Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tyranny of the Majority (part I)

The great Tocqueville warned democracies of the danger of developing a tyranny of the majority. This form of tyranny is based on the belief that democracy simply equalled the electoral majority's right to enforce their will on any minority group. An obvious example being the historic abuses of African-Americans.

Tocqueville believed that in a developed democracy the tyranny of the majority could be manifested in more subtle forms, that "might result when the people seek to use government to protect them in their mediocrity by restricting the freedom of any who might challenge or endanger them. This could lead to a kind of sterile suffocation of talents or ambitions, and the utter surrender of freedom in exchange for equality (of outcomes)."

Clearly this refers to the hostility that demagogic politicians foster against successful individuals and enterprises. Such politicians blame any economic and social difficulties on these individuals and organizations, rather than acknowledge the inherent challenges in achieving equitable economic and social outcomes in a world in which individual ability, efforts and fortunes so dramatically differ.

And sadly, envy, the flight from personal responsibility and blaming others for your misfortunes are parts of human nature. Only through a strong individual or cultural commitment can these impulses be moderated. But, unfortunately these dark elements of human nature makes ideologies of resentment and redistribution attractive to many people. And of course the politicians who promote this ideology are usually rewarded by votes.

The logical extension of this world view is the belief that the state has an almost unlimited right to seize or control the assets of one group of individuals and enterprises and transfer it other less successful and less politically influential individuals and groups. The implied belief in the almost unlimited right of the state to seize the wealth of its citizens is seen in the language that "progressives" use to discuss tax cuts, in which they complain that "the government is giving back too much to the rich." This implies that citizens may keep a portion of the product of their labor only by the good grace of the state, rather than the fundamental principle that the state may seize the wealth of its citizenry only by their grace of the people.

By now my "progressive" critics are most likely striking at the straw-man and stating "oh yeah, how will we pay for roads, police, firemen and teachers?!?" All but the most radical of libertarians will acknowledge that the purpose of the state is to provide for the broad welfare of its citizens, which of course includes the said services. But seizing the majority of the wealth of a narrow group of citizenry to give to other groups via subsidies and entitlements is another story. As the said programs and policies expand, so will their voracious appetite for capital. But as the state's appetite outstrips the productive capacity of the wealthy, we can be sure that the definition of the wealthy will greatly expand to include large segments of the middle class. But, regardless of how small or large the targeted minority, the belief that your electoral majority entitles you to their wealth is at its core majoritarian tyranny. And the only remedy is a limited, constitutionally bound government that guards the personal and property rights of individuals and groups.

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