The Role of a Majority Vote in a Free Society
Unlimited Majority Rule in a Democracy

IF the Founding Fathers who put together our Constitution HAD wanted a democracy for this country they would NOT have put in such "checks and balances" as the Electoral College (which checks against the majority) or the arduous amendment procedure, the Bill of Rights, and so on. They would have just let the majority decide.

Asked what sort of government they had set up, Benjamin Franklin replied, "A Republic -- if you can keep it!"

  And, make no mistake, by "republic" they didn't mean merely a representative democracy. By no means of interpretation! They meant a government whose scope of authority was LEGALLY LIMITED by a device called a written CONSTITUTION. Jefferson said, let me hear no more about having trust and confidence in the men of government -- but rather BIND THEM DOWN BY THE CHAINS of the Constitution!

   A republic is a government whose scope of authority is limited by law. The officials of government would be under explicit limitations as to what they could and could not do. The men in government were expressly forbidden to pass ex post facto laws or bills of attainder. The Bill of Rights would not allow Congress to pass laws setting up a monopoly Church or abridging freedom of religious worship, or of speech or of peaceful assembly, etc. In other words, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights said to the officials of the national government, "You can't do this, and you can't do that -- and, if we forgot to explicitly mention anything important, we've got the 9th and 10th Amendments which say you can't do that either!"

   No, they didn't set up a democracy, representative or otherwise. The Bill of Rights would not have been ncessary if they wanted to let the majority decide the issues. It was a republic for which they stood -- a government of legally limited authority.

   Limited?  Limited by what principle? By the principle of the natural individual rights of peaceful men.

  "Rights" are enclaves of freedom and privacy of people as individuals which are off-limits to the interference of other people, including any majority. The only proper function of government is to secure these rights of individuals in their persons and properties from being violated by the initiation of the use of violence or fraud by either criminals or foreign aggressors.

  This position, from the original text of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, outlines the proper scope and limits of jurisdiction for government, the institution that wields legal force in society.

   Again, it is the principle of individual rights which is the standard -- NOT majority whim. Amd, as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration, whenever government becomes destructive to its proper function (i.e., securing rights from crime by protecting people from criminals), it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and start over.

   Note that it would NOT be legitimate for any majority of people to alter or abolish a proper government and replace it with one that, by deliberate policy, violates the rights of peaceful people. No magic number -- not even fifty percent plus one -- can transform an act that is wrong and criminal if committed by an individual (such as murder or theft) into a collecltive right. Jefferson did not advocate majority rule. The "consent of the governed" applies to choosing the officials who will administer a proper government -- not in "legitimizing" tyranny. The Bill of Rights recognized this. Note that the First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law abridging" various freedoms. It does NOT say "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom UNLESS A MAJORITY OF THE PEOPLE WANT IT TO DO SO."

   In a free society, individual rights of peaceful people are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of any peaceful individual, or any minority of peaceful individuals.

  Voting is merely a political procedure or mechanism -- within a strictly limited sphere of activity -- for choosing the specific, practical MEANS of implementing a proper government's basic policy, or choosing the specific OFFICIALS who will ADMINISTER the government's basic policy -- but that basic policy (the protection of indiviudal rights from coercive violation) is NOT determined by majority vote.  Not in a Laissez-Faire Republic.

   The citizens of a free society may disagree over the specific means or officers for implementing or administering the basic policy of government (to protect their rights to person & property from criminal violation). The specific legal procedures, rules of due process, and methods of enforcement, etc. are problems which are the province of political science and the philosophy of law. But a majority cannot rightfully vote to change the basic policy in order to violate the rights of innocent people. In a Laissez-Faire Republic, as in the original Aemrican Republic, the actions of government and its agents and officials are LIMITED by rules based on principles -- not to be changed at the ARBITRARY whim of ANYONE, be it one man, a minority group, or a majority. (The arduous amendment procedrue set up in the Constitution by the Framers is an example of this.) Again, it is Principle versus Whim.

   Since, in a Laissez-Faire Republic (a free society), it is illegal and unconstitutional for government to use its powers to violate the rights of peaceful people (those who do not initiate the use of force against others), the political power of the public authorities is strictly limited to protecting rights and not violating them.  In such a system, and ONLY in such a system, the citizens may, safely and properly, agree to abide by the decisions of a majority vote since voting under those conditions does not threaten the lives or properties of peaceful people.  It must be emphasized that in such a system, a majority vote does not threeaten the lives or properties of minorities or dissenters because the right of the peaceful individual (the ultimate minority) to his or her life and property is not at stake -- not subject to majority vote and not endangered by any majority decision.  Majority vote in a republic is merely a mechanical device for selecting the officials of government  -- those who will administer the affairs of government. The basic policy and fundamental functions of a proper government are not set by simple majority vote.

   In an unlimited DEMOCRACY, on the other hand, anything goes as long as the majority of the moment says so. Unlimited majority rule is one of the worst forms of tyranny. The Founders knew this and assiduously opposed democracy. Fifty percent plus one is no magic number that transforms a wrong action into a right action.

   Furthermore, I would point out that the privilege of voting is itself a CONSEQUENCE, NOT A PRIMARY CAUSE of a free social system -- and its value and continuation depends on the constitutional structure implementing and limiting the voter's sphere of power by the principle of individual rights. If the voter's power is not limited by constitutional principle -- if there is no Bill of Rights to place individual rights and freedoms outside the reach of the public authorities -- then there will be majoritarian tyranny.

