All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

Degenerate Democracy

Majority Rule Differs from Constitutional Democracy

When all the mysticism is stripped away, the people who comprise the government (the legislators, administrators, judges, and policemen), are guided by human interests, desires, beliefs, notions, and prejudices, just like other people. They have neither superhuman wisdom nor extraordinary virtue. Nevertheless, they are expected to render an important service: to protect the life and property of each and every individual. They are to restrain wrongdoers, meet force with force, and punish peace-breakers. Toward that end, they are entrusted with the necessary instruments of coercion: the armed forces, police, and prisons.

Governments may be democratic or totalitarian, pluralistic or monistic, republican or monarchical. The form springs from the common notions of human behavior in society. Belief in a propensity to strife and conflict as a normal condition of human existence gives rise to authoritarian government. If social life consists of unending conflict, of war of all against all, society is in need of an authoritarian government as the best means of regulating the conditions of conflict. In contrast, belief in a harmony of interest of all members of society tends to give rise to limited government that merely seeks to restrain the peacebreakers.

No matter what the origin of government may be, the democratic form renders an important service that is lacking in all others forms. It provides a procedure by which individuals acquire power and are removed from power. Democratic government makes lawmakers dependent on the people’s wishes, and thereby facilitates peaceful changes if conflict should occur. Changes are subject to majority rule. Yet, rule by “simple majority” differs from “constitutional democracy” that recognizes certain individual rights and gives them some form of constitutional protection, thereby placing limitations on the whims and wishes of the majority.

Majority rule inevitably raises the question of the scope and extent of majority power. Should the vote of a simple majority always prevail over the opposition? The advocates of majoritarianism readily answer in the affirmative; any other rule, they argue, enables a minority to frustrate the majority and thus, in a sense, rule and prevail over it. Requirement of more than a simple majority, they maintain, places undesirable obstacles in the way of government.

The opponents of unlimited majority power are quick to reply that Congressional representatives may not express the will of the majority of their constituents; guided by their own interests, they may not vote the wishes of the majority, but rather their own and those of their supporters. They may represent the interests of the largest bloc of voters who may actually constitute a minority of the population, or they may not even know the majority opinion because few voters may bother to form an opinion, which is probably true in most issues confronting legislators.

Strict majoritarianism. tends to destroy the conditions of its own existence wherever the majority routinely violates the basic rights of individuals. It may suppress the basic freedom of expression and association, deny the minority any consideration and weight, deprive it of the right to participate in the political process, and refuse it fair treatment and “due process.” It may even relegate minorities to inferior positions in political, social, and economic life, assign numerous duties and liabilities, and extract from them an inordinate share of their income and wealth. In possession of all the powers of coercion, majoritarian government may blithely ignore and defy the moral laws that proscribe all forms of harm to any and all individuals.

Social peace and harmony can be preserved only if all members of society are free to participate in democratic institutions and are treated equally before the law. Yet, many champions of majoritarianism never tire of criticizing this political and legal equality for being inadequate; they would extend the scope of equality to economic life through “fairer” distribution of income and wealth. They would forcibly reduce economic inequality, although their efforts would necessitate the use of much coercion and violence. After all, people differ in capacity, skill, strength, industry, and health, which necessarily results in unequal income and wealth. Individual inequality, in fact, is a great advantage to both the individual and society, bringing forth man’s division of labor and social cooperation. To enforce equality is to deny human nature and work evil on everyone including those it is supposed to benefit.

A policy designed to enforce economic equality opens the doors for demagoguery and politics at its worst. It invites expedient politicians to stir up the resentment of the poor against the rich so that they may elect the demagogues to positions of power and largess. It appeals to envy and covetousness, and elevates demagoguery to an important device of democratic politics. In the end, politics is likely to become an art of promises, evasions, and systematic pursuit of expedience, making the body politic the primary source of social conflict and strife. All democratic societies have foundered on the rocks of moral decay and domestic strife.

Envy is more irreconcilable than hate. It is the most corroding of all political vices and also a great power in our land. The friends of freedom are content to be envied, but envy not.


Hans F. Sennholz

  • Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007) was Ludwig von Mises' first PhD student in the United States. He taught economics at Grove City College, 1956–1992, having been hired as department chair upon arrival. After he retired, he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education, 1992–1997.