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tyranny of the majority


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Plato (c. 429—347 bc)

Aristotle (384—322 bc)

James Madison (1751—1836) revolutionary politician in America and president of the United States of America

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805—1859)

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A fear expressed variously by Plato, Aristotle, Madison, Tocqueville, and J. S. Mill. If the majority rules, what is to stop it from expropriating the minority, or from tyrannizing it in other ways by enforcing the majority's religion, language, or culture on the minority? Madison's answer in The Federalist is the best known. He argued that the United States must have a federal structure. Although one majority, left to itself, would try to tyrannize the local minority in one state or city and another majority, left to itself, would do the same in another, in a country as large and diverse as the United States there would not be one national majority which could tyrannize over a national minority. But if there was, the powers which the states retained would be a bulwark against it. The separation of powers among legislature, executive, and judiciary at federal level would be a further protection against majority tyranny.

Critics of Madison have pointed out that his formula gives no protection to minorities which do not form a local majority anywhere. In particular, the Madisonian constitution gave no effective protection to black Americans until the 1960s, largely because the states' rights which Madison thought it so important to protect were used by the white majorities in the Southern states to oppress the local black minorities.

J. S. Mill's solutions to majority tyranny were proportional representation and extra votes for the rich and the well‐educated. Neither solution bears close examination. Proportional representation is a solution to a different problem. If there is a majority, it is a majority, and proportional representation will not make it less so (although it may correct some overrepresentation of the majority). The majority of voters in Northern Ireland since 1921 has always been Protestant; the population votes almost entirely along religious lines; therefore any fairly elected Northern Ireland assembly must have a Protestant majority. Mill's solution of ‘fancy franchises’ is open to the same objection as Madison's.

The main danger that worried Aristotle, Madison, and Mill alike was that the majority poor citizenry would vote for confiscatory legislation at the expense of the rich minority. For whatever reason, this has never happened. At least we can be confident that the majority will not expropriate the median voter.

Subjects: Politics.


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