Is majority rule democratic?

Greek Man

Kirill Bedenkov

Kirill Bedenkov is a second-year BSc Politics and International Relations student at University College London (UCL).

10th January 2022

Alamy Stock Photo

Introduction

“… And as she entered, on their tail, 

And bearing in her hands the grail,

So great a brightness shone around…”

 

The preceding lines, written by de Troyes (2019, lines 3206-3208), allude to Perceval’s search for the Grail, a mystical object miraculously capable of providing unbounded felicity. Posterior generations began interpreting this Arthurian myth as a quest for an unachievable ideal, wherein the morality of that quest’s impossibility dawns along the horizon of enlightenment. Despite this fable’s literary origins, can its moral still be applied in the realm of politics?

 

The continuous debates around the most suitable form of decision rule that should prevail in democratic systems incarnate the search for the Holy Grail. The main discussion appears to focus on either justifying or questioning the compatibility of the majority rule – or according to Dasgupta & Maskin (2008), a principle encapsulating the notion that the greater number entails the justified exercise of greater power – with the democratic principle that a political system should accurately represent the democratic values of a given nation. Despite the dense history of depicting the majority rule as a vital limb of the democratic organism, originating in ancient Greece, where, according to Pitsoulis (2011), democracy involved rule by a majority vote of a popular assembly composed of male citizenry with completed military service, the critical vices of such a decision rule became the subject of an ongoing discussion. Thinkers such as Mill (1869) and de Tocqueville (1889) highlighted that the unbalanced political power inevitably leads to the so-called “tyranny of the majority”, where permanent minorities are suppressed to reflect the will of the majority. Thus, the question of whether the majority rule is democratic still pulsates in academia’s veins.

 

“… The grail’s passage he observed,

In open view, and yet, reserved,

He knew not whom, with it, one served…”

(de Troyes, 2019, lines 3281-3283)

 

Contemporary advocates of democracy prescribe the majority rule to such a system, with academics such as Jones (1988, p.7) suggesting that “there does seem something naturally compelling about” it. However, why exactly can the majority rule be considered democratic? 

 

Democratic

 

It is crucial to establish the demand side of a democratic process, justifying the need for a decision rule. From Dahl’s (1989, p.136-138) perspective, if there is a “collection of people” within “well-defined boundaries”, all “committed to political equality”, and who have conflicting goals and interests, encompassing a plurality of values which are subject to dispute, there is a need for “collective decisions”  which are brought about by a rule that is “decisive”, “acceptable”, and “feasible”. Arguably, the majority rule appears to be the most suitable to reflect these criteria.

 

Notably, the majority rule maximises the number of participants who utilise the self-determination principle in collective decisions. Dahl (1989, p.138) argues that the majority rule “ensures that the greatest possible number of citizens will live under laws they have chosen for themselves”. If any law is decided by a minority instead, the number of people who chose an alternative option will be inherently higher, opposing the intrinsic democratic value of equality, as the minority citizens’ votes are weighted disproportionately greater. Moreover, the majority rule maximises the net benefit. As mentioned earlier, people are not homogenous in their interests and preferred values, which requires decisions to be made. However, as Jones (1988, p.7-8) highlights, “if people are at odds, you cannot satisfy everyone” and, therefore, “the next best thing is to satisfy as many as possible”. 

 

Nonetheless, as Jones (1988, p.8) continues, “sometimes decision-making is not about ‘satisfying’ people but about trying to arrive at the ‘right’ decision”. In this case, the majority rule embodies the most proficient tool, as it intertwines with the “wisdom of the crowd”. Originally argued by Aristotle (2000) and further proved by Galton (1907), many participants’ accumulative judgement is likely to be wiser upon the whole, as the median is centred near the correct value. This argument is further supported by the Condorcet Jury Theorem, which prescribes that the probability of the majority arriving at the right decision is directly related to its size: the larger it gets, the greater the chance of an accurate decision, levelling the effect of the outliers inherent to the minority judgement (Ladha, 1992). As such, the proponents of the majority rule insist that the bigger the polity, the higher the likelihood of arriving at an ‘accurate decision’. Yet, it is important to mention that de Condorcet (1785) himself pointed out that the majority principle stumbles across serious difficulties if there are more than two alternatives to choose from for a majority, thus highlighting its imperfection.

