Majority Rules

It is an odd assumption that a majority of men and women will invariably reach the correct decision in matters sometimes too complicated for a single person. Consider the vote — a recent vote in the United States being a case in point. The sitting president received less than the majority of the popular vote (which was remarkable) but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.

There has been much discussion over the years about the wisdom of trusting a majority of folks when perhaps one person might be better positioned to find the correct answer. I, for one, would prefer not to ask a majority of my fellows whether or not my appendix need be removed. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill both warned against the “tyranny of the majority,” the tendency of large numbers of people to sway the remaining few to vote their way. Consider the vote to invade Iraq when the minority was swayed by a vocal majority to engage in what was clearly an immoral action: the invasion of another Sovereign nation on the pretense that they had “weapons of mass destruction” when, in fact, they had none. There is certainly such a thing as the persuasive force of majority opinion. I dare say we have all felt it at one time or another.

A number of people, including Plato, thought the majority nothing more than a collection of uninformed twits. After all, the majority of those determining Socrates’ fate voted for his death. Another to express his disdain for the rule by majority is Thomas Carlyle who considered the minority to be nothing more than a number of like minds all of which might very well be empty. Specifically, regarding the push toward “universal suffrage” in his time, he said:

“. . .can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a [majority] vote in favor of the worthiest man or thing? I have always understood that true worth, in any department, was difficult to recognize; that the worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of Universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for answer, Five Pounds Sterling. [Railroad tycoon] George Hudson, inquiring in like manner what his services on the railways might be worth, received for answer, Fifteen Hundred Thousand [pounds sterling]. Alas, Jesus Christ asking the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer Death on the [cross]? — I feel it almost a shame to insist on such truisms.. . .  The mass of men consulted upon any high matter whatever is as ugly an exhibition of human stupidity as this world sees.”

This sentiment was strongly echoed in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter in his study of democratic citizenship when he noted that

“And so it is with most of the decisions of everyday life that lie within the little field which the individual citizen’s mind encompasses with a full sense of its reality. Roughly, it consists of the things that directly concern himself . . . for the private citizen musing over national affairs there is no scope for his will and no task at which it could develop. He is a member of an unworkable committee, the committee of the whole nation, and this is why he expends less disciplined effort on mastering a political problem than he expends on a game of bridge. . . . the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way that he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.”

Consider: the majority is nothing more, nor less, than the collective opinion of individuals many (if not all) of which are based on nothing more than gut feelings. If one person can be mistaken then a thousand persons can also, collectively, be mistaken. No one put the point more forcefully than Alexis de Tocqueville in his remarkable study of Democracy in America:

“A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their character by uniting with one another; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength. For my own part, I cannot believe it; the power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I would never grant to any number of them.”

The problem is, of course, if we don’t trust the majority then whom do we trust? Plato wanted an enlightened despot and Thomas Carlyle also wanted an heroic authority figure who embodied both wisdom and strength, enlightened enough  to keep his eye always on the common good and never to succumb to the temptations of power and self-interest. History has shown that such people are rare — though some, like Marcus Aurelius, have appeared from time to time. In any event, the notion of an enlightened despot may well be the dream of romantics and idealists detached from the real world.

But the real question is why we should trust a majority of men and women when we do not trust even one or a few?


17 thoughts on “Majority Rules

  1. Hugh, when I first saw the ad for the new TV show called “The Wisdom of the Crowd” where everyday people solve crimes, my thoughts were of your theme. I would not expect the crowd to solve but only the obvious of crimes, but would likely crucify far too many innocent people who looked like a culprit.

    Our democracy simply does not work with an uninformed citizenry. We elected a man who has no business being President, if people only looked at his history. He has had only one constituency in his life – himself. Helping others has only been considered to the extent it makes him look good.

    He only won as the Dems put up a candidate who while far more capable a public servant who actually had articulated policies, had too many warts, real, perceived and accentuated. So, the constant message I heard in speaking with friends was I cannot believe we are choosing the President from these two candidates.

    Until we get rid of this tribal mindset and get folks reading and following real news, we stand a worse chance of electing someone who is up to the full challenges of the Presidency. We are one of the more ill-informed countries in the world. Keith

  2. Scary part: this has been a long-time coming. The dismantling of education systems began years ago. The goal: an uninformed and under educated populace spawns a collective of apathetic followers. Seems as if the plan is working and the goal is within our own generational timeframe. Not a good thing…

    • Our education system is deeply flawed, resulting for the most part in an unwillingness of those who teach to ask fundamental questions, such as, “what am I supposed to be doing?” The purpose of education has been glossed over in our preoccupation with gimmicks and tools that are supposed to enable us to do our job better. We need to be sure we know what that job is first!

  3. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I think, as a voter, I am insulted by your post. It seems to me that either depression or hatred for Trump is preventing you from viewing contemporary politics in an objective way. This is causing you to lose confidence in the republican system of government.

