Tyranny of the majority
The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses") is used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule. It involves a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of a tyrant or despot.
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- Critic: Are you trying to say that majority tyranny is simply an illusion? If so, that is going to be small comfort to a minority whose fundamental rights are trampled on by an abusive majority. I think you need to consider seriously two possibilities; first, that a majority will infringe on the rights of a minority, and second, that a majority may oppose democracy itself.
Advocate: Let's take up the first. The issue is sometimes presented as a paradox. If a majority is not entitled to do so, then it is thereby deprived of its rights; but if a majority is entitled to do so, then it can deprive the minority of its rights. The paradox is supposed to show that no solution can be both democratic and just. But the dilemma seems to be spurious.
Of course a majority might have the power or strength to deprive a minority of its political rights. [...] The question is whether a majority may rightly use its primary political rights to deprive a minority of its primary political rights.
The answer is clearly no. To put it another way, logically it can't be true that the members of an association ought to govern themselves by the democratic process, and at the same time a majority of the association may properly strip a minority of its primary political rights. For, by doing so the majority would deny the minority the rights necessary to the democratic process. In effect therefore the majority would affirm that the association ought not to govern itself by the democratic process. They can't have it both ways.
Critic: Your argument may be perfectly logical. But majorities aren't always perfectly logical. They may believe in democracy to some extent and yet violate its principles. Even worse, they may not believe in democracy and yet they may cynically use the democratic process to destroy democracy. [...] Without some limits, both moral and constitutional, the democratic process becomes self-contradictory, doesn't it?
Advocate: That's exactly what I've been trying to show. Of course democracy has limits. But my point is that these are built into the very nature of the process itself. If you exceed those limits, then you necessarily violate the democratic process.
- Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (1989), Ch. 12 : Process and Substance
- When an individual endeavors to lift himself above his fellows, he is dragged down by the mass, either by means of ridicule or of calumny. No one shall be more virtuous or more intellectually gifted than others. Whoever, by the irresistible force of genius, rises above the common herd is certain to be ostracized by society, which will pursue him with such merciless derision and detraction that at last he will be compelled to retreat into the solitude of his thoughts.
- Heinrich Heine, Heinrich Heine: His Wit, Wisdom, Poetry (1892), p. 26
- Men are not infallible; they err very often. It is not true that the masses are always right and know the means for attaining the ends aimed at. “Belief in the common man” is no better founded than was belief in the supernatural gifts of kings, priests, and noblemen. Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster. Majorities too may err and destroy our civilization.
- Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949), Ch. 9 : The Role of Ideas
- To secure approval one must remain within the bounds of conventional mediocrity. Whatever lies beyond, whether it be greater insight and virtue, or greater stolidity and vice, is condemned. The noblest men, like the worst criminals, have been done to death.
- John Lancaster Spalding, Aphorisms and Reflections (1901), p. 196