• Drew Maglio

"Equality" and the Tyranny of the Majority

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. —C.S. Lewis

What Is Human Nature?: The Anglo-American Perspective

There are two dichotomous views articulated by proponents of democratic government which the aforementioned passage from C.S Lewis’s essay, “Why I Am a Democrat,” succinctly conveys. These two distinct camps have been broken down into many classifications by various authors as early vs. late-Enlightenment or Anglo-American vs. French/Continental. The former classification, advocates for democratic government as a makeshift, necessary evil, or least bad option. It holds and articulates that man is so fallen that no one man--or group of men (i.e. majority)—should possess such absolute power so as to legislate how others are to live their lives. The conservative camp, firmly grounded in the way things actually are, seeks to decentralize power (and production) via many checks and balances because absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton presciently warned. Recognizing men “are not angels,” institutions and government must be varied and decentralized, in a manner where one entity is positioned against another with an opposing institutional interest, in order prevent any one entity from assuming too much power. J.R.R. Tolkien perfectly encapsulated the “constrained” view (to borrow contemporary economist, Thomas Sowell’s terminology) of government that is based on a negative view of human nature that hearkens back to Plato and Aristotle, when he wrote in a letter to a friend: “the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

The French View

In stark contrast to the early-Enlightenment, Anglo-American view of human nature which is firmly grounded in Christianity and owes a great debt to the Medieval Scholastics like St. Thomas Aquinas, is the Continental vision of democratic government that manifested itself most notably during the French Revolution. Without going too far afield, the defining characteristic of this strand of liberalism (spearheaded by Rousseau), is the rejection of the idea that man is fallen by nature that had long been held in the West.

Rousseau famously declared that “man though born free, is everywhere in chains”—he may as well have said “man is born good and is everywhere corrupted.” In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau wrote with impunity,

Allowing that nature intended we should always enjoy good health, I dare almost affirm that a state of reflection is a state against nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal. We need only call to mind the good constitution of savages, of those at least of whom we have not destroyed by our strong liquors; we need only reflect, that they are strangers to almost every disease . . . to be in a manner convinced that the history of human diseases might be easily composed by pursuing that of civil societies. [1]

For Rousseau, it is in society that the “noble savage”--Rousseau’s archetypal man, becomes irredeemably corrupted as his vices are allowed to fester while his virtue grows weary and lethargic: "In proportion as he (man) becomes sociable and a slave to others, he becomes weak, fearful, mean-spirited, and his soft and effeminate way of living at once completes the enervation of his strength and his courage." [2] In this way, Rousseau may be seen as the antithesis of Hobbes who held that life in the state of nature—which for Hobbes was analogous to a constant state of war—is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Locke contrarily, occupied a sort of mean between the “totally-depraved” Calvinistic view of human nature that Hobbes held and the naturally benevolent view of human nature that Rousseau championed.

The Genius of Tocqueville

Hailing from France, Alexis de Tocqueville was simultaneously one of most ardent proponents and chiding critics of American liberalism as it was practiced during the 19th century. In his analysis, Tocqueville notes that Antebellum America was the most fundamentally egalitarian society that he had ever witnessed, in which both squalid poverty as well as extravagant wealth were rarities. Tocqueville noted that there seemed to be no great abundance of either uneducated or illiterate individuals, but on the other hand, there were few highly intelligent and exceptional individuals. As Tocqueville conveyed, the overarching motif of Antebellum America was a pragmatic and practical—if not restless and busy—virtue. Unlike the founding era that was made possible by the interventions of the learned, noble, aristocratic (in the proper sense of the term, i.e. in merit not merely land holdings), the burgeoning America that Tocqueville visited was fast at work becoming a blue-collar and middle-class republic, in which leisure and philosophical contemplation took a back seat to industry and action.

