According to Thoreau, what is the flaw in majority rule?
In his essay Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau was ambivalent regarding the attributes of majority rule, recognizing in an unregulated political environment that it was no guarantor of justice. Hardly original in these concerns – the Framers of the U.S. Constitution fully understood the moral and practical necessities of ensuring minority (in a political if not ethnic sense) rights were respected – he was nevertheless an articulate advocate against over-reliance on the will of absolute majorities in determining public policy. As he wrote in this seminal essay:
“After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.”
Majority rule is an essential characteristic of democratic government, but is not in and of itself a guarantor of democratic tradition. Thoreau recognized this when he asked rhetorically,
“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”
With the expression of such sentiments, Thoreau place himself squarely within the democratic tradition envisioned by James Madison and others who feared tyranny of a majority.
According to Thoreau, majority rule is not necessarily the fairest way to rule because such rule is only hinged on physical strength or the strength in numbers. Majority rule does not consider individual conscience or reasoning and the majority are reduced to subjects following their institution and leaders blindly.
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? (Civil disobedience)
Majority rule makes it difficult to institute reforms with regards to unjust laws. It would take the minority to convince the majority for amendments to be made and this provides that the populace continues observing the unjust laws at least until they are amended.
In majority rule, it is the majority that determines what is right or wrong. Thoreau observed this as a wrong approach because the issue of right and wrong should be based on conscience, otherwise, the powerful would take advantage of the weak. Thus according to Thoreau, the flaw in majority rule is that it does not necessarily ascribe to conventions of individual reasoning and conscience but those of strength.
when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. (Civil disobedience)
According to Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”, the flaw in majority rule is just that – the government is ruled by the majority and the minority is left out. Thoreau states,
“But government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it.”
By this, he means that it does not serve all people if it is only one group, no matter how large a group, who decides what is best for all. Thoreau continues the essay by saying that people should be allowed to govern themselves and should know the difference between right and wrong and adhere to that without being overruled by the “majority”.