Democracy and majority rule
By Walter Williams
Published: Saturday, November 24, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Updated: Monday, November 26, 2012
President Barack Obama narrowly defeated Gov. Mitt Romney in the popular vote, 51 percent to 48 percent. In the all-important Electoral College, Obama won 303 electoral votes, Romney 206. What's so good about democracy and majority rule?
Would we like our day-to-day decisions to be made through majority rule or the democratic process? Watch a football game or "Law and Order"? Have turkey or ham for Christmas dinner? Were such decisions made in the political arena, most of us would deem it tyranny.
Why isn't it also tyranny for the political process to determine decisions such as how much should be put aside out of our paychecks for retirement, whether we purchase health insurance or what light bulbs we use?
Our nation's Founders held a deep abhorrence for democracy and majority rule. "Democracy" appears in neither our Declaration of Independence nor our Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison wrote, "Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."
Chief Justice John Marshall observed, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."
In a word or two, the Founders knew that a democracy would lead to the same kind of tyranny the Colonies suffered under King George III. They intended a republican form of limited government that kept political decision-making to the minimum.
One anti-majority rule inserted by our Constitution's Framers is that the presidency is not decided by a majority vote, but by the Electoral College. If a simple majority were the rule, the nine states that have more than 50 percent of the population conceivably could determine the presidency. Fortunately, they can't, because they have only 225 Electoral College votes when 270 are needed. Were it not for the Electoral College, presidential candidates could safely ignore less populous states.
The two houses of Congress pose another obstacle to majority rule. Fifty-one senators can block the designs of 435 representatives and 49 senators. The Constitution gives the president a veto that weakens the power of the 535 members of Congress. It takes two-thirds of both houses to override a presidential veto. A two-thirds vote of both houses is required to propose a constitutional amendment; enactment requires ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Today's Americans think Congress has the constitutional authority to do anything for which it can get a majority vote. We think whether a measure is a good idea or a bad idea should determine its passage, as opposed to whether that measure lies within the enumerated powers granted Congress by the Constitution. Unfortunately for the future of our nation, Congress has successfully exploited American constitutional ignorance or contempt.
Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
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