All Commentary
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Against Majority Rule


Once again Election Day is almost upon us. For many the concept of majority rule has reached religious proportions. Once the people have chosen, to disagree is seen as un-patriotic, made particularly worse if one hasn’t voted. This concept of the primacy of majority rule, however, is the cliché of socialism number 46. Leonard Read argues this is a cliché because he rejects any government’s right to rule and control any individual, whether by 51 percent majority or a single despot. For Read, the governments purpose is not to control or have “authority over” the citizens. No one has this right over anyone. What we do have a right to do is to protect our lives and liberty, and this is the task of goverance. While, his argument is centered on natural rights he also sounds amazingly like a constitutional political economist.

In this article, as in much of Read’s writings, there is a strong positive claim supporting his moral normative argument. Natural rights, which are rights that can be universally applied to everyone, are supported because of the social cooperation they help create. In this instance majority rule, in the sense of “authority over”, is rejected because of the negative affect it has upon personal responsibility. Majority rule lessens the sense of responsibility when combined into a single majority because each individual is just one of many who supported the act. When someone loses this sense of responsibility it creates incentives to act more irresponsible because each individuals does not pay the whole cost. This is caused by a simple concept known as concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. And as economist Bryan Caplan shows, in his book the Myth of the Rational Voter, individuals can indulge in their bias beliefs the more the costs are dispersed. And this has a negative effect for society as a whole. It is important to remember that individuals act not groups. So, majority rule, in this sense, simply encourages irresponsible choices by individuals, which we will all pay for.

This is not to say Read is rejecting democracy. What he is rejecting is a certain kind of democracy. As Vincent Ostrom pointed out, “democratic societies are vulnerable to an unlimited pursuit of strategic opportunism when peoples are spared the cares of thinking and the troubles of living.” This illustrates the importance of constitutional rules to limit the power anyone individual can have. We should strive for the type of democracy that encourages self-governance. What we want is to stress power-with relationships rather than power-over relationships. And this is a point Read understands very well, as he says, “to be sure, reliance on a majority of individual choices as a means of selecting the guardians of our life, livelihood, liberty is at least a theoretical safeguard against the guardians becoming rulers. But if the theoretical safeguard is to be made operative, it is required that these choices be founded on an understanding that no person, or any combination of persons, is qualified to rule and, also, that the choices be an accurate reflection of his understanding.”

As Lysander Spooner said, “a man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.” A true democracy built on freedom does not give power to anyone to rule over others but instead, as Ostrom explains, “implies both responsibility and a willingness to take into account of the interests of others in what can be called patterns of social accountability.” Our society currently seems to support a majority rule represented by the former, so on this election day if asked, I, like Leonard Read, will unequivocally reply, “No! I do not believe in majority rule.” What about you?

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.