Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Rule of the Majority

In the introduction to the present treatment of democratic freedom, democracy was described as a particular form of political regime, viz., the regime which attempts to realize the political idea by placing the governing personnel under the control of the governed. Whether the democratic procedure is successful or not in keeping government confined within proper limits is a question that we left out of this initial consideration. In fact, no objection to democracy is more common than this: democracy easily gives birth to a particularly formidable kind of tyranny, that of the majority. Men in power, if allowed to believe and to make others believe that theirs is the government of the people, are prone to consider that their actions are indefectibly related to the common welfare; in other words, democratic origin inspires the governing personnel with a ruthless reliance upon their own judgment. Further, majority support gives government a power greater and harder to check than almost any power held by a minority; this is why one-party organizations, aware of the precarious lot which would be theirs if they were delivered to the consequences of their oligarchical character, try so hard to give themselves the appearances of majority government.

The danger of oppression by the majority is so obvious that the history of modern democracy is haunted by the ambition of including the minority in the controlling electoral body. The method calculated to achieve such inclusion is known as "proportional representation."{10}

This method admits of many varieties, and more are devised every day, or so the story goes. But the general idea is simple enough. Let the government be likened to a pie; we are three, they are two; in the majority system we get the whole pie, and they do not get anything. It is not fair; the pie should be divided into five parts; the majority should get three and the minority two. This demonstration of proportional representation was proposed by sincere supporters of the system and cannot be interpreted as a malevolent caricature. True, the comparison between the government and a pie conveys the disquieting impression that the competing parties intend to observe the laws of fair play in the division of covered advantages -- as if they were planning to raid the treasury. Prior to elections the political problem concerns the establishment of power; but the answer of the proportionalists concerns the distribution of the advantages that the possession of power is expected to yield. The upholders of proportional representation are so worried about justice in the actual operation of government that they want an idea relative to distribution to preside over the phase of constitution.

They claim to eliminate majority oppression and guarantee equitable government by including the minority in the governing personnel. No wonder that new methods of proportional representation are continually devised; for the whole system is made restless by the character of its ideal. Majority plus minority equals unanimity. Unanimity is known to be a precarious thing. Under the appearance of justice, proportional representation signifies permanent uncertainty.

It is hardly necessary to recall the conclusions of our preceding analysis of unanimity as a means of procuring united action. Under the ideal circumstances of a society made exclusively of enlightened and virtuous persons, unanimity can work in so far as the means to the common good is uniquely determined. When the means to the common good is not uniquely determined -- as a matter of fact, it is never uniquely determined in all its particulars and modalities -- unanimity cannot be achieved except by luck. With regard to political assemblies where ignorance and ill will are frequent, it should be said without any qualification that unanimity is a casual affair. In so far as an organization tends toward government by unanimity, it delivers itself to the uncertainties of chance occurrences.

Imagine an electoral body divided into six million liberals and four million conservatives. Suppose that the assembly, elected according to a system of strict proportional representation, comprises sixty liberals and forty conservatives. Suppose that the principle of the equitable division of the pie is observed in the constitution of the cabinet, made, accordingly, of six liberals and four conservatives. This is already a picture of weak government; further application of the principle of proportional representation would make it weaker. What about premiership? Either the premier will be a man of the majority -- but this would set a restriction on the principle of proportional representation -- or we have to imagine such a clumsy procedure as a rotating system giving the premiership to a liberal for six days and to a conservative for four days out of every ten. But the principle of proportional representation would not yet be thoroughly applied. What happens when there is a question of passing a measure on which the parties disagree? A parliament may be divided into sharply distinct party organizations; a government may be constituted by a coalition of parties; conceivably, the presidency can rotate; but a measure cannot be split. The only choice is this: unanimous action or no action at all. Now unanimous action has the character of a compromise. Proportional representation causes weakness wherever it does not cause inaction.

Does it follow that no concession should ever be made to the principle of proportional representation? A really poor system may happen to be the best under particular circumstances. It is up to the prudence of the statesman to determine whether the circumstances do or do not call for some skilful combination of the majority principle and the proportional representation principle. Unanimity is a most uncertain way of procuring united action; yet there are situations in which the constitution of authority is impossible, so that action has to be united by way of unanimity if it is to be united at all. Such has been the case, so far, with regard to the over-all strategy of war coalitions; such is the case in the Security Council of the United Nations. If procedures based upon unanimity happen, in a few cases, to be necessary, procedures that are related to unanimity without going so far as to imply it are likely to be necessary in less infrequent cases. But let it be kept in mind that any concession to a system which embodies a tendency toward government by unanimity means increased danger of weak and uncertain measures, compromise, deadlock. Some decisions are of such a nature as to demand a wide margin of popular support. The rule of the two-thirds majority for certain measures, e.g., the ratification of treaties, may have to be consented to; but special action will be needed to compensate for the danger of a stalemate that this rule implies.{11} As a preventive measure, proportional representation seems to enjoy a distinguished place among the means of restraining the majority. True, it asserts a principle of equitable distribution when the political process is still in the phase of constitution, as a result of which the benefit of a possible check on oppression by the majority is outweighed by the evils of weakness and confusion.

{10} See F. A. Hermens, Democracy or Anarchy? A Study of Proportional Representation (Notre Dame, Ind.: Review of Politics, University of Notre Dame, 1941). Attention must be called, in particular, to the writer's keen discussion of the concept of representation (chap. i). There was a time when the duty of the parliament was to represent the people before a king and his ministers, in other words, before an already constituted power; under such circumstances it was possibly desirable that all sections of the people should be represented in proportion to their importance. The representative assembly, so conceived, is an institution external to the structure of government and designed (1) "to limit the power of the prince in order to save the people from executive encroachment -- in particular, from excessive taxes"; (2) "to give expression to the wishes of the people and to rehearse their grievances to the government with the hope of securing some positive action of redress" (p. 5). The general framework is that of a nondemocratic polity; the field of government is understood not to belong to the people, the representative assembly is part of the structure built by the people in order to keep a nondemocratic government confined within what is considered its field; at most, this assembly will exercise influence, by way of wishes, in a field which does not belong to it. But in democracy the field of government is in the hands of the people, and is is up to them to preside over the establishment of a governing power. Hermens remarks that the constant disregard of the proportionalists for the requirements of this fundamental operation -- the constitution of authority -- is influenced by the use of the word "to represent" and its derivatives with respect to assemblies which do not find a readily constituted power before which they would represent the people but have so be the legislative branch of government and to bring into existence -- and to keep in existence -- its executive agencies.

{11} The Federalist, No. 22 (Hamilton) (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1901), p. 114: "To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the non-attendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish Diet, where a single vote has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements. A sixtieth part of the Union, which is about the proportion of Delaware and Rhode Island, has several times been able to oppose an entire bar to its operations. This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching toward it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority."

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