Benlog

crypto and public policy

The Majority is Not Always Right

Filed under: General November 19, 2003 @ 2:23 pm

It’s easy to forget that, in a democratic process, most decisions are not made by the majority. The people choose representatives, and the representatives make decisions. Furthermore, the courts can overrule the simple majority of representatives if a decision conflicts with prior principle (say, the Constitution).

The majority simply can’t be trusted to make the right decisions all the time.

This week, Massachusetts judges struck down a ban on gay marriage. Conservative circles are screaming that the judges failed to respect the will of the people, because the majority of US citizens polled oppose gay marriage. The best response comes from Elizabeth Birch, director of Human Rights Campaign:

“If not for courts, African-Americans would not have had the right to vote, women would not have the right to vote. The purpose of a constitution is to protect a minority group from the wrath of the majority.”
(taken from a CNN article)

There are more examples of this. The French government abolished the death penalty when 65% of the population still supported it. Today, more than 20 years later, less than 40% of French citizens support a return to the death penalty.

A government that follows the majority opinion at all times is a government that trails public trends. We elect government officials not so they can take the public’s temperature every hour and spit out a statistically correct average. We elect government officials who have a certain vision of the future and a reasonable way of getting there. We trust them to work hard at this vision, to tell us how they’re progressing, and, if they fail, we punish them by not reelecting them.

The majority makes decisions of high-level principle. Once those principles are in place, a complex system of checks and balances gears up to implement them while preventing the majority from screwing it up. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but it’s a damn good system.

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