 

Undemocratic

 

Despite the apparent alignment of the majority rule with democratic ‘preliminaries’, upon closer inspection, its flaws become evident. Notably, the critical issue arising from the majority principle is what Dahl (1989, pp.146-147) calls “boundary problems”, focusing not on the collective decisions boundary, that is “matters decided collectively versus not”, but on the collective unit itself. Here, there is a possibility that a permanent majority/minority arises, as the policies specific to minorities’ identities might be neglected due to non-relevance to the majority. Moreover, de Condorcet’s worry about the non-practicability of the majority principle when faced with more than two alternatives is outlined by Kenneth Arrow’s ‘Impossibility Theorem’ which suggests that unless you allow one person to dictate to all the rest, no solution to cyclical majorities exists, as when faced with three or more options, there can be a case for “intransitive outcomes” (Maskin & Sen, 2014). Furthermore, as Dahl (1989, p.151) highlights, the majority government might tailor its agenda and even choose policies that “provide only modest benefits to its members and yet are so harmful to a minority”. Therefore, the argument about the majority rule maximising the net benefit is flawed, as the below-average net benefit acquired by the majority denotes a greater net loss for the minority, especially if the discrepancy between the two is minimal. The presented difficulties derive from the ‘tyranny of the majority’, debunking the majority rule idealisation. Given such criticism, what are the alternatives?

 

Alternatives

 

Lijphart’s (1977) consociationalism represents the most suitable approach for dealing with the sensitive questions that cannot be decided by the majority rule (especially within deeply divided societies). Consociational democracy embodies four principal characteristics that contrast majoritarian principles: i) joint consensual rule within a coalition consisting of minorities; ii) corresponding proportionality which guarantees each strata’s fair and equal treatment; iii) the availability of mutual veto in the decisions; iv) segmental autonomy interpreted as minority rule over minority itself (Ibid.). However, such a decision rule cannot be viewed as an end in itself, as it suffers from the following categorical flaws: 

 

1) mutual veto implies the unlikeliness of arriving at any particular decision, with the inherent endless voting cycles likely perpetuating the status quo; 2) minority rule over minority itself infers the presence of majority within the ruling minority, indicating the infinite regress of trying to establish any decision. 

 

“… I grieve no less that you did fail

To seek to learn about the grail…”

(de Troyes, 2019, lines 3588-3589)

 

Ultimately, the majority rule appears to align with democratic preliminaries, supported by the  justifications discussed earlier. Nonetheless, its side-effects stemming from the “tyranny of the majority” highlight its undemocratic limitations, adding fuel to the fire of already heated debates. However, the implied dichotomy of classifying the majority rule as either democratic or undemocratic (with a related search for the best alternative) resembles Perceval’s naive thinking in search of the Holy Grail. There is no ideal decision rule, as every available contender has its intrinsic flaws. However, there is a clear possibility of utilising both majoritarianism and consociationalism simultaneously, employing the latter in the situations involving a permanent majority or decisions encapsulating sensitive topics directly related to minorities, sewing up the societal divides. Therefore, further research on their mixture’s plausibility is of interest, with a particular analytical focus on specific voting systems. Instead of seeking the best form of decision rule, academia’s focus should shift to acknowledging the morality of its ‘journey’, including the advantages and disadvantages of existing decision rules. Only when disillusionment prevails over idealism, the possibility of combining the theories will materialise.

 

Bibliography

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‌Mill, J.S. (1869). On Liberty. 4th ed. [online] Longman, Roberts, & Green Co. Available at: https://www.econlib.org/library/Mill/mlLbty.html?chapter_num=1#book-reader.

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