    As usual, the problem is not the system, it is the people running it.

    The reason we ended up with these two dismal candidates last year was not because the people were stupid. It was because primary elections are not really decided by the people. Look at the Democrat primary, which recent congressional testimony has revealed to have been rigged in favor of Hilary Clinton. The Republican side of the aisle was a little different. Trump was promoted by Democrats as the correct Republican nominee because they perceived Hilary could beat him easily. Of course, without the Trump phenomenon the Republicans would have nominated the candidate selected by K Street, which would have been no better.

    The real divide in America is not between Democrats and Republicans. I heard one commentator describe these two parties as the “unibrow party” because they are nearly indistinguishable. The Democrats favor full frontal Collectivism with a side of total depravity. The Republicans want the same thing, but not as soon. Most Americans are not ready for either of these things. Therefore, having been ignored by anyone they have elected, they turned to Trump. Regardless of what Trump really is, people believed what he said about draining the swamp. This is not the first time people voted for a candidate perceived as an outsider who promised “hope and change.” It has been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous elections that the divide in America is between working people who pay taxes and the academic and political elites that think they are entitled to run this country.

    Based on your hostility toward the people, I would place you in the latter group.

    • Thank you for the good comment. I was concerned about the present condition of our political system long before Donald Trump took office. And as I pointed out he did not win the majority of the popular votes. The point I was making is that an informed electorate is essential for a democracy to work and our education system (about which I have thought and written for years) is deeply flawed. I do not feel any hostility toward “people” just toward many of them who act without thought in situations where thought is essential. But I am truly sorry that you felt insulted by this post. That was not my intent, I assure you.

      • Just a footnote. The “academic and political elites” also work and pay taxes. That is a most interesting dichotomy you noted there. Again, thank you for the good comment. I do appreciate it.

      • I appreciate your clarification. I agree with you that the education system is not pulling its weight, although you and I may disagree on how and why it is failing. I apologize for my implication that you do not work hard or pay taxes.

  4. The point that sticks in my craw is that the Electoral College has no living, breathing souls who sit in quiet contemplation and choose wisely. Once upon a time, yes. As you know, the pop vote in each state determines who gets that state’s Electoral College votes. What is so ludicrous is that the national popular vote favored Clinton, but the Trump popular vote was strategically placed so that he won the election. No matter how you slice it – it comes down to popular vote and majority rules. I have always admired and envied your system that allows every voter to directly choose their president. The Electoral College violates that. Here in Canada, I cannot vote for Justin Trudeau unless I live in his Montreal riding. I must vote for the local Liberal candidate in order to help Trudeau become Prime Minister. It is an equally lousy system from the point of view of the voter. I hate being placed in the position of possibly being forced to vote for a complete jerk because I want his/her leader to be PM. And then there’s our ridiculous appointed Senate. Good grief…

    • As you note, our system does NOT allow each citizen to directly elect the president. The Electoral College is an anachronism and should be dispensed with. It was included in our Constitution to make sure ordinary citizens would not, in fact, elect the president and there were checks to make sure they didn’t vote for their Senators either. The founders of this country didn’t really trust the ordinary Joe. In the case of the most recent election they seem to have gotten it wrong!

      • Yes, Hugh, it was the same thinking in Canada that bestowed upon us an appointed Senate – the “upper chamber” to keep the roughnecks in the elected House of Commons in check. Both constitutions need some tinkering, methinks.

      • I don’t know about Canada, but the founders of this nation never thought the Constitution was sacrosanct: it needed to be altered as times change. Ours should contain restraints against corporate influence, PACs and term limits on all elected officials! But it won’t happen, because those who have the power to make the changes benefit from the status quo!

  5. ” but a majority of the those in the Electoral College, supposedly of sounder minds, decided to hand the nuclear codes to a man just stupid enough to want to use them.”

    of course you knew that i would appreciate that statement, and yes, i cherish your way to inject a bit of humor into very-serious topics.

    still very little time online, and i read posts offline and save some like this one to send a very -tardy smoke signal… all’s fine – am in jama briefly to move a few more things and then to help friends with a large BBQ fiesta….

    • I know how busy you are and how difficult it is for you to get the hamsters to run fast and generate electricity so you can use the computer. So it is always special when I hear from you! Take care, my friend.

      • hi
        about to check out of the hostal but waiting for a download to finish….
        yes, it’s difficult to get those hamsters to stay focused on their task, but i also know that you’re up there slaying dragons in your own quiet way — and often wonder if anyone cares about your voice…. this hamster-trainer does! and she appreciates sometimes when you refrain from saying what others are saying – as it can often feed a negative fire… i share your sometimes-silent worry about what’s happening to our country.

      • I have had to stop reading and writing about the political situation — to keep an element of my sanity. By the way, many the stronger posts from my past blogs will soon appear in book form. It is dedicated to my fellow bloggers and especially to three very special ones — including, of course, the Zeebra!!

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