The overall goal of a democratic government is to ensure that the greatest number of people within said democracy are represented - that their desires and needs are met to their satisfaction. As such, the idea of a 'majority rule' is thought to be the defining component of the concept of a democracy1. According to Follesdal, "The contractualist case for majoritarian mechanisms in general is that such mechanisms secure the relevant interests of affected parties from standard harms to an acceptable extent"2. However, does the concept of 'majority rule' really function to serve the best interests in a democratic government? In this essay, this question will be answered by looking at three issues: first, the axioms of majority rule (as stated by Kenneth May) will be used to define an ideal political majority. Secondly, the paper will examine the contradiction of the common good with the will of the majority. Thirdly, the inefficiency of public decision making will be examined in the context of majority rule. Essentially, the concept of a majority rule is absolutely essential to a democratic government if exercised properly, following the aforementioned axioms and a degree of majority rule equilibrium.
According to Ken May (1952), the concept of majority decision based on two alternatives is a perfectly valid and comprehensive method of providing representation of the people of a May states that group decisions have to meet one of four axioms, or conditions, in order to function well as a majority rule (thus creating a proper democratic decisions). First, there is the idea of decisiveness, or universal domain - in this instance, the majority makes a clear decision based on the procedure chosen. Secondly, all participants are treated and equally weighed, providing anonymity. Next, even if there are preferences between people, the notion of neutrality means that reversing preferences would not alter the outcome. Finally, positive responsiveness ensures that one voter could make a difference between one choice or the other3.
In this way, May demonstrates that the only thing that can satisfy all four of these potential conditions is the majority rule of voting. In the context of presidential elections, for instance, an entire nation of people must be represented. In order to offer everyone the chance for their vote to have equal weight, and thus satisfy the aforementioned conditions, majority rule has to be in place. To make a system that works otherwise would be to deny the largest number of people in a nation their wishes regarding how they should be governed.
The concept of the political majority is not without its flaws. The inefficiency of public decision making is also a factor in determining the efficacy of majority rule. While pure majority rule may be the ideal, there are many mitigating factors that are often accepted as a normal part of politics. Everything from special interest groups to bureaucratic decisions can often weigh decisions and votes to favor a more privileged minority4. For example, government money can often go to corporate bailouts, as in 2008 with the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act5 - this initiative arguably acted in the interests of a privileged few, armed with greater political power through money. This betrays May's axiom of quality and anonymity, as some minorities can gain power over the political majority through economic and other means.
Another issue raised regarding majority rule involves the common good. In an ideal world, democracy would operate on a concept of pure majority rule, where everyone was placed on an equal playing field of intelligence and power6. One particular question raised towards majority rule, inevitably, involves the minority: "If democratic decision making involves the rule of the majority, does this mean the subordination of the minority?"7. A political majority does not function well when actions made for the common good of the people are not supported by said majority. In this instance, a democratic government with majority rule can often act against its own best interests.
However, there exists the possibility of some level of equilibrium in a political majority, often mitigating the risks of said majority abusing its power. In some cases where this inequality occurs, "successful democracies tend to qualify the central principle of majority rule in order to protect minority rights"8. In other words, while majority rule dictates the overall direction of a country, it cannot and should not do so at the extreme expense of the minority. The concept of a democratic government requires self-sacrifice on the part of the majority toward the minority. According to McGuire and Olson, "an optimizing majority in control of a society necessarily redistributes less income to itself than a self-interested autocrat would have redistributed to himself."9 All of this involves the work of both the majority and the minority coming together to work for the common good.
In conclusion, we have determined that the concept of majority rule is absolutely essential for maintaining a true democracy. The proper use of a majority rule guarantees popular sovereignty: "a system in which the policy preferences of minorities prevail over majorities is at odds with the traditional criteria for distinguishing a democracy from other political systems"10. The majority decision via voting is the only way to satisfy May's four axioms: to guarantee decisiveness, anonymity, neutrality, and positive responsiveness. However, the idea of special interest groups overriding majority votes through increased political power betrays the May model of majority decisions; because these minority votes hold greater sway for multiple reasons, the political majority often does not have the required power to dictate policy. In order for majority rule equilibrium to be reached, May's four axioms must be upheld.
Ricardo Blaug, John J. Schwarmantel. Democracy: A Reader. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
Andrew Clark. "Paulson Abandons Plans to Buy Up America's Toxic Mortgage Assets." The Guardian (November 15, 2008).
Robert A. Dahl. 'Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker.' Rule of the Supreme Court Symposium 1 (1957), p. 279.
Andreas Follesdal. 'Democracy, Legitimacy and Majority Rule in the European Union." in Albert Weale & Michael Nentwitch. Political Theory and the European Union: Legitimacy, Constitutional Choice and Citizenship. (London: Psychology Press, 1998).
Arend Lijphart. Thinking about Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule in Theory and Practice. (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2008).
Kenneth O. May. 'A Set of Independent Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Simple Majority Decision.' Econometrics 20(4) (October 1952), pp. 680-684.
Martin C. McGuire & Mancur Olson, Jr. 'The Economics of Autocracy and Majority Rule: The Invisible Hand and the Use of Force.' Journal of Economic Literature 34 (March 1996), pp. 72-96.
Phillipe C. Schmitter, and Terry Lynn Karl. "What Democracy Isand Is Not." Journal of Democracy 2(3) (Summer 1991), pp. 75-88.
Kenneth A. Shepsle 'Institutional Arrangements and Equilibrium in Multidimensional Voting Models.' American Journal of Political Science 23(1) (February 1979), pp. 27-59.
Kenneth A. Shepsle. 'Note on Zeckhauser's 'Majority Rule with Lotteries on Alternatives': The Case of the Paradox of Voting.' The Quarterly Journal of Economics 84(4) (1970), pp. 705-709.
Kenneth A. Shepsle and Barry R. Weingast. 'Structure-induced Equilibrium and Legislative Choice.' Public Choice 37 (1981), pp. 503-519.
Kaare Strom. Minority Government and Majority Rule. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Barry R. Weingast, Kenneth A. Shepsle, and Christopher Johnsen 'The Political Economy of Benefits and Costs: A Neoclassical Approach to Distributive Politics.' The Journal of Political Economy 89(4) (August 1981), pp. 642-664.