How important is majority rule?

In countless threads involving judicial activism, conservative posters have denounced the courts for striking down legislation (such as sodomy laws, same sex marriage bans, abortion laws) on constitutional grounds when these rights are not explicitly granted in the constitution.

The reasons they cite for their outrage inevitably involve talk about the importance of self governance and majority rule. In their view, majority rule is of paramount importance and trumps other values (such as personal freedom).

But is majority rule really that important? What philosophical reasons are there to let the majority do whatever it wants? To use a recent example, why is it more important that Texas be allowed to throw homosexuals in jail than homosexuals get to govern their own sex lives?

Hmmm… that’s an interesting question. I’d say that it’s not supremely important… majority voting is the best feasible way we’ve worked out for having issues of public policy, ie how much government should tax and what it should be spent on.

Most western countries have at least some notion of checks and balances splitting the difference between the will of the majority and the rights of the individual… to take an extreme, the majority of the people of the united states cannot vote to kill Bill Gates and split up his fortune amongst them (or use it to pay off the federal debt, for that matter.) The constitution, IIRC, grants all citizens the right to life that cannot be stripped away by any vote, only by a death sentence for a capital crime through due process in the courts.

Your post also reminded me of the Ibsen play about the hot springs and the tannery - I can’t remember the exact quote, but something along the lines of “The majority is always wrong, to start with… because every idea starts in the mind of one man. He knows it and everybody else doesn’t, so if the vote were held on that idea after a minute, it would be voted down by millions to one.”

That, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why free speech is an important part of a democracy. People have to have freedom to express their ideas, (and people have to have open minds and be willing to listen to them, though that’s harder to enforce like a constitutional amendment.)

I would say that, in cases where something must be decided by government (and there must be one answer), then voting is the closest we’ve been able to come to a “fair” decision. Of course, it doesn’t seem very fair to those in the minority. This is one of the reasons that I believe that as little as possible should be decided in this way. Thus, the libertarian belief in strict limits on government action so that it is very rare that decisions are made FOR the minority BY the majority. Restated, don’t impose on people any more than is absolutely necessary.

I have also already seen that I am pretty much IN the minority with this viewpoint.


Majority rule is far less important than ensuring minority rights.

Change “minority” to “individual”, and I could’ve said it.


In the U.S., the majority can only “rule” within certain parameters, as defined in the Constitution. The majority can’t vote away the rights of a minority; if they could, they’d be acting like a lynch mob. And it doesn’t matter what type of minority we’re talking about, e.g. racial, religious, gender, age, etc.

This is why an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment sets a really dangerous precedent.

Some have said an absolute democracy is where "two wolves and a sheep vote to decide what’s for dinner."

[sub]Follow the link for a very good article discussing “majority rule”.[/sub]

That’s why we don’t have a true democracy in the U.S. What we do have is a Constitutional Republic which gives your sheep a say in what’s for dinner. Wolf anyone?

This is misleading, and gets to the core of what the OP is talking about, IMO. The constitution itself is decided by majority vote (super majority, to be more accurate). And in point of fact the majority CAN vote away the “rights” of a minority by changing the constitution. (I put rights in quotes bacause once they are voted away they are no longer rights.) Ultimately, what we all depend on is the good will of our fellow citizens not to vote away these rights and/or to rise up in arms against a government which does so.

What some of us object to is the judiciary finding authority for the FEDERAL goverment in the constitution which is simply not there. A good case in point which is before the SCotUS right now is medicinal marijuana and the interstate commerce clause of the constitution. The modern interpretation of that clause has been respondible for a vast expansion of federal authority over the years. The negative consequences arise when the states want to exert their authority, as is the case for medicinal marijuana, but are unable to do so.

What is so important about majority rule? The only other alternative is **minority **rule. It’s really that simple.

This is incorrect. Another alternative is anarchy. And while you would quite rightly rule out anarchy as a workable form of government, anarchy within specific spheres of activity will work out quite nicely. Take, for example, the sex lives of consenting adults. Anarchy works fine there. Or how about political speech? Again, anarchy seems to work quite nicely. Preferable to any form of government control, be it majority or minority, in fact.

When people talk about protecting individual liberties from majority rule, they are in fact advocating no rule with regards to those liberties, not minority rule.

Since we’re talking about government, anarchy doesn’t really count, but if you want to include it, fine. Doesn’t change the meaning of the statement in any significant way.

But how do your secure those liberties if not by majority rule. Why do you think we have a first amendment free speech clause? And note you said “consenting adults” wrt to sex. How did we get to that limit if not by majority rule? How do we even define “consenting” if not by majority rule.

You are correct in that a constitutional democracy assumes that citizens can do whatever is not expressly forbiden. It also means that government can only do what is expressly allowed. You can’t, however, call those areas not touched by the government “anarchy”. There is no way to section those areas off except by voting-- either majority or minority. In fact the very notion of having a constitutional democracy is put to a vote.

You want to have it both ways. You want “minority rule” in those areas you where you disagree with the majority, and majority rule in those areas where you agree with it.

Please explain to me how restrictions on governmental authority amount to minority rule. I have never, ever understood this assertion.

In practical terms, this is true, but your definition cuts out the ethical considerations of “inalienable” rights.

I’m with Qadgop on this. When the majority decides to infringe on certain essential rights (among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of the perfect ham sandwich), there’s a problem. Calling this “minority rule” is a misnomer, I think. The minority isn’t reigning supreme and dictating the lives of the majority. Rather, it’s simply telling the majority to butt out of things that aren’t its business.

Were you asking me that? If so, I never said it was. Can you show me where I did? I think I was either unclear in my posting, or you misread what I posted. I specifically said that the constitution, which is the document restricting the sphere of governmnent authority, is put in place by majority vote.

Not to interrupt or anything, but it does seem that you did say so when you said

Add to this that restrictions on government are an alternative to government control, and you might see how some could get the impression Gorsnak did.

In essence there is a difference between minority rule and no rule at all. Obviously, I agree with your analysis that the majority (or super majority) has control of which issues are subject to majority rule and which are not. But this too is not the same as saying that the majority rules those issues.

I think you misunderstood the thrust of his point. I think he is, in fact referring to individual rights as a type of minority rule, in the sense that each minority of one “rules” over a great many aspects of life. And that you don’t get to enjoy rights without enforcement being imposed at some point (creation of a government by vote, etc.).


“Minority rule” is like “judicial activism” and “liberal media” – it’s a meaningless catchphrase cooked up by the conservative right to demonize things which go against their attempts to steamroll over the government. The phrase is never used when it’s applied to behavior that they’re supporting, but only to the behavior of their opponents.

What is the machanism of creating the law and enforcing lthe aw?

There must be some mechanism. Even the areas that must be “left alone” and not subject to regulation must be in some way defined.

Who does that?

In our system, popularly elected people make and enforce the law.

How else should it be done?

The definitive word on the subject.

Democracy is the worst form of government…except for all the other ones.
Majority “rule” is not important at all. What is important is that the interests of as many people are served. There must be a balance between the rights of the individual and the greater good, even if that greater good means people have to do things they don’t like. If we put it to a vote, I wonder how many of us would choose no taxes and never having to work again in jobs we hate?

The role of democracy in our government, the way it is structured, is not to ensure that every voice is heard. It is to 1) provide a mechanism for changing government that is orderly and non-violent and 2) to disperse power in order to limit any one groups ability to abuse it.

Tyrany of the majority is the very reason that majority rule is not a good thing. One of our fundamental rights is the right to not conform (provided your nonconformity doesn’t include obvious criminal acts like murder or theft).