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Liberal Democracies Tyranny of the Majority

The word democracy comes from the Greek words demos meaning people, and krátos meaning power. Traditionally it is said to mean rule by the people, however there is no universal definition on what constitutes a democracy. Today it is largely used interchangeably with the concept of ‘liberal democracy’ however there is a crucial difference. The word ‘democracy’ can be used to define any state where the people have power; as opposed to in a ‘liberal democracy’ which denotes the concept of democracy together with both autonomy and capitalism. The original Greek democracy was what is now called ‘direct democracy’. In a direct democracy, citizens (those eligible to vote) participated directly in the government, for example they voted themselves in the assembly. Today however we use a type of democracy we call ‘representative democracy’. In a representative democracy the people do not participate or vote themselves, but rather they elect a representative to do this on their behalf. In either type of democracy, for any action to take place it must be supported by the majority of the votes, ensuring that the majority of the people support the action. However this also creates a problem that the minority may be tyrannised by the majority (tyranny of the majority).

There are many examples of tyranny of the majority in politics, in fact in EVERY vote in which there is a single vote opposed to the majority; we could define as a tyranny of the majority. For example the Hunting Act 2004 designed to ban hunting with dogs (particularly fox hunting), passed by a vote of 356 to 166 in the house of commons… This act forces the opinion of the majority (that fox hunting should be banned) onto the majority (who believe it shouldn’t be banned). Regardless of the merits of the act; it forces the minority to conform to the majority; otherwise known as tyranny. Another example could be the recent The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) Order 2010. This amendment to the misuse of drugs act schedules 4–Methylmethcathinone (popularly known as methedrone) among others, as a class B drug. This act passed by the majority effectively criminalises the minority of people who used (or abused…) methedrone.

In relation to the liberal concepts of autonomy and capitalism these acts have an adverse effect! Autonomy in relation to liberal democracy means that individuals are independently self-governing i.e may make decisions free from government coercion. Both of these acts reduce the autonomy of the individual to make choices independently and freely. Capitalism an economic system in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the private sector (i.e the individual, representing the minority) as opposed to the public (i.e the government, representing the majority). Both of the acts effectively remove hunting and methedrone from the private sector, bringing them into the public sector.

However it obviously isn’t that simple. Proponents of the hunting act 2004 argue that animals have rights that must be protected. In this case the hunting act 2004 is arguably protecting the autonomy and private interests of the animals, thus conforming with liberal political theory. There is a similar argument that proponents of the Misuse of Drugs amendment 2010 can use… Since methedrone is an addictive substance it will interfere with individual’s ability to make choices freely; thus also conforming to the concepts of autonomy and capitalism.

Now that I have given a definition and provided examples of tyranny of the majority, I will discuss how its effect is affected by the following:



Pressure groups and the media

Elections have a great impact on the extent to which the minority is tyrannised by the majority. There are two ways elections have an impact: a) the frequency and b) the electoral system. By ‘frequency’ I am alluding to the term of office representative are elected for, this effects how susceptible they are to public opinion (or not.) Alexis de Tocqueville first presents the argument that political institutions with frequent elections will be too easily ‘swayed by the wishes of the majority’. In particular he argued the US legislature is subject to “the daily passions of their constituents.” However Tocqueville was referring to the US where the lower house is elected every 2 years and the upper house elected every 6 years. In the UK the lower house is elected at a maximum of every 5 years and the upper house not at all. Thus the House of Commons is much less sensitive to public opinion compared to the US House of Representatives for two reasons; because the elections are less frequent and because they are unfixed. The unfixed nature of the UK elections is very important as the government will only call an election when they are running high in the polls (or if they are otherwise forced too). In theory the House of lords could be totally unresponsive to the public as they are unelected; however they still are likely follow public opinion to some degree out of principle.

(Tocqueville, A. 1839. Democracy in America, 3rd Edition, George Adlard, New York)

The electoral system can either increase or help protect against the ‘tyranny of the majority’. The First Past The Post electoral system used in the UK significantly increases it when compared to other systems. This is because FPTP rewards the first and second largest parties disproportionately to any third party. We can see this in the UK 2010 general election…


This pie chart shows that the vote-seat ratio for minority parties is much lower than it is for majority parties. Under a proportional system this would be significantly reduced. Thus the electoral system has a large impact on tyranny of the majority.

Constitutions are created in order to protect the people from tyranny; we can also interpret this to mean protecting the minority from the majority. For example the US constitution guarantees freedom of speech, expression and religion under the 1st amendment. In order to change the US constitution, among other qualifications, 75% of state legislators much support the amendment; this is known as a massive majority. Unlike the US the UK has an uncodified constitution; it is composed of statutes, such as the parliament acts of 1911 and 1941, treaties, such as the Treaty of Lisbon 2007, as well as common law, parliamentary conventions and works of authority. Certain rights are protected under Magna Carta, however, only a simple majority of 50% is needed to repeal or abolish the act, thus it does not protect the minority. As an addition parliament can simply ignore the act without recourse as was done in the Terrorism Act 2006, which effectively ended Habeas corpus ‘guaranteed’ by the Magna Carta. Thus the UK uncodified constitution does very little to protect the minority from the majority, unlike the US constitution which offers good protection.

Pressure groups are defined as political groups which seek to influence politics and government without putting up a candidate themselves. They are often defined in terms of two separate dynamics. The group can be either insider or outsider: insider groups are close to the government and provide advice and expertise, one example of a group in this category would be the Law Society. Outsider groups are not close to the government, and often result to direct action for publicity, an example of this type of pressure group could be Green Peace. The next dynamic is if the group is sectional or promotional. Sectional groups only represent the interests of one section of society, thus membership is likely to be closed, an example could be the Bar Association. Promotional groups seek to represent an issue or a cause, such as the environment. Because of this they often have open membership policy. An example could include friends of the earth. Sectional groups are more likely to be insider and promotional groups are more likely to be outsider; this helps determine the level of influence they exert. In terms of the tyranny of the majority, pressure groups represent the interests of minorities to influence government. This is likely to be done via the media, and is useful in bringing the plight of minorities to the attention of the public and aiding in protecting them against the majority. The extent and influence some pressure groups have is controversial, to some they allow the minority a chance to influence politics and protect their views. To others they go too far the other way, and undermine the view of the majority. (This is known as tyranny of the minority). In any case, the importance of pressure groups in defending against the tyranny of the majority cannot be understated!

Tyranny of the majority is obviously an important issue in democracy. So important in fact that the ‘founding fathers’ of the USA chose to create measures which reduced the ability of the majority to tyrannise the majority. In the UK, the constitution offers little protection as it is so easily changed (or ignored completely!) however the House of Lords do posses the power the delay any bill for up to a year before the parliament acts can be used; the government has in the past been hesitant in using these acts as it draws much scrutiny from media, public and opposition. The unelected nature of the House of Lords also helps protect the interests of the minority. Since they do not receive their mandate directly from the people they are less likely to be ‘swayed by the wishes of the majority’, and more likely to concern themselves over the interests of the minority. Pressure groups also have a large and positive influence in protecting the minority, too much some may argue. To conclude: I believe this essay demonstrates how the tyranny of the majority is certainly an issue, one which needs address. Constitutional reform is needed to protect the rights of individuals, and guarantee their right to autonomy under a capitalist system, which the current system is sadly lacking.

References used:

(Tocqueville, A. 1839. Democracy in America, 3rd Edition, George Adlard, New York)

(Mill, J.S. 1859. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts)

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