The Tyranny of the ‘Majority’

On English Assignments

The grade 9 English assignment demanded that each of us to writea 2- or 3-page essay describing how we would improve society:What would we do to improve the quality of life for allCanadians?

This was 1986, just after pro-“wrestling”and break-dancing fads started thankfully fading from mass appeal.This was an era when global nuclear warfare (would you like to play agame?) still seemed not only possible, but probable -though Gorbechev’s glasnost policies were definitely reducingtensions from the paranoid levels a few yearsearlier – so the concepts of freedom, democracy, andbomb-shelters appeared in quite a few of the submissions.

For my submission – a creation of pure literary genius, orso I thought – I combined the fundamentals ofdemocracy with my recent discovery of local BBSs.I hypothesized that soon we’d be in a nationally connectedworld that would allow citizens from coast to coast to communicatewith each other and access common resources on their home computer(be it Vic-20, or ultra-high end Commodore-64). Basically I wasjust describing the existing packet-switched commercial services, and the burgeoning Internet (I latercreated a multi-“channel”, packet-oriented modem protocol on myAtari ST – basically a really primitive, foolish version of TCP),but envisioned it as a government built, publicly owned system,supplying every Canadian with this basic piece ofinfrastructure.

With this data communications network, I argued, we couldfinally build a system where government could be implemented as apuredemocracy.

No longer would we have to elect local officials to carry ouragenda to parliament, but now we could simply put every policyquestion to the people, allowing the populace to directlydecide how the country will be governed.

I was certain that my idea was brilliant, and was alittle disappointed when it was returned to me after marking (I wassure it would be passed on to important people for implementation.Perhaps they photocopied it?). Aside from a mark, the teacher -whose name I don’t recall, though I do remember that her and herhusband owned a car dealership – wrote a rather cryptic lineabout it being idealist and unworkable, which stung a bit,hence why this story sticks with me still today.

If for some reason I were required to rewrite that papertoday, I’d probably concede the teacher’s point. I would thankher for giving me a bit of cynicism and insight that perhaps Ididn’t have before.

The Problem With A Pure Democracy

After years of watching public opinion ebb and flow, I’m now ofthe opinion that a pure democracy would be an absolutedisaster.

Apart from the fact that it would likely lead to a tyranny ofthe majority (where 50%+1 = someone else’s agenda forced down yourthroat. This is of course how our system generally currently works,but in a more time-limited, detached manner), the core problem isthat many voters simply don’t take the responsibility required evenfor once-every-4-year trips to the ballot box, much less flippantlydeciding each and every issue facing the government.

I certainly don’t believe in an illuminati running government,and a democracy is empirically the ultimate form of government, butthe small disconnect between the public and the government (theinterface being elected representatives who are accountable for thegovernment and its decisions) allows government to do what isnecessary and right.

In essence it allows government to take actions that mighttemporarily anger the public in a short-sighted manner, but whichwe’ll come to appreciate as time goes on. There have been countlesstimes where polls indicated that the public was signfiicantlyagainst of behind X, but to follow such an agenda would bedisastrous. The government largely ignores such polls, not fallingto populism and pandering to every shift in perception, and itblows over and the public sees the big picture.

Imagine if, instead, every night when you came home (or perhapsonly once a week) there were several policy issues requiring yourinput.

“Should the bridge to the island airport be built?”

“Should the department of departments beprivatized?”

Consider how little thought and attention people give to theirseveral-times-a-decade visit to the ballot box. Now imagine howmuch worse it would be if everyone were questioned onevery single government initiative.

“Well then making voting optional! Let the people who knowabout the topic vote!”

Such an opt-in arrangement is how “special interests” are born,and it’s how they have much more sway than they perhaps should.