Here is a crash course on majority-rule that aims to explain why majority-rule is such an attractive way to resolve disputes, and yet why, in spite of its advantages, it continues to be strongly criticized. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide, but an introductory exposition on the matter. Hence, the arguments presented here are simplified for brevity.
As a preliminary, this article is not about democracy, but about majority-rule. Democracy describes a system where citizens can participate in the making of political decisions, thereby ensuring these decisions are responsive to the will of the citizenry. Majority-rule refers to a manner of responding to the wishes of the citizenry, namely, by adopting the choice favoured by a larger number of people.
The case for majority-rule
1. Majority-rule maximizes self-determination
Self-determination refers to the ability to govern oneself and have one’s freedoms curtailed only through the laws that one consents to. It is arguably a good thing, since it maximizes personal autonomy in a society of conflicting interests. Majority-rule ensures that in any such clash of interests, more people ‘get their way’ than people who do not. This in turn increases the overall welfare of society.
On the contrary, it may be argued that counter-majoritarian solutions necessarily cheats a community of its sense of common adventure.
2. Majority-rule is likely to provide middle ground solutions
According to Anthony Downs’ Median Voter Theory, political preferences tend to be distributed over a single peaked ‘bell’ curve; the median voter will therefore be pivotal in securing a majority. Hence, majority-rule will tend to create middle ground solutions, which is arguably better than ‘radical’ outcomes.
3. Majority-rule is more likely than not to produce the ‘right’ answer to political questions
Based on Condorcet’s jury theorem, by applying the law of large numbers, if there are right answers to political questions, voters are more likely than not to identify them. This is because, while there will always be many people who will ‘get it wrong’, over the large number of decision-makers, more likely than not, people will get it right. For example, rarely do radical and destructive political systems arise out of majority rule. Yet, history is full of examples of oppressive regimes arising out of dictatorships.
4. Majority-rule is just
Majority-rule treats everyone equally. Allowing minorities to succeed would mean treating each of their votes as carrying more weight than members of the majority. This is wrong, since it fails to accord to the majority the equal respect they deserve as citizens in a political community.
The case against majority-rule
1. Majority-rule does not necessarily protect minority rights
The idea behind rights is that there are certain interests that we consider ‘overriding demands’. These are attributed to individuals in a society out of respect for their position as citizens, and their status as human beings. These rights are a constraint on society’s use of political power. However, majority-rule can deprive minorities of these rights. Take for example, the right to vote being denied to African-Americans for most of the USA’s history.
Hence, the argument that majority rule is just because it treats everyone equally falls apart when we observe the way permanent minorities can, and have been treated, such that they are stripped of their rights and denied a say in the laws they live under.
2. Majority-rule does not necessarily maximize self-determination or welfare
This is because of what is called the “secession paradox”. Majoritarian decision making presupposes the existence of a political unit, but says nothing about why that unit should be defined in any particular way. If 40% of a population constantly lives under laws they do not like, it is wrong to say that self-determination is maximized because 60% get their way. Instead, self-determination is maximized if the two groups separated, such that everybody would live under laws of their choosing. Whenever there is conflict, this can keep happening, up to the point where the benefits of co-operating with people one disagrees with outweighs the benefits of sovereignty.
In any case, it is argued that more people getting their way does not necessarily need to maximum welfare. Imagine that out of 10 people, 6 of them gain 1 unit of happiness if policy A was chosen, while the remaining 4 gain 10 units of happiness if policy A was not chosen. If welfare maximization is our goal, policy A should not be chosen. Yet, majority-rule says it should.
3. Majority-rule leads to disproportionate outcomes
Imagine two groups of people: economizers and conservationists. The former favours relentless economic growth while the latter favours environmental conservation. Economizers constitute 3/4 of the population, and conservationists constitute the remaining 1/4. Imagine there are 4 policy decisions of equal weight to be made; surely it is disproportionate that the economizers get their way on all 4 occasions. The proportionate outcome should be the economizers having their way only 3/4 of the time, or that each policy decision go only 3/4 of the way. Either solution is preferable to the winner-takes-all solution that majority-rule leads to.
4. Majority-rule reduces deliberation and compromise
A healthy majority has no incentive to accommodate, engage or convince permanent minorities, since they have the numbers to win every election. Deliberation and engagement is good, since it fosters sincere political discussions about important issues and leads to better policies. This is because, the practice of presenting reasons in the process of engagement and deliberation increases the likelihood that people are making sincere representations for the common good and allows proposals to be subject to scrutiny, and accepted or rejected on the strength of its reasons.
It also ensures that those in the minority are not denied the respect they deserve as equal members of a political community, and that their views and grievances are listened and responded to. This is important because a decision by a majority can only be seen as a decision on behalf of the entire political unit if all members, including members of the minority, see themselves as a meaningful part of that unit.
5. Majority-rule does not necessarily lead to right answers, if there even is such a thing as ‘right’ answers
Indeed, where large groups of independent thinkers are concerned, right answers are much more likely to arise than wrong ones. However, Condorcet developed his theorem in the 19th century; in our interconnected world today, there is much greater scope for propaganda and demagoguery than before.
Furthermore, there are often no ‘right’ answers in politics. Politics is not a scientific exercise oriented towards the pursuit of objective truth. In many conflicts, there are no right answers – merely a conflict of interests or ideas. For example, in terms of choosing between greater economic growth and therefore allowing income inequality to increase, or, reducing income inequality at the expense of slower economic growth, there is no right answer – it is a question of what people want.
I hope that the arguments above demonstrate that the appropriateness majority-rule as a form of decision-making is not as clear cut as many people might think. Many complex issues are involved, and we need to understand them in order to develop decision-making systems that serve our community best.
As noted earlier, this article is not meant to be exhaustive, and has probably left out some arguments that you might think of. For brevity, I have also declined to provide a detailed elaboration of existing arguments. Nonetheless, I hope that the ideas presented here will feature in future discussions that engage issues pertaining to majority decision-making, such as issues concerning ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.
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