   Majority vote can be a useful tool for choosing political leaders, but majority opinion or a majority vote does not constitute a validation of an idea. Truth is not determiend by reference to any show of hands. Whim is still whim, whether it be the subjective whim of an individual or the subjective whim of any group, including the majority of the moment. Truth is independent of whim. Progress toward being civilized depends on the separation of Force from Whim. If coercive force, especially the legal force of the political state, is wielded by whim (whether the whim of one man, the whim of a clique of men, or the whim of a majority of the moment), then freedom, justice, and progress are all sacrificed.

  if the terms "democracy" or "popular sovereignty" are used to mean simple majority rule on basic policy and any and all issues, then it is clear the American Republic was not set up to be a democracy. As Milton Friedman put it in his classic book Capitalism and Freedom, "The widespread use of the market reduces the strain on the social fabric by rendering conformity unnecessary with respect to any activities it encompases. The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement. In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society. Unanimity [in political decisions] is, of course, an ideal. In practice, we can afford neither the time nor the effort that would be required to achieve complete unanimity on every issue. We must perforce accept something less. We are thus led to accept majority rule in one form or another as an expedient. That majority rule is an expedient rather than itself a basic principle is clearly shown by the fact that our willingness to resort to majority rule, and the size of the majority we require, themselves depend on the seriousness of the issue involved. If the matter is of little moment, and the minority has no strong feelings about being overruled, a bare plurality will suffice. On the other hand, if the minority feels strongly about the issue involved, even a bare majority will not do. Few of us would be willing to have issues of free speech, for example, decided by a bare majority. Our legal system is full of such distinctions among kinds of issues that require different kinds of majorities. At the extreme are those issues embodied in the Constitution. These are the principles that are so important that we are willing to make only minimal concessions to expediency. Something like essential consensus was achieved initially in accepting them, and we require something like essential consensus for a change in them. The self-denying ordinance to refrain from majority rule on certain kinds of issues that is embodied in our Constitution, and in similar written and unwritten constitutions elsewhere and the specific provisions in these constitutions or their equivalents prohibiting coercion of [peaceful] individuals, are themselves to be regarded as reached by free discussion and as reflecting essential unanimity about means."

Among those constitutional principles that must not be sacrificed to majority rule or any other kind of politcal whim are freedom of speech, press, religious worship, peaceful assembly, trial by jury, and many others -- resting on the bedrock principles of the individual rights of self-ownership and private property. A true republic is designed to protect, not violate, these rights by having the limited role of focusing on protecting peaceful folks against and retaliating against the initiation of the use of violence (force and fraud) by criminals and foreign aggressors -- without going beyond that narrow purpose by trying to run the lives of peaceful citizens or confiscate their properties.

Progress toward a more civilized society is the triumph of Principle over Whims. And the key principle of the old American Republic was the principle of individual rights of self-ownership and private property. It is this principle that sets the American Republic apart from any majority-rule democracy as well as from absolute monarchy or a tyrannical oligarchy. And an even more consistent application of that principle for limiting government's scope would be the primary distinction of the Laissez-Faire Republic which we libertarians advocate for a rebirth of human freedom and progress, even going far beyond what was achieved in the past when America was still free. In short, if we are to go forward with what Jefferson, Mason, and Madison began, we should be less concerned about WHO is in charge of administering government offices (although this is not unimportant), and more concerned with LIMITING THE SCOPE OF AUTHORITY of government to those issues which involve the use of violence (crime and foreign threats) -- and with keeping government's nose out of the private affairs and voluntary (market) relationships of the people.

At any rate, that is the ideal toward which we strive. We know we can closely approach that ideal in practice because America at one time came much closer to that ideal than it is today. In a world of imperfect human beings, the Laissez-Faire Republic is a practical, attainable ideal because it is based on man's nature and the nature of reality -- in conrast to collectivist utopias (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Red China, North Korea, Cuba under Castro, etc.) which sought to forcibly impose unattainable "ideals" on real human beings whose natures could not be made to conform without massive totalitarian violence committed against the people. Only the Laissez-Faire Republic can provide a framework of maximum freedom for adult individuals in which social progress can take place in a rational and orderly manner while protecting peaceful people from criminals and foreign aggressors.


Related Articles or Documents

The Three Categories of Human Activity and How They Relate to the Proper Role of Political Government -- or, Where Libertarians Would Draw the Line

Dr. Walter Williams on Violence & the Moral Limits of Political Action

Separation of Force and Whim -- The Laissez-Faire Republic vs. Whimarchy:  The Principle of Clearly Defined Individual Human Rights in a Limited Constitutional Republic versus the Tyranny of Unlimited Government by Whim

Short Classics on the Proper Role of Political Government  These writings ae essential reading for any educated American

Selected Historical Documents   List of Major Documents, Books, Essays, Pamphlets, & Tracts in the Historical Development of the American Constitutional Republic, and how this increasingly placed legal limitations on the prerogatives of political rulers (first the King and then the Parliament itself), thus effecting a separation of whim from the use of government force by the assertion of private rights.

An Outline of Political Systems, and Where the Laissez-Faire Republic Fits

Constitutional Republic vs Democracy:  The Role of a Majority Vote in a Free Society Versus Unlimited Majority Rule in a Democracy  Did the founders of the United States of America intend to establish a democracy? Is a republic merely a representative democracy?