Monday, April 25, 2005

The Tyranny of the Majority

Bill Frist argues that democracy is voting, and that the filibuster is then inherently anti-democratic.

He should know better. After all, as a Princeton graduate he should have at least a passing familiarity with John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”. In his introduction, Mill writes:

The aim… of patriots was to set limits to the power… and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of… political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe…. A second… was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

Hear that? The aim of the patriots. What Frist and the rest of the cabal in power now is trying to do will take away any guarantees of liberty we have in this country and negate the effectiveness of the dissent on which our nation relies. Not only are they betraying the beliefs of their base (a neat bit of legerdemain, there—taking liberty away in the guise of protecting the libertarian right), but their actions are inherently unpatriotic. (I’m sick of them calling us unpatriotic: it’s time to turn the tables). They are tearing down the protections of the minorities (50% minus 1) that we have spent over two centuries building. They are on the verge of destroying the most successful system of human governance yet built by people—by calling their actions the will of the majority (50% plus 1).

Part of the way they fool people is by pretending they are “of” the people. Even so, as Mill points out, they represent a danger just by being other than the one’s ruled:

The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.

The most numerous might not always have the good of the rest in mind. The rest need protecting from that will. Pure democracy does not provide that. Checks and balances (and the filibuster) does. Mill continues:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

“A social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” That’s where we are heading right now.

Unless Frist can be stopped in his battle against the filibuster.

Unless DeLay can be stopped in his battle against the judiciary.

Unless the right can be stopped from hobbling us—all for our own good.

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