Protecting the Rights of the Minority from the
Tyranny of the Majority
We live in a democracy (technically, a republic) – so the majority rules, right? Whatever the majority says, goes.
In the late eighteenth century, Scottish jurist and historian Alexander Fraser Tytler wrote, “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy.”
In an effort to keep the United States from such a fate, our founding parents chose for us to live under a Constitutional Republic.
It works like this: Suppose you belong to a club. There is a constitution, amendments, bylaws – documents specifying exactly who can and who must do what. The president chairs meetings. The finance committee prepares the budget. The treasurer writes checks, as long as the amount and payee conform to the budget prepared by the finance committee. The majority rules, but only within the framework specified by the club’s constitution. The membership chooses the next year’s president by majority vote, because that is what is prescribed by the organizing documents.
Most important to our discussion here, however, is what the majority cannot do. For example, the club’s members cannot, by majority vote, specify the name of your next child. To return to Tytler’s pronouncement, the majority of club members cannot require the treasurer to write them checks out of the club’s funds, because under the constitution and bylaws of the club, that power is not granted to the treasurer. And that power is not granted to the majority of club members, either.
In this country, we seem to have lost track of that.
The Constitution gives to the federal government, specifically Congress, the power to provide for the common defense, regulate commerce with foreign nations, coin money, declare war, raise armies and a navy, and pay the debts of the United States – the sort of responsibilities individual states and individual people cannot reasonably be expected to carry out for themselves in a society this large and this complex. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution clearly specifies that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.
Nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government delegated the power to provide farm subsidies, establish a Department of Education, provide grants for the arts (or anything else), establish an Office of Food Labeling, hand out welfare checks, establish an Administration on Aging, give large corporations money to advertise in Europe, establish Medicare or Medicaid, provide jobs, establish a Health Care Financing Administration, ensure an easy retirement for anybody, establish a minimum wage, or require benefits for anyone working over 40 hours a week. And the fact that a lot of people are in favor of some of these programs, and some people are in favor of a lot of them, is beside the point. They are unconstitutional.
The concept of the tyranny of the majority, coined by Alexis de Tocqueville and expanded by John Stuart Mill, deals with the fact that in a democracy the majority can control everyone, because they and their democratically-elected representatives can pass legislation which will do exactly that. There are those who argue that this is what happened in Nazi Germany. And this is what the Constitution of the United States, as written and as originally interpreted, was designed to prevent happening in this country.
Alexander Tytler, cited above, reminded us that the lifespan of the world’s great civilizations has always been about 200 years, at which point their loose fiscal policy, among other things, will cause their collapse.
Voters – especially those of you in the majority: Pay attention.
Sharon Ann Harper DuBois comes from an Air Force family, and has lived in Texas, Oklahoma, California, England, and Germany. She came to Topeka as a junior in high school, and has been here ever since. She graduated from Washburn University with a degree in Mathematics. Sharon served as vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Kansas for several years, and is currently the Shawnee County coordinator. Sharon enjoys reading, knitting, and auditing classes at Washburn through the university’s over-60 auditing program. She also founded the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Kansas (GaSS-Kan). She has two sons and two grandsons.
Sharon claims to have been a Libertarian all her life. She just didn’t have a name for it until 1971.