On Tyranny

Published at 18:58 on 22 July 2019

The Right is fond of going on about the “tyranny of the majority” and defending systems such as the Electoral College and legislative supermajority requirements meant to prevent it.

Here’s the thing, though: If you’re a member of a minority group, and you want to see your political will prevail, now, there really isn’t any option available to your group other than brute force. (Becoming the majority via persuasion takes time.) Any reasonably open and democratic system is going to deny your group the ability to set policy contrary to the desires of the majority. If you’re in the majority, by contrast, you don’t have to choose tyranny. Democracy and openness will work just fine.

Tyranny, therefore, can logically be expected to tempt powerful minorities more than it does popular majorities.

Many of the examples of tyranny of the majority just don’t hold water. Take slavery, which is claimed to be a form of tyranny of the majority because whites outnumbered blacks. Here’s the thing, though: whites were divided on the issue, and northern whites were growing in power as the North grew in population at a faster rate than the South. The abolitionist literature of the 19th century is full of complaints about the “slave power” that allowed the South’s ruling class the ability to use undemocratic protections for their minority viewpoint. And, of course, the opinions of blacks when it came to slavery were totally disregarded as a matter of law (only white males could vote).

So it was actually the political power of the pro-slavery minority that allowed slavery to last as long as it did.

Or just look at today. If it weren’t for the Electoral College, we’d have a far less pro-tyranny president in the White House right now. That which is argued to prevent the elevation of extremist, intolerant ideas is in fact facilitating precisely that.

And this holds in general. Most hierarchical societies are ruled by and for a tiny elite, that benefits from a hierarchy that is not in the interests of the vast many. In democratic societies, this is done by deception. That is a relatively new development; traditionally, such rule has been by brute force.

Therefore, precisely as one would expect, the vast majority of tyrannies throughout the historical record have been tyrannies of a minority. Worrying about “tyranny of the majority” while ignoring this elephant in the living room is like worrying about dogs being injured by people biting them.

Yes, it’s theoretically possible for people to bite dogs, and if you search the news, you can probably find examples of it happening (the world is a large place). That doesn’t then prove that leashes and muzzles are unneeded and what really needs to be done is to add the biting of dogs by humans to the criminal code as a very serious felony.

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