Democracy and Majority Rule

Does Congress have the constitutional authority to do anything on which it can get a majority vote? Most Americans today think it does — and they're wrong.

Democracy and majority rule give an aura of legitimacy to acts that would otherwise be deemed tyranny.

Think about it. How many decisions in our day-to-day lives would we like to be made through majority rule or the democratic process?

How about the decision whether you should watch a football game on television or Law and Order? What about whether you drive a Chevrolet or a Ford, or whether your Easter dinner is turkey or ham?

Were such decisions made in the political arena, most of us would deem it tyranny. Why isn’t it also tyranny for the democratic process to mandate what type of light bulbs we use, how many gallons of water to flush toilets or whether money should be taken out of our paycheck for retirement?

The founders of our nation held a deep abhorrence for democracy and majority rule. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison wrote, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

John Adams predicted, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Our founders intended for us to have a republican form of limited government where the protection of individual God-given rights was the primary job of government.

Alert to the dangers of majoritarian tyranny, the Constitution’s framers inserted several anti-majority rules. One such rule is that election of the president is not decided by a majority vote but instead by the Electoral College.

Nine states have over 50 percent of the U.S. Population. If a simple majority were the rule, conceivably these nine states could determine the presidency. Fortunately, they can’t because they have only 225 Electoral College votes when 270 of the 538 total are needed.

Were it not for the Electoral College, that some politicians say is antiquated and would like to do away with, presidential candidates could safely ignore the less populous states.

Part of the reason our founders created two houses of Congress was to have another obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the designs of 435 representatives and 49 senators.

The Constitution gives the president a veto to weaken the power of 535 members of both houses of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.

To change the constitution requires not a majority but a two-thirds vote of both Houses to propose an amendment, and to be enacted requires ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.

The Constitution’s Article V empowers two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to propose amendments that become law when ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.

I used to be for this option as a means of enacting a spending limitation amendment to the Constitution but have since reconsidered. Unlike the 1787 convention attended by men of high stature such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams, today’s attendees would be moral midgets: the likes of Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Olympia Snowe and Nancy Pelosi.

In addition to an abhorrence of democracy, and the recognition that government posed the gravest threat to liberty, our founders harbored a deep distrust and suspicion of Congress.

This suspicion and distrust is exemplified by the phraseology used throughout the Constitution, particularly our Bill of Rights, containing phrases such as Congress shall not: abridge, infringe, deny, disparage or violate.

Today’s Americans think Congress has the constitutional authority to do anything upon which they can get a majority vote.

We think whether a particular measure is a good idea or bad idea should determine passage as opposed to whether that measure lies within the enumerated powers granted to Congress by the Constitution.

Unfortunately, for the future of our nation, Congress has successfully exploited American constitutional ignorance or contempt.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has authored more than 150 publications, including many in scholarly journals, and has frequently given expert testimony before Congressional committees on public policy issues ranging from labor policy to taxation and spending.

15 comments from readers  

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Mr. Williams, I am a Canadian, and therefore have no protection defined by your magnificent constitution. Clearly, any attempt by your Government to debase that Constitution, I say debase, because like you, I do not believe there exists one American politician today who could even come close to improving on it, indicates a desire to enslave society. No other terms are possible. America says, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Canada says, Peace, security and Good Government. Enough said about Canada, and your people want to emulate our Health Plan. Ha Ha.! Frank Toplin
I enjoyed the article and generally agree. However, I wonder how it could be decided "whether a particular measure is a good idea or bad idea." The differences in opinions of "good" and "bad" are exactly what makes it seemingly impossible to arrive at an ideal decision-making process.
While I agree with the sentiments expressed, some of the facts are wrong.

The Electoral College isn't an anti-majoritarian rule, it's a pro-minority rule (far less than 50% of the population - in small states - can elect a President ... and have).

Far less than a majority can amend the Constitution. Assume state legislators are elected with 51% of the vote and 51% of them adopt an amendment in 75% of the states. That means that less than 19% of voters can approve any amendment ... including repeal of your "God-given rights".

However, there's a more insidious means of implementing minority rule, which has been endorsed by the Supreme Court. Congress can *delegate* its powers to just one person: the President. It has done that on a wide array of issues, including the power to declare war. A minority of ONE decides the policy and law of the United States.

The Founders may have intended to evade majoritarian rule, but they provided the means to implement minority rule. Which, in my opinion, has led to the ruling oligarchy we now "enjoy".
Excellent, too bad this article isn't on the front page of the Wall St Journal or the New York Times. It's the blind leading the blind these days. An ignorant populace becomes the prime target of a corrupt government.
An excellent point and, of course, that is why we are a Republic and not a democracy. The tyranny of the majority was a major concern of the founding fathers, they did indeed recognize the danger inherent in a pure democracy. It is an excellent observation.

