Democracy and Majority Rule

Even though I am a hedonistic utilitarian, I would not want to realize hedonist policies against the consent of a majority of the people. To me, the allegiance to democracy must come before any substantial views about specific policies that one might have. And to me, democracy entails majority rule.

Now what would be the alternative? Could we have a democracy without majority rule? The most common alternative is to have a minority veto, for instance by demanding a two-thirds majority for all new legislation (i.e., a form of supermajority “rule”). Let’s say that 65% wants to establish an unconditional basic income for all citizens. The other 35% who are against this policy would be able to stop it. A minority gets the policy they want, while the majority does not.

What could be the reason for granting such power to a dissenting minority? One argument could be that it reduces the risk of “tyranny” against the minority by, for instance, taking away basic rights. Obviously, I would not endorse a system where the majority can take away rights that are necessary for majority rule itself to function (such as free speech or the right to vote), but those measures should simply be virtually impossible to impose.

It is, however, hard to argue for supermajoritarian democracy when it comes to defending non-basic rights. A couple of writers have, for instance, argued that all tax increases should require a supermajority (whereas, presumably, lowering taxes only requires a simple majority). But could we really say that the minority is “tyrannized” just because they believe taxes are too high? If the word “tyranny” is to have any meaning, it cannot simply be a label to put on policies that one doesn’t like for ideological reasons.

Another argument for supermajorities is that is always prudent to be conservative when it comes to legislation, i.e., not making important decisions too quickly. For one thing, this conservative principle might not be something that the majority shares, so why should it have this privileged position? Besides, this conservative principle seems only to point to a suspensive veto, whereby the legislature has to postpone its policy, until the citizens have had more time to reflect on it (one could, for instance, delay the decision by minority veto until the next general election, after which the policy can be adopted by simple majority).

Anyway, if one were to take seriously the doctrine of the “tyranny of the majority”, it seems strange that the supermajority requirement should be set at 2/3 or 3/4 (as is commonly the case). This does not protect minorities smaller than 33 or 25%; and is it not, after all, small minorities who need to be protected the most? It would be hard to permanently tyrannize a minority of 49% of the people (provided that this minority has the same civic rights as everyone else), whereas it is not unthinkable that a minority of, say, 24% is permanently tyrannized.

I would, furthermore, claim that democracy demands proportional representation, but that is a topic for another post.


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