Friday, June 10, 2011

Tocqueville - Democracy in America - Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, and Its Consequences (Part I)

Tocqueville offers some observations regarding American political institutions:

"The Americans determined that the members of the legislature should be elected by the people directly, and for a very brief term, in order to subject them, not only to the general convictions, but even to the daily passions, of their constituents." Still, it should be noted that until fairly recently, Senators were elected by the legislature of their respective states as a nod to state sovereignty.

A bit later, he writes: "It is to a legislature thus constituted that almost all the authority of the government has been entrusted."

One cannot help comparing the America of which Tocqueville wrote with that we observe today. The near-constancy of the election cycle would not have surprised him. On the other hand, the legislature has managed to shirk many of the responsibilities which were given them by the founders. For instance, Congress no longer declares war, the president now being elevated to a Caesar of sorts, electable not quite by popular vote.

Tocqueville notes that candidates from the legislature were beholden to the voters to pass certain bills--or prevent them from being passed--ensuring that the masses did, in fact, rule. Probably it was so, but, for a variety of reasons, a more striking feature of contemporary American politics is the ease with which candidates break promises, seldom to their detriment.

The majority triumphs in a democracy, not merely because of its votes, but for an altogether different reason: "The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual, and that the number of the legislators is more important than their quality. The theory of equality is thus applied to the intellects of men; and human pride is thus assailed in its last retreat by a doctrine which the minority hesitate to admit, and to which they will but slowly assent."

In a democracy, then, those who hold the minority position are not simply out of step, they are wrong, and possibly anti-social. Hence the appeal to an opinion poll is a legitimate means of arguing in our society.

Despite being supreme, majorities will probably not be able to strip the rights of minorities: "If there existed in America a class of citizens whom the legislating majority sought to deprive of exclusive privileges which they had possessed for ages and to bring down from an elevated station to the level of the multitude, it is probable that the minority would be less ready to submit to its laws. But as the United States was colonized by men holding equal rank, there is as yet no natural or permanent disagreement between the interests of its different inhabitants."

Tocqueville examines the possibility of "the tyranny of the majority." It is possible for a majority to create a law which is unjust, say, that all those who write with their left hands must be killed. While the majority is sovereign, this sovereignty cannot be absolute, lest the majority seek to tyrannize the minority. Hence, "When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind." Of course, mankind may still go wrong as well, but the general point is clear: their is a law which exists above the laws made by nations; if the latter contradict the former, they are not valid.

Although democracy was fully consistent with the zeitgeist, Tocqueville new it was wary of sentiment that democracy would cure all ills. "If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?"

Nor can the evils of democracy be balanced by mixing the government with that of another type. Contrary to Aristotle, Tocqueville believed that mixed governments were chimerical: "in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others." In fact, "When a community actually has a mixed government--that is to say, when it is equally divided between adverse principles--it must either experience a revolution or fall into anarchy."

Tocqueville is more concerned with the limits on power, rather than the particular form of government: "Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing. Human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion. God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power."

Far from being amazed at the weakness of the American government, Tocqueville was most alarmed at the lack of security against it being exercised to the fullest. There is nothing to which a man may appeal as against the will of the majority.

"I do not say that there is a frequent use of tyranny in America at the present day; but I maintain that there is no sure barrier against it, and that the causes which mitigate the government there are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws."

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