Unfortunately, looking back through your columns though, I don't see a similar column over the past 8 years when the majority was running amok. Warrantless wiretaps, suspension of habeous corpus, raking through a person's library records or internet browsing with nary a warrant, torturing suspects, setting up the justice department to be a wing of the majority political party in order to have politically motivated prosecutions, interfereing in a person's right to decide how they should be medically treated if they become brain dead... to name but a few.

I like you main point, and it is important to always keep it in mind, but it cuts both ways.

Thanks keep up the thought provoking columns!!
What you say is quite true and is the basis for my opposition to many acts of the majority such as the anti gay marriage campaign. There has not been such a clear act of oppression of the minority by the majority since anti-mysogenation laws were commonplace. The conservative movement has lost its bearings in many ways when it decided to leave the idea of personal liberty in the dust and push a "moral" agenda which primarily involved exactly the process of majorities punishing minorities often through the very legislative process you decry (or, as in the case of California, through direct democracy).

I don't understand at all how many conservatives can talk endlessly about liberty and yet support anti abortion, anti gay, anti secular and pro war on drug measures which are the exact opposite of the expansion of liberty.

If I had been born a few decades prior I would firmly be a "Goldwater Republican" but I find myself diametrically opposed to so many of their "moral majority rules" priorities that I can never support any Republican as long as they are more interested in my religion then my freedom.

In short the day the ACLU became known as a "lefty" group not to be trusted or supported by the Republican party is the day my ability to have any part in their organization went away.

I don't solely blame the Republicans for the erosion of liberty though, plenty of Democrats including Obama don't support equality for gays, push faith based programs and trample on civil liberties even occasionally using rhetoric straight from the Bush administration.

It may be sad but true that Jesse Ventura is the only true patriot in the 1776 sense of the word left who has held any position with significant executive power in the last few decades. You can bet the founders wouldn't have stood for torture that goes unpunished (especially Jefferson). Why only Ventura has the guts to say that torture is torture and all who did it should go to prison is as vivid a condemnation of our entire political system as I can imagine.
This sums up the article.
Once more I hearken to Thomas Paine. If the majority of people understood just the first page of Common Sense, we might not be in the pickle we are in. They don't, so we are. The price of liberty for the overwhelming majority has not been dear, and they won't know what they had 'till it's gone. As dumbed down as they are, they might not notice even then.
Well said sir! I spend a good deal of my time explaining these intricacies to my friends and family - and anyone else who will listen. I hope that we never end up at the hands of the tyranny of the majority. Democracy can only have some small value if it is a representative democracy and even then, it can be toppled by well placed private interests. As the classes become ever more divergent, the dollar will topple any vote. Democracy also erodes with population growth, the more voters, the less any one vote matters statistically. It reaches a point where the risk of dying in a car accident on the way to the polls is greater than the possibility that your one vote will have any effect - simple statistics of voter apathy! Intuitively we all feel it. I'm afraid that, at these population levels, we must either return to aristocracy, or face the horror of communistic revolution - neither are appealing to me. Tyranny, of course, is the result of a cumpulsion to ration. Such compulsion stems from an apparent lack of economic power. In other words as the amount of energy (economic energy is rationed via money) available per capita declines, those with political power will seek to ration what is left and in particular to give what is left to themselves and those they favor. To further clarify, all economic activity is based on real energy, not money - money is just the means of rationing the energy. As the population has risen and now that the oil is in decline (as per statistical estimates put out by leading energy bodies), I think we can see the writing on the wall. It is my personal hope that we will find a solution in fusion (google polywell fusion). However, any new energy source will likely come too late for most. I stongly suspect de-population is what lies ahead. To that ends I prepare myself and inform other wise persons. Best wishes to us all in these troubled times.
Very good explanation, great article.
Tom H
0 points
Thank you, Walter, for defining what the Founding Fathers intended this nation to be...the finest example of what can be achieved under a FREE MARKET driven FEDERAL REPUBLIC. Unfortunately, under the liberal (read: SOCIALIST/MARXIST) idiots permeating our "government" at this time, we are in for as big a fight for our liberty as our sagacious forebearers...
Very good, in as far as it goes.

The country's true problem is a moral one. If you ask the man on the street if it's immoral for government to force most citizens to pay the way of others, you wouldn't get a straight YES or NO, but exaggerations, cop-outs and excuses about "varying degrees", the "common good" &c. This vagueness and ambiguity indicates the gross erosion of our ethics, largely due to altruistic brain-filthying in the socialist government schools and Churches of Authoritarianism on the left and right.

Since 1932 - and some suggest since 1865 - we've been conditioned by the Kakostocracy to endorse slavery and tyranny in different forms, for various "social" excuses.
The President and each and every Congressman and Senator has a primary responsibility to protect the Constitution, yet they rarely concern themselves with that responsibility. Odd that someone takes a job they have no intention of doing. What they do intend to do is rule as an oligarchical despotism.
This should be on the news and in every classroom......period
of course it's a fairly minor detail, but jefferson was not in Philadelphia, he was in france at the time.
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