or worship a "right"? No, it'd be approved speech and authorized worship - gifts of the ballot box, revocable at some future election.

Sadly, even many otherwise intelligent people seem not to grasp this concept fully. They've gotten it into their noggins that so long as there's a solid turnout at the voting booth, then all's well with the country. Regardless of what's being voted on, or what particular rights-trampling plan this or that politician champions, if enough of us will just show up on election day and pull a lever, then freedom's secure.

That's the idea that public service messages like that silly lilac car ad help reinforce. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Let's say you're a landowner, for example. You have property rights the government's supposed to defend, correct? Not so fast. In today's anything-goes climate, the government could, under environmental laws, prohibit you from developing your property or, under eminent domain laws, hand it over to developers. Politicians courting "green" votes might support the former, those courting "business" votes the latter.

Voting isn't the answer to our problems. Voting - or more accurately, making everything susceptible to a vote - is the problem.

If you were told a robber's been authorized to rip you off by entering either through your window or door, is there any comfort in being allowed to vote which? Or would the vote itself merely make for a self-righteous thief, his crime having been lent the respectability commonly attached to "democratic" outcomes?

The principle is no different if the thief is the government and the voters your neighbors.

There's a line from the Revolutionary War movie "The Patriot" that encapsulates this point eloquently. As colonists were debating whether to impose a tax to raise a militia and fight the British, Mel Gibson's character says, "Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?An elected legislature can trample a man's rights as easily as a King can."

Looks like we're learning that lesson the hard way.

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© COPYRIGHT 2004 by Wayne Dunn