In the context of commentary on protests like those in Quebec and the Occupy movement more broadly, it’s worth reflecting on the dangers of democratic tyranny.
The “people” can be tyrannical just as an individual sovereign or an oligarchy might. That’s why Aristotle considered democracy a defective form of government, because it too easily enshrines the will of the majority into an insuperable law. As Lord Acton put it, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” For this same reason Tocqueville worried about the tyrannical power of the will of the majority, once settled:
So, what is a majority taken as a collective whole, if not an individual with opinions and quite often interests, in opposition to another individual whom we call a minority? Now, if you admit that and all-powerful man can abuse his power against his opponents, why not admit the same thing for a majority? Have men, united together, changed their character? Have they become more patient of obstacles by becoming stronger?
Of course not. As Tocqueville goes on to observe, the self-righteous assurance of the majority makes their impatience even more striking. They will brook no dissent because of the assurance that they are correct and that the majority rules, as it ought to.
When the majority (99%) can simply decide to take what they decide they “deserve” from the minority (1%), you have the recipe then for deep injustice. What I don’t see, however, is any unified majority (yet). The student protesters in Quebec might have some sympathy, but whatever the political fallout will be, it is unlikely that the younger generation is going to be politically successful in their bid to protect their economic interests against the entrenched interests of the boomer generations. In part this is because as much as they might protest, or complain, or start Internet petitions, young people don’t vote and they don’t have powerful lobbying groups.
The dynamic is likely to be the same here in the US. As the share of federal spending is increasingly dominated by entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, you’ll end up having recipients of various entitlements fighting it out. And no matter how upset college students and recent graduates are, I don’t see their political interests holding more sway than say, the retired. The AARP will beat the student union six days a week and twice on Sunday.
We can see this dynamic playing out all over the world. As Bill Frezza writes (HT: The Transom) in the context of Greece and the EU crisis, “Democracy becomes a cancer if its powers are not limited. That is because a sustainable democracy requires not just votes, but also governing institutions that protect the rights of minorities against predatory majorities. The disease of voters voting themselves benefits at someone else’s expense has infected much of the world.”
He concludes, “Greece provides a stark example of what happens when a government runs out of other people’s money. If the rest of us don’t take heed while there is still time, we will all end up like you.” And if the Greek leftists have their way, it may not matter what the rest of the world does: “…if you want to send us to the bottom, we will take you to the bottom too.”