The Tyranny of Democracy

I come across the above phrase and others like it increasingly often these days. It is widely used in right wing libertarian commentary and increasingly openly as far as I can see and hear amongst Tories.

What it means is that democracy is at fault in imposing the wish of the majority who vote for parties who propose progressive taxation meaning that those with above average incomes pay more tax as a proprtion of their income than do those of lesser means. Since these people think all taxation is theft and say so often they consider this taxation to be tyranny.

Their solution is a simple one. They want the abolition of democracy and its replacement by rule by the market – represented by rule by wealth, of course.

Err, no, that\’s not what is meant by the tyranny of democracy.

Just to be trivial, by the definition Ritchie (for who else could it be?) gives there a flat tax with a £1 tax free allowance would qualify as progressive taxation. For the average tax rate will rise asymptotically to whatever that flat rate is as incomes rise.

How nice to see that progressive taxation does indeed mean rising average tax rates, not rising marginal rates.

But on the larger point, no, he\’s clearly and obviously wrong. For the tyranny of democracy is a phrase used to describe when the wishes of that majority, as voted by them, impose upon the minority a breach of their human rights.

That is, that there\’s a tension between the will of the majority and freedom and liberty.

An obvious example is that we all pretty much assume that given the choice the majority would vote for a return of the death penalty. Yet we have laws against this being allowed (most notably, our signing up to the Council of Europe) for the reason that the imposition of the death penalty is regarded as a breach of human rights.

There\’s certainly a majority at times for quite vile behaviour towards those simply accused of crimes: mobs attacking suspected paedophiles for example. Or you\’d have easily found a majority in favour of 10 year sentences for rioting a few weeks back. And let\’s not forget that the majority have, in various historical times and places, quite happily agreed with the persecution of, variously, Jews, homosexuals, foreigners, Catholics/Protestants (even in the same place at different times for that pairing).

No, taxation is not on a par with the Holocaust: but it is still true that there is a tension between the expressed desires of the majority at times and the basic concepts of human rights, freedom and liberty.

And it is when the will of the majority is allowed to run roughshod over those rights, those freedoms and liberties, that we refer to it as the tyranny of the majority.

Has there ever been, in a precise and exact manner, such a tension over taxation in the UK? Between the will of the majority as expressed through electoral politics and the rights of individuals?

How about this one, when Roy Jenkins imposed a retrospective 130% tax on unearned or investment income.

Discuss.

5 comments on “The Tyranny of Democracy

  1. The expression I’ve seen is “Tyranny of the Majority”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Tyranny of Democracy” but if I had I’d probably have taken it to allude to the electoral success of Herr Hitler.

  2. Your case is well argued, but it misses the fact that in the UK there is not actually a clear majority of the demos who are “making” the decisions. The will of approximately 35% of the population is making decisions on behalf of the remaining 65%.

    When the South Africans did this (with different proportions), the British people were among the many nations vilifying them for it.

  3. Isn’t arbitrarily redefining global taxation policy one of Ritchie’s personal and inalienable human rights? He certainly talks and writes as if he has been handed it engraved on tablets of stone.

  4. Ah, the tyranny of the majority… when someone says “I don’t like it, therefore you must not do it” and if 50% of the people agree then it becomes the law of the land. Example of the moment: gay marriage.

  5. I have only seen “tyranny of the majority” to describe an aspect/feature of Democracy.

    Of course, it suits Lefties to distort the phrase so as to rob it of logic and credibility, enabling the term TotM to be similarly dismissed.

    Labels are the Lefties friend.

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