Is Majority Rule at Stake?

In a recent New York Times editorial , Thomas Friedman expressed his concern over the current government shutdown and what it means for the United States:

What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule.

He also mentions again later in the column that “majority rule” is one of the major rules of our system. I’ve expressed before, but I feel the need to point out that I think Friedman is a little off-base when he argues that this issue comes down to the fact that the U.S. is based on the principle of “majority rule.”

When I was in high school, I knew another student who would raise his hand whenever any of us referred to the United States as a “democracy,” in order to point out to us that we’d gotten it all wrong and that the U.S. was a “constitutional republic.” I always found that to be an extremely annoying habit. A good number of us knew that before it was pointed out and, by the end of that semester, everyone else had heard it a million times. The kid failed to realize that most people simply use the word “democracy” colloquially, as a catch-all for pluralistic, representative government. Outside of a philosophical debate on government, that usage more or less works out alright.

The kid was technically right though, and I have to wonder if he read Friedman’s column this past week (and if he hasn’t broken himself of this habit by now). The Founding Fathers created the government of the United States as a constitutional republic, not a democracy, because they approached the idea of majority rule with careful suspicion. (I’m not usually one to make arguments concerning the Founding Fathers, but here their words actually do have some relevance).

From John Adams:

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.

From James Madison:

The great danger in republics is that the majority will not respect the rights of the minority.


Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.

From Benjamin Franklin:

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!

Now, I’m no friend of the House Republicans, but it’s worth pointing out that the strategy of threatening a government shutdown in order to extract concessions from the President and the Senate Democrats only works for one reason: the Republican Party controls a–you guessed it– majority in the House of Representatives. It’s also worth noting that many of the members of that majority were elected in response to the Affordable Care Act. (In fact, although I do understand Friedman’s concerns regarding the shutdown, there is an entire body of state criticism that argues that political parties are virtually indistinguishable from one another, so there are some thinkers who probably find all of this shutdown business to be pretty refreshing).

In Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market , Murray Rothbard tackles the issue of direct democracies and representative democracies head on, and brings up a couple of points that I personally found to be far more interesting than Friedman’s. One of his points, which undermines Friedman’s anger over Republican district gerrymandering, deals with the arbitrary nature of the limits of national democracies.

Logical problems arise almost immediately. One is that different forms of electoral arrangements, different delimitations of geographical districts, all equally arbitrary, will often greatly alter the picture of the “majority will.” If a country is divided into districts for choosing representatives, then “gerrymandering” is inherent in such a division: there is no satisfactory, rational way of demarking the divisions. The party in power at the time of division, or redivision, will inevitably alter the districts to produce a systematic bias in its favor; but no other way is inherently more rational or more truly evocative of majority will. Moreover, the very division of the earth’s surface into countries is itself arbitrary. If a government covers a certain geographical area, does “democracy” mean that a majority group in a certain district should be permitted to secede and form its own government, or to join another country? Does democracy mean majority rule over a larger, or over a smaller, area? In short, which majority should prevail? The very concept of a national democracy is, in fact, self-contradictory. For if someone contends that the majority in Country X should govern that country, then it could be argued with equal validity that the majority of a certain district within Country X should be allowed to govern itself and secede from the larger country, and this subdividing process can logically proceed down to the village block, the apartment house, and, finally, each individual, thus marking the end of all democratic government through reduction to individual self-government.

One of Rothbard’s most interesting contributions–and one that has the most relevance to the debate at hand–is the insight that representative democracy is largely the residue of a technologically impaired past. If democracy and majority rule are superior ways of making state- and nation-wide decisions, then communications technologies have made a system of direct democracy completely feasible.

Modern technology does make it possible to have direct democracy. Certainly, each man could easily vote on issues several times per week by recording his choice on a device attached to his television set. This would not be difficult to achieve. And yet, why has no one seriously suggested a return to direct democracy, now that it may be feasible? The people could elect representatives through proportional representation, solely as advisers, to submit bills to the people, but without having ultimate voting power themselves. The final vote would be that of the people themselves, all voting directly. In a sense, the entire voting public would be the legislature, and the representatives could act as committees to bring bills before this vast legislature…

The objection to direct democracy will undoubtedly be that the people are uninformed and therefore not capable of deciding on the complex issues that face the legislature….the “modern democrat” who scoffs at direct democracy on the ground that the people are not intelligent or informed enough to decide the complex issues of government, is caught in another fatal contradiction: he assumes that the people are sufficiently intelligent and informed to vote on the people who will make these decisions. But if a voter is not competent to decide issues A, B, C, etc., how in the world could he possibly be qualified to decide whether Mr. X or Mr. Y is better able to handle A, B, or C? In order to make this decision, the voter would have to know a great deal about the issues and know enough about the persons whom he is selecting. In short, he would probably have to know morein a representative than in a direct democracy.  Furthermore, the average voter is necessarily less qualified to choose persons to decide issues than he is to vote on the issues themselves. For the issues are at least intelligible to him, and he can understand some of their relevance; but the candidates are people whom he cannot possibly know personally and whom he therefore knows essentially nothing about. Hence, he can vote for them only on the basis of their external “personalities,” glamorous smiles, etc., rather than on their actual competence; as a result, however ill-informed the voter, his choice is almost bound to be less intelligent under a representative republic than in a direct democracy.

There is much, much more. Now, I understand that Friedman is writing a roughly 800-or-so-word column and not a philosophical treatise on the nature of government, and I get his concern over the government shutdown and what it means for the 113th Congress. But to claim majority rule and end it at that papers over the complexities of the current debate in a way that seems slightly inappropriate or irresponsible, and in my opinion ignores some of the realities of how we got to where we are in the first place.

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