Thursday, 5 May 2016

7 Sharp and the Tyranny of the Majority

Last night (5 May 2016) TV One on its 7 Sharp programme aired the sad story of New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd. Mr Judd was like a number of politicians and knew nothing about Maori history and how Maori were systemically robbed of their land and effectively became aliens in what was once their own land. Unlike a number of politicians he decided to find things out for himself and he was prepared to admit he was wrong.
On being elected he was faced with Maori land claim issues and started for the first time in his life to read about Maori history and was shocked at what he read. He now describes himself as "a recovering racist". He knew he had to do what was right, not what the majority wanted. In one small way he wanted to address the low participation of Maori in local government with the by establishing of a Maori Ward, whereby of the 14 seats there would be one for a Maori representative providing a wholly Maori perspective on issues that arise within New Plymouth. Not a big change - just a start. 
New Plymouth Grey Power were up in arms, one councillor resigned in protest. A referendum was held and the citizens, the majority of whom are Pakeha, soundly rejected the idea of Maori having a dedicated voice on council. The argument being, the Maori Ward was favouritism, and an affront to democracy, if Maori want to get a voice, they can put themselves forward like every other candidate. It mattered not that Maori participation in local government is low or that New Plymouth had only one popularly elected Maori councillor on the council. With 83 percent rejecting the idea of a dedicated Maori ward position the electorate showed they had no openness to Maori issues.
In the meanwhile Mayor Judd became the target of abuse from members of the public. One day while at the supermarket with his children, a woman approached him and spat in his face. He was routinely abused, sworn at. Eventually he stopped going out in public with his family. He kept a notebook in which he recorded every time he was assaulted and or abused. The notebook is full.
He has now decided that he will not seek reelection. The personal cost being too high.
The 7 Sharp clip of his story was just over 4 minutes in length. What especially interested me were the comments of show host Mike Hosking immediately after the story. In remarks of less than a minute in length, he effectively dismissed Mr Judd's position and ignored completely the thuggish behaviour he was subjected to. Effectively what Mr Hosking said, was that personally he had no problem with Maori being on council, or even having a Maori Ward, you merely have to put these things before the electorate first. In other words - if the Pakeha majority in the electorate reject the proposition - there's an end of it.
This amounts to what is popularly known as the mandate theory of legitimacy. What the majority says goes. What they chose is right. Is this correct?
In the 1930s Hitler went to the German people and the Nazi Party became the largest party in the Reichstag. Eventually, through alliances, he was appointed chancellor. Arguably at the start at least, Hitler had a mandate. He published a manifesto - Mein Kampf, in which his anti-semitic views, were advanced as being essential to the national reconstruction of Germany. Applying Mr Hosking's reasoning Hitler's election and the policies he implemented, at least at the start, reflected his mandate. Does that therefore make it right? I do not think so. Sometimes the will of the people, can in fact become what has been called, "the Tyranny of the Majority."
I first read French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville on the Tyranny of the Majority, from his book Democracy in America:

There is no power on earth so worthy of honour in itself or clothed with rights so sacred that I would admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny, and I seek to live elsewhere, under other laws.

In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny. an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.
But Tocqueville did prescribe some solutions. He hoped that those having read his prescient book would become alive to the defects of modern democracy and show great attention and careful management. Specifically, he hoped, we would strive “to preserve for the individual the little independence, force, and originality” that remains to him.
In other words, when looking at any given policy, lawmakers might look not at the benefits for their electorate, or vainly calculate poll swings as a result of the latest PR stunt or slogan – but instead look at what any given policy proposal’s long-term effect will be on securing freedom and rights. The goal being to make individuals more independent, stronger, more able to properly resist the tyranny of the majority and the constant encroachments of the administrative state. Over time, he feared, the state would take away citizens’ free will, their capacity to think and act, reducing them to “a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.” 
Given the absence of intelligent political analysis, the dumbing down of media comment and the triumph of political spin over reporting, and the apparent acceptance of the comfortable populism of the likes of Mike Hosking in support of this state of affairs; it appears that Tocqueville's cautions are coming home to roost.


  1. good to see you discussing the tyranny of the majority - which may well be the tyranny of one-eyed & ignorant 'advocates' over those who have carefully considered both sides in a debate as 'judges' - it is at its worst when the reasoning of the minority is prevented from being heard on grounds of prejudice against them as supposedly undemocratic tyrants - I'm speaking from experience

  2. You're right, I hear this often happening with my friends. I watched a quiz once, all the children had to run towards the answer they thought was correct. One lad stood on his own, then moved over to the others. Of course, he was the only one with the answer correct, though not confident enough to stand on his own.