Tocqueville feared however—in an increasingly egalitarian and average society—that a new tyranny was looming on the horizon: namely the tyranny of the majority, which was manifested not through despotism and autocracy, but rather by way of the public pressure of opinion and homogeneity: “In our day, the most absolute sovereigns in Europe cannot prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from circulating . . . The same is not true of America, as long as the majority has not made up its mind, speech is allowed; as soon as it has pronounced its irrevocable decision, speech is silenced.”[3]

In this way, a new tyranny of mind exercised by the majority over minorities began to manifest itself in Tocqueville’s age. Tocqueville argued that this new “group-think” (as moderns tend to call it),“leaves the body alone and goes straight to the spirit.”[4] When surveying the contemporary political order (or disorder), Tocqueville’s pertinent observations have unfortunately and undoubtedly intensified in magnitude and frequency.

Democracy Changes Neither Human Nature Nor the Nature of Political Power

Despite being a Frenchman, Tocqueville breaks from Rousseau and instead embraced Locke’s view of human nature, which holds that man has both the propensity for virtue and vice: which he shall become is the result of deliberation and habit. Locke held that the state of nature is not a state of license wherein each is entitled to everything as Hobbes held, but rather that natural law does not cease to reign supreme in the hearts and minds of men. Because of the gross difficulty in each individual protecting his property by enforcing the natural law himself, individuals (who naturally gravitate towards civil society anyway) contract together for the sake of the enforcement of contracts, in addition to establishing an impartial body by which to adjudicate disputes related to trespasses made by one party against another.[5] All of this must be said, in order to convey that for Locke (and Tocqueville), civil society neither drastically reforms (as in Hobbes) nor corrupts (as in Rousseau) the human being: instead, it may do either according to the arrangement of its structures and institutions which either accord with, or conflict with, the natural law. In other words, man is still man no matter the political arrangement, generally speaking.

In this way, Tocqueville rejects both the notion that man is either benevolent by nature (and thus it follows that society corrupts him) or that man is so totally depraved that a Leviathan is preferable to a constant state of war that follows from unimpinged liberty:

Omnipotence seems self-evidently a bad and dangerous thing. Its exercise appears to be beyond man’s powers, whoever he might be, and I see that only God can be omnipotent without danger because his wisdom and justice are always equal to his power. There is, therefore, no earthly authority so worthy of respect or vested with so sacred a right that I would wish to allow it unlimited action . . . When . . . I see the right and capacity to enact everything given to any authority . . . I say: the seed of tyranny lies there and I seek to live under different laws.[6]

Tocqueville put it even more chidingly later in his work, “I believe that in all governments of whatever sort meanness will attach itself to force and flattery to power. I know of only one method to of preventing men from being debased and that is to grant to no one who has omnipotence (i.e. the majority as in the US) the sovereign power to demean them.”[7]

The Lust For Equality: Mill, Marx, and other “Revolutionaries”

The underlying source of the new tyranny Tocqueville conveyed is born of the democratic impulse and is the special scourge of democracy, i.e. a disdain of any amount of inequality. Tocqueville believed this state would create a condition of lethargy in relation to liberty, as equality became the most cherished ideal of democratic society (rather than liberty). As Rousseau—and later Mill, Hegel, and Marx became the dominant political ideologues for Continental Europe, equality supplanted liberty as the most vital and cherished ideal for civilization. Mill, for instance, went as far to argue that “the most happiness for the greatest number of people” should be the end of government. In this utilitarian view, the safeguarding of individual rights takes a backseat to “equality” and “progress.”

Marx famously declared that “all history is class conflict,” and therefore goaded the proletariat class of workers to revolution in order to achieve greater equality. Marx adopted from Hegel a belief in historicity, or the notion that social values, standards, and mores are historically contingent and therefore not absolute and objective but, instead, malleable in order to suit the needs of any given epoch:

The human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations . . . To abstract from the historical process and to fix the religious sentiment as something by itself and to presuppose an abstract—isolated—human individual . . . the “religious sentiment” is itself a social product . . . All social life is essentially practical . . . The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is materialism which does not comprehend seriousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and civil society. The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity. The philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . the point is to change it.[8]

