Democracy: Tyranny of the Majority?
The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property, and the end why they choose and authorize a [legislature] is that there may be laws made . . . to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society.
– John Locke (1632-1704)
Democracy or Dictatorship of the Majorities (Democracia o Dictadura de las Mayorías) is a book by Hana Fischer — a writer and columnist from Uruguay — that illustrates the role and dynamics of constituent majorities in contemporary democracies.
Fischer raises a fundamental question: “Up until what point do governments violate our rights?” In order to answer, she explores the classic debates that underlay the concepts of democracy, liberalism, and a republic.
Fischer explained to the PanAm Post what motivated her to take up this thorough analysis regarding contemporary democracies. Her interest emerged, she says, from the contradiction that democracy represents. Despite claims of consent and will of the people, its method doesn’t allow criticism of or opposition to the very legitimacy of majority rules. You are subject, by force, regardless.
“The principle of individual freedom is elementary in all spheres, and to not be able to challenge the ways to act in a democracy raises a contradiction in itself regarding those individual freedoms.”
Liberalism, in the classical meaning of the word, recognizes natural rights as an individual’s inherent condition. They exist prior to any form of state and are inviolable. Therefore, she affirms, it’s necessary to limit state power in order to protect individual freedom and human dignity.
As the leading exponent of liberalism, John Locke explains: “Man being born . . . with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men . . .”
Fischer develops an in-depth analysis of these concepts and applies them to Latin-American countries like Uruguay and Argentina. She takes into account historical caudillo figures such as José Batlle y Ordóñez and Juan Domingo Perón, and she focuses on the 21st century — given what she characterizes as the rise of political and economic protectionism in that, at least somewhat democratic, era.
The author criticizes the way protectionism, particularly since the 1950s, has found justification in democracy alone. Each time, this brings democracy further from Álvaro Vargas Llosa’s traditional definition: “a mechanism that helps to decide in a peaceful way who governs, and makes people in power accountable.”
The democracy of welfare states has become a battle of demagoguery and straight rule of the majority. This feature, she asserts, eventually turns countries into democracies of origin and appearance, but autocracies in exercise.
Regarding the future of Latin America, Fischer has a less-than-positive outlook.
“Today Uruguay is going through a process similar to Argentina: poverty levels are lowered through welfarism, instead of economic advancement, making people dependent on the government and the party in power.”
“Democracy is being destroyed from within. Statism progresses at an impressive rate, [and the government] enacts many laws that limit property rights . . . the situation is very similar to the one experienced in Latin America during the 1950s: multiple reforms, import prohibitions, limits on personal liberties.” Fischer also raises the possibility of a similar ending, a crumbling of democratic institutions, that took place after the 1950s.
According to Fischer, Friedrich Hayek is the author who has best portrayed democracy’s evolution.
“Though ‘democratic’ is often used today to describe particular aims of policy that happen to be popular, especially certain egalitarian ones, there is not necessarily a connection between democracy and any particular view about how the powers of the majority ought to be used.”
Individual rights are essential, Fischer asserts, for a society’s healthy evolution, and consequently the progress of the state. The quality of a true political system, then, is beyond the traditional concept of democracy, and the long-term progress that the state and its people can achieve depends on these ideas and the institutions not subject to majority whims.
Democracy or Dictatorship also analyzes the channels through which democracy ends up in demagoguery, and highlights public education as a leading vulnerability. “The idea of free, mandatory, public education was a bad one, that emerged from liberals in the 19th century. In every country, education programs are regulated and controlled by the state, to a greater or lesser degree, and through this means, the state promotes changes to ideas and public opinion.” Fischer continues that this mandatory education, in particular, serves as a foundation for the transfer of statist ideas for a subservient population.
Overall, Fischer makes the case for individual freedoms and protections against an imposed equality, which necessitates obedience to those who have greater power. During her PanAm interview, Fischer also criticized the current liberal movement: “many liberals aren’t fighting in the battle of ideas. Nowadays, in many places, ‘liberal’ is a negative word.”
Without a doubt, the author identifies herself with Hayek’s famous phrase, “I must frankly admit that if democracy is taken to mean government by the unrestrained will of the majority I am not a democrat, and even regard such government as pernicious and in the long run unworkable.”
Translated by Marcela Estrada.