Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tyranny of the Majority (JS MIll)

According to JS Mill (in "On Liberty"), a tyranny of the majority (of voters, say) poses more of a threat to human liberty than does a tyranny of government because such a threat is not limited to political functions. One might be protected from a tyrant (tho' the distinction between the two potential tyrannies is not always clear), but it is much more difficult to be protected “against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Some citizens will be subject to what society as a whole views as suitable, whether economically, politically, culturally (and of course most citizens have little to no voice regarding how the free market functions). The prevailing and popular opinions within a democratic society will be the basis of the rules of conduct within society; therefore, there can be no reliable safeguards in law against the tyranny of the majority—a majority of citizens could vote in a Hitler (and he was supported by majorities in the 20s and 30s). Thus, however obvious, Mill demonstrates that the majority opinion may not be the correct opinion. The only justification for a person’s political (or moral) belief is that it is that person’s preference, or desire, not that it is really the “best,” most effective, or most equitable, course of action (or the “best”, i.e., most qualified, intelligent candidate).

Mill may have been anticipated by other thinkers in regards to this (Rousseau, if not Plato had similar concerns), and we might not agree to his idea that the judicial branches are superior to legislative and executive (i.e. representatives voted in, and then making decisions for their constituents); Mill, however, brings forth the issue in a concise manner, though he does not provide any sure political methods to ameliorate the problem.

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