Tech & Rights

#WeDecide: Why Is Majority Rule Not Democracy? Also, Some Words on Direct Democracy

Would you say that this system indeed respects your equal dignity, is worthy of our moral support and therefore, that it should be called democracy? Of course not. The tyranny of the majority is simply not democracy.

by Orsolya Reich

This is already the fourth article of our #WeDecide series. In the first article, we talked about the reasons for not calling ‘illiberal democracies’ democracies. In the second and the third articles we talked about the reasons people may have for wanting to live in a democracy. Some of our readers commented on social media that the European Union is not a democracy, for it does not respect what the majority in certain states want. While we may disagree with them, both with regard to those majorities being real majorities and with regard to the very meaning of joining a community, our disagreement, we believe, runs even deeper than that. Contrary to them, we do not believe that the will of the majority should be respected all the time.

As we previously pointed out, you may have all sorts of reasons for supporting democracy. You may support it because it helps people to achieve good things or because it respects equality and the dignity of all people. Although we love all the perks democracies come with, we think they should primarily be supported for the latter reason. Democracies respect equal dignity. They allow us to be free from others deciding for us how to live (without us having a say) and treat us publicly as equals.

Or… what if they do not?

It is easy. Then they are not worthy of the name ‘democracy’. As we explained in the first article, democracy is a morally laden concept. When we say ‘democracy’, we use this as a short version for “the system that is morally worthy of our support, and hence, to be introduced/defended/maintained”. Those regimes that do not respect equal dignity are not worthy of our moral support, hence, they are not democracies, whatever they may want to call themselves.

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So why isn't majority rule such a system? Why is it not worthy of our support? Does it really not respect equal dignity? No, it really does not. To see why, imagine that there are two groups in a society: the greens and the blues. You are a blue. There are three times as many greens as blues. If greens and blues are quite similar (perhaps greens like to greet their neighbors with ‘hi’, and blues generally like to say ‘good day’) and by and large they have the same chance of ending up on the winning side of each question the community needs to vote on, the majority principle doesn’t seem to disrespect anyone’s dignity. Collective decisions allocate advantages and disadvantages, and you face disadvantages with roughly the same chance as anyone else in the society, be that person a green or a blue.

But imagine now that blues and greens are more different. They have different religious holidays, different understandings on the relative importance of education and elderly care, different lifetime expectations, and they are differently prone to certain diseases. If collective decisions will be made based on a simple majoritarian approach, you and your family (who are presumably also mostly blue) will live in a society where none of your interests will matter. You will get all the disadvantages. Chances are that all the public holidays will follow the green religious calendar, and you will have to show up to work on days that mean a lot to you. Chances are that state money will be allocated to medical research meant to eliminate green diseases. Chances are that the ratio of the public money spent on elderly care and child care will not favor your people. Sometimes the greens may well be generous. They may give you a day off to celebrate your most important holiday. They may allocate some money to medical research benefitting your people. They may open more kindergartens for your children. But the point is that, at the very least, others will decide about the background conditions of your life without you having the smallest say. You, as a blue, will be left to the mercy of the greens.

[decide] Would you say that this system indeed respects your equal dignity, is worthy of our moral support and therefore, that it should be called democracy? Of course not. The tyranny of the majority is simply not democracy.

Some believe that strengthening direct democracy in the EU, that is, making referenda easier to initiate, would lead to a more genuine democracy. We should make the decisions whenever it is technically and financially possible, and not our representatives. Some fear that strengthening direct democracy in the EU would lead to a tyranny of the majority. We believe that direct democracy is not a magic cure for the problems of our democracies and definitely not the only genuine form of democracy. But nor is it something to be avoided. Whether it leads to the tyranny of the majority is a question of institutional design.

If you want to read about the perils of representation and the perils of direct democracy, read our forthcoming #WeDecide article next week. Also, we are interested in your thoughts. What do you think about the tyranny of the majority? In addition, would you want more direct democracy in the EU? If so, why? Leave a comment under our Facebook post and discuss your thoughts with us and your fellow readers.

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