We Suffer Under Dual Tyrannies

The term “tyranny of the majority” was coined by Alexis DeTocqueville.  The concept had previously been explored by John Locke and John Stuart Mill and also greatly influenced the founders of the United States, who preferred a decentralized, federal republican form of government as opposed to a pure democracy.  The concept is simple: without a rule of law that stands over and against the majority, 51% of the population could democratically kill or enslave the other 49%. Obviously, the greater the majority, the greater the risk.

But if this tendency to harm the minority is the centrifugal force of democracy, there is an equal and opposite centripetal force that is less obvious: the “tyranny of the minority.”

We have all seen this in action.

Let’s look at some real-world scenarios.


A project team of eight software engineers has decided to celebrate a successful new release with a fun activity Friday after work at the local bowling alley.  This has been the plan since Monday.  Morale is high, and the team is working well together.  However, Friday morning, Joe starts grousing about the plan.  He already bowls in a league.  The lanes are too crowded.  The beer is expensive.  He asks the group to reconsider. How about going to the baseball game instead?

The other seven are unmoved.  They have already planned it.  They have a reservation.  They are looking forward to it.  Joe digs in, and says that he won’t be coming.  He is going to go to the game.  The other guys are annoyed (Joe is always complaining about something).  They try to reason with him.  They try to bargain with him.  This only seems to make the situation worse.  Frank is Joe’s roommate.  Frank knows that if they go bowling, he will have to listen to Joe complain all weekend.  He also knows that if…

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