Tyranny of the majority

Tyranny of the majority

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" (or "tyranny of the masses"), used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule, is a criticism of the scenario in which decisions made by a majority under that system would place that majority's interests so far above a dissenting individual's interest that the individual would be actively oppressed, just like the oppression by tyrants and despots.[1]

Limits on the decisions that can be made by such majorities, such as constitutional limits on the powers of parliament and use of a bill of rights in a parliamentary system, are common ways of reducing the perceived problem.[2] Separation of powers is also implemented to prevent such an event from happening internally in the government.[2]



The term used in Classical and Hellenistic Greece for corrupted democracy was ochlocracy ("mob rule"), while tyranny meant simply an absolute monarchy.

The phrase "tyranny of the majority" originates with Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, where it is the name of an entire section (1835, 1840)[3] and was further popularised by John Stuart Mill, who cites de Tocqueville, in On Liberty (1859); the Federalist Papers frequently refer to the concept, though usually under the name of "the violence of majority faction," particularly in Federalist 10.

Lord Acton also used this term, saying:

The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
The History of Freedom in Antiquity1877

The concept itself was popular with Friedrich Nietzsche and the phrase (in translation) is used at least once in the first sequel to Human, All Too Human (1879).[4] Ayn Rand, Objectivist philosopher and novelist, wrote against such tyranny, saying that individual rights are not subject to a public vote, and that the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and that the smallest minority on earth is the individual).[5] Similar arguments are made by a number of other philosophies that support individualism, including the Austrian movement, and libertarianism in general.

In 1994, legal scholar Lani Guinier used the phrase as the title for a collection of law review articles.[6]

Public choice theory

The notion that, in a democracy, the greatest concern is that the majority will tyrannise and exploit diverse smaller interests, has been criticised by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action, who argues instead that narrow and well organised minorities are more likely to assert their interests over those of the majority. Olson argues that when the benefits of political action (e.g. lobbying) are spread over fewer agents, there is a stronger individual incentive to contribute to that political activity. Narrow groups, especially those who can reward active participation to their group goals, might therefore be able to dominate or distort political process, a process studied in public choice theory.

Vote trading

Critics[who?] of public choice theory point out that vote trading, also known as logrolling, can protect minority interests from majorities in representative democratic bodies such as legislatures.[weasel words] Direct democracy, such as statewide propositions on ballots, does not offer such protections.

Concurrent majority

American politician John C. Calhoun developed the theory of the concurrent majority to deal with the tyranny of the majority. It states that great decisions are not merely a matter of numerical majorities but require agreement or acceptance by the major interest in society, each of which had the power to block federal laws that it feared would seriously infringe on their rights.

That is, it is illegitimate for a temporary coalition that had a majority to gang up on and hurt a significant minority. The doctrine is one of limitations on democracy to prevent the tyranny.[7]

See also


  1. ^ John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7.
  2. ^ a b A Przeworski, JM Maravall, I NetLibrary Democracy and the Rule of Law (2003) p.223
  3. ^ Earlier, Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), said that "The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny."
  4. ^ See for example maxim 89 of Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: First Sequel: Mixed Opinions and Maxims, 1879
  5. ^ Ayn Rand (1961), "Collectivized 'Rights,'" The Virtue of Selfishness.
  6. ^ * Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority (Free Press: 1994)
  7. ^ Lacy K. Ford Jr., "Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 19–58 in JSTOR

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