The Desire For Equality Will Undermine Liberty

Tocqueville both anticipated and feared the way in which in those who wished to undermine American democracy could appeal to man’s insatiable lust for equality in all outcomes, despite the fact that each individual possesses different aptitudes and abilities which allow or inhibit them from making the best of their circumstances:

The passion for equality sinks deeply into every corner of the human heart, expands, and fills it entirely. It is no use telling such men, as they blindly obey such an exclusive passion, that they are damaging their dearest interests; they are deaf. Do not bother to show them that their freedom is slipping through their fingers while their gaze is elsewhere; they are blind, or rather they can only see one advantage worth pursuing in the whole world . . . I think that democratic societies have a natural taste for freedom . . . but they have a burning, insatiable, constant, and invincible passion for equality; they want equality in freedom and, if they cannot have it, they want it in slavery. They will endure poverty, subjection, barbarism but they will not endure aristocracy.[9]

Tocqueville saw a great danger on the horizon for American democracy, whereby a general distaste of learning and extreme wealth could and would create conditions of mediocrity in mind and spirit, i.e. an aggregation of individuals becoming a homogeneity and thereby silencing dissent through social pressure once the majority “had made its mind up.” Once equality (and security for that matter) supplants liberty as the foundation of democracy, it becomes obtrusive and destructive to both minorities and the individual who have but little recourse or redress:

My main complaint against a democratic government as organized in the United States is not its weakness . . . but rather its irresistible strength . . . When a man or party suffers from an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? That represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? That is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the public police force? They are nothing but the majority under arms. To the jury? That is the majority invested with the right to pronounce judgments . . . however unfair or unreasonable the measure which damages you, you must submit.[10]

Tocqueville feared a sovereign majority—with a blithe regard for liberty and an insatiable appetite for equality in all matter of small things—could create conditions which would destroy the human essence, that revolutionaries such as Marx denied altogether, while simultaneously appealing to the yearning for equality:

It (the tyranny of the majority manifested as a guardian rather than as a ruler) gradually blots out their mind and enfeebles their spirit . . . It will be useless to call upon those very citizens who have become so dependent upon central government, to choose from time to time the representative of this government; this . . . brief exercise . . . of their free choice will not prevent the gradual loss of the faculty of autonomous thought, feeling, and action so that they will slowly fall behind the level of humanity.[11]

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America serves as a reminder that democracy is just as, if not more, prone to abuse than other systems of civil government. In order to flourish, democracy must be firmly grounded in principle in order to construct institutions that align with the objective and absolute reality of this world. In order to remain stable, power must be decentralized and therefore liberty and equality under the law must be valued over abstract and ambiguous ideals such as “equality” or “progress,” which are but generalities that amount to little more than mere slogans. As Tocqueville conveyed throughout his seminal work, liberty entails duty and obligation and requires a great deal of proper habituation, which cultivates the wisdom and virtue necessary for self-governance—even of the practical sort. All of these prerequisites must be met so that democracy does not devolve into tyrannical mob rule. In our age it seems that few of us have heeded Tocqueville’s admonition about the dangerous democratic impulse that is devoid of reality in so far as it fails to recognize the fallen nature of man and in particular the propensity for those in power to abuse it, which is most often made manifest in democratic society by the ceaseless, fruitless, and senseless pursuit of absolute equality which anesthetizes the exceptional individual in order to bolster the tyrannical majority.

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Greg Boroson, Discourse On the Origin of Inequality (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 7.

[2] Ibid, 8. [3] Alexis De' Tocqueville, Democracy In America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan (London, England: Penguin Books, 2003), 297. [4] Ibid, 298. [5] Property for Locke was—among other things—both metaphysical as in labor and the activity of the mind, in addition to physical as in the case of cultivated land. For Locke, the preservation and protection of private property was the impetus for the establishment of civil government. [6] Tocqueville, 294. [7] Ibid, 302-303. [8] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and C. J. Arthur, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1974), 122-123. [9] Tocqueville, 586-587. [10] Ibid, 294-295. [11] Ibid, 808.

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