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?

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