Democratically disenfranchised

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(Photo credit: Steffe)

Growing up I learned about the (US) Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights. There may even have been some limp discussion about why certain rights were added and what they’re good for. But we never talked about what I now understand to be the most important yet commonly overlooked reason to codify fundamental rights and limitations on the exercise of power– the tyranny of the majority.

When we learned about democracy it was touted as the cutting edge political system in the world, where all could prosper. Since everyone gets to vote, the power and guidance of the state rests (in theory) with all the people, instead of some elite ruling class. Leaving aside the inevitability of governmental scope-creep, power-grabbing, and corruption, there is a fairly serious blind spot built in to this system– who is to say that the majority knows what’s best?

As a detour before I get into my real rant, let’s talk about taxes. In order for government to function it needs revenue. Assuming that there’s no lucrative state-controlled export fueling the economy, this means citizens will be paying taxes of some kind. I’m using a simplified model with easy numbers for illustration, a flat tax system where everyone (above the poverty line) pays the same percent of their income to the government: 10%. If you make $100 per week you pay $10. If you make $2000 per week you pay $200. The wealthy are still paying more in total but everyone is at the same rate. Mathematically speaking, it’s a fair, level system.

  • Even though most people don’t love giving money away, the majority does understand the need for taxes. Some people would rather enjoy the benefits of the state but elect not to pay taxes at all. Well, the majority doesn’t take kindly to that. This is a pretty black and white example where majority rule comes up with the right answer: no free rides. If you make money, give up 10% of it or get out of our state!
  • Now let’s add some economic inequality into the system. Those who have an above-average amount of wealth can never (by definition) be in the majority. If we have an unusual majority comprised of meritocrats or classic liberals, then they may be perfectly fine with the fact that their neighbor has a nicer house, and that everyone is paying the same percentage of their income to taxes.But the majority may just as well decide that those who have more ought to give up a bigger percent than those who have less. After all, the rich are ..well.. rich! Isn’t it unfair to let them off paying the same percentage as the poor when they’ll have more left over at the end of the day? So the majority invents tax brackets. If you make a lot of money then you should pay 40% of it in taxes (or 60% or 85%), and that way we can fund the government at the same level but reduce the majority’s rates to 7% (or 5%, or 2%), and try to give the poor a better quality of life.  But at the same time we have inadvertently created a system where the greater your achievements, the more screwed you get. The path of least resistance is mediocrity.. work hard enough to make ends meet but don’t reach for the stars because they’ll just get taxed away from you.
  • Well the minority didn’t vote for those tax brackets, that’s for sure, but what can they do? Move away? Use an offshore tax haven? Create the republican party to fool a religious majority into voting for the interests of an economic minority? ;)In any case, the rich (like anyone else) won’t give up their earnings easily. Now we move into a tale of have vs. have-not, evil vs. downtrodden. When the minority becomes not simply a different point of view but an enemy, then the rosy picture of democracy loses a bit of luster. Now we have class warfare. The minority tries to escape or control the masses, and the majority starts pricing out torches and pikes.

No matter what your views are on economics, what I wanted to point out there was how something basic such as a decision on how to fund the government can quite easily turn very ugly over time, even though “democracy” and majority rule have been applied throughout the process.

To avoid a tyranny of the majority there must be boundaries. We can outline areas that are off-limits for the majority to infringe, even if they feel like it later on. This is the point of a bill of rights– these rights are ensured, protected; inalienable.

I have met very few people who believe that freedom of expression should be an inalienable right, which saddens me. Instead, most people I have encountered only believe in the freedom to express views that are not abhorrent to them. The rules are different depending on individual, culture, and state. It may be fine to speak out against the government, but not utter a disrespect for a certain religion or offend the moral majority’s sensibility. It may be taboo (or even dangerous) to go against the government. It might be ok to say whatever you want as long as it’s not “hateful” (in the US, hate speech is not protected by the first amendment).

It is easy for the majority to support expression that it agrees with. This is not freedom of speech, it is not a right that needs protecting. The majority cannot tyrannize itself (unless perhaps via a tragedy of the commons, a subject for another post).

To protect expression is to embrace that which offends. Not to accept or condone its content, but to champion the right for others to proclaim it (even when we are certain they’re idiots). To guarantee this (or any) right, the majority must choose to uphold it in cases they personally abhor, or else it becomes utterly meaningless. For how can we enforce even a codified protection when the majority chooses to vote it down?

And with that, I direct your attention to the international effort to stop criticism of Islam. (Hat tip to Infidel Guy.) If you live somewhere that nominally supports freedom of expression, take a moment and consider what life would be like when criticism gets banned.

4 responses to “Democratically disenfranchised”

  1. My understanding is such, but I am not a lawyer. Please correct me if I’m wrong:

    Hateful speech is still protected by the First Amendment, but not if it incites violence. That same standard is applied to speech of any form. The qualifier “hate” does however make a difference when prosecuting crimes proceeding from that speech – that is, the punishment is more severe.

    For example, the KKK and the neo-Nazis are permitted to assemble, stump, publish, distribute, and otherwise express their views that anyone without white skin is inferior to them. However, the punishment against them if violence occurs is greater. Thought it might chill their speech somewhat, it seems quite reasonable to me because the characteristic of that speech is to incite such violence, and history has shown that it has been successful at it. Thus, it provides an incentive for them to be more careful about what they say, because it can so easily lead to other problems.

  2. You’re probably correct. I didn’t do my own research on this and I’m not a lawyer either.

    Let’s replace the example with defamation, or other exception to free speech.

  3. Again, I’m not so sure that’s a good example. Defamation and libel laws, at least in the United States, are quite strictly interpreted to balance equitably the freedom of the individual to speak against the unfair harm that speech can do – and my understanding is that the history of those laws in our country falls pretty squarely on the side of free speech more often than not.

    A better example might be the majority enshrining certain speech above others, despite its clear conflict with other inalienable rights. “In God We Trust” comes to mind, or the “under God” portion of the Pledge of Allegiance.

    In any event, I’m just being petty. Sorry.

  4. Your example, and the “In God we Trust” on money, are more a question of violating the establishment clause I think. I’m not sure that government-produced things such as money and pledges are considered to be a forum for free speech..

    Your knowledge of case law here (some) is probably greater than mine (very little) so I won’t debate where on which way individual cases have gone. If they are being judged more “right” than wrong in the US, then huzzah; one thing less to worry about in that locality.

    Now should we talk about how creationists are trying to turn school classrooms into a free speech issue? I may make a post about that in the future anyway.