5.01.2012

On the so-called Tyranny of the Many

Left a comment in the +Jennifer Ouellette's thread objecting to the thesis of this article, quoting my comment below:
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I'm going to have to object pretty strongly to this article. The spirit is in the right place, but the lesson it draws is completely mistaken. 

There is no tyranny of the majority except as it expressed itself through the centralized authoritarian institutions that levy top-down control over the supposedly consenting masses. The article jumps from the clear fact that the majority is sometimes wrong to the mistaken conclusion that we have something to fear from the majority, or that the prevailing opinion is suspicious. This is an incredibly dangerous leap in logic, and should be examined a bit more carefully. 

Just for instance, the prevailing opinions of scientists is usually a pretty reliable guide to the truth. It doesn't give you certainty, but the stronger the majority consensus, the more reliable we can take the conclusions to be. In fact, we take majority consensus to be one of the most impotant thresholds for the acceptance of a scientific theory there is. A mistaken scientific paradigm might be frustratingly difficult to overturn, but this stability is part of what makes scientific consensus such a strongly reliable indicator of the truth. In other words, there is no tyranny of the majority in science; in fact, it is an case where we all expect the majority to rule, even when we grant that the majority can be mistaken. 

A mistaken majority is only a problem when they wield the kind of power that we usually only grant to institutional bureaucracies like a state. Democratic states are designed to slow down the zeal of the majority to ensure justice and respect of equal rights. For instance, I don't think so, but you might think that the state can legitimately sentence a prisoner to death for sufficient crimes; still, no one wants an unruly mob to be able to exact analogous justice without the safety of the courts. 

One response in this situation is to say argue that we don't want the people, the unruly masses, to have control of the courts and the other institutions of state justice. This might prompt one to write spook stories about the dangers of the "tyranny of majorities". 

But why isn't the lesson equally as clear that we should be afraid of the courts and other methods for institutionalizing and centralizing power? Sure, those institutions are dangerous when controlled by the mob, but they are just as dangerous when controlled by trained professionals. Even when those professionals have been well-intentioned, they tend to use the instruments of just government in order to commit vile atrocities and acts of abject inhumanity. 

We should be suspicious of these arms of institutional control, whereby our individual wills are subject to the whims of any entity other than ourselves. This goes just as much for mobs as for anything else. However, the existence of these systems of control should not give us reason to be skeptical of each other whatsoever. Turning us against ourselves is part of those very systems of control. Yet instead of treating these systems of control directly, the author of the article turns against the people so controlled, yet another way of perpetuating the crime. 

Discussions such as these dramatically underappreciate the real power of democratic consensus; the fact that we've seem to have lost sight of the importance of democratic consensus is one of the core tragedies of the modern age.