Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 4: “Democratic rights” and limits on the power of the demos

October 1, 2007

The scheme of Ideal Democracy determines that the democratic group must be arranged in certain ways, so that the scheme can be followed. For example, all members of the democratic group must have enough time, resources and authority to obtain and analyze the information needed to gain an understanding of all the political issues on the agenda. These are the inherent “democratic rights”. Other things that are usually associated with “democracy” or with “open society”, such as freedom of religion or property rights, are not inherent democratic rights.

Two rules of Ideal Democracy, final control of the agenda and equality in voting, secure the omnipotence of the majority of the members of the group. Like any statement of omnipotence, the omnipotence of the group can come into conflict with any rule or structure, including self-conflicts.

It is easy to imagine situations where the omnipotence of the majority comes into conflict with the other rules of democracy, abridging the democratic rights associated with those rules. For example, a majority may decide that certain pieces of information, which may be relevant to gaining an understanding of some political issue (such as military intelligence reports), will not be made widely available. In such a case, the right to determine policy by a majority of votes conflicts with the right to gain an understanding of political issues.

Omnipotence of the majority creates self-conflict when a decision of the majority effectively limits the ability of the majority to make certain decisions. A decision delegating the power to make certain decisions to a group, with no way for the majority to overrule those decisions is self-contradictory in this sense.

Arguments detailing the potential horrors of the omnipotence of the majority (“the tyranny of the majority”) are a staple of articles about democracy, going back at least to the Federalist Papers, and “On Political Equality” is not an exception. One common solution offered to this perceived problem is to require super-majorities for certain decisions, and Dahl even suggests that this requirement is a compromise between the ideal situation (some decisions cannot be made, no matter how large is the majority supporting them) and what is politically viable.

Leaving aside the issues of political viability, however, the true problem with limiting the power of the majority is that there is no automatic way to decide which decision are allowed and which are disallowed, based on conflict with the democratic rules. Since no such automatic way exists, the power to overrule the decisions of the majority (or, alternatively, to remove certain items from the agenda) is a political power, and according to the rules of democracy must itself be decided according to the usual rules of the Ideal Democracy. This eliminates the possibility of allowing non-majority groups (such as a Supreme Court) to decide those points.

In practice, when a body, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, is given the power to require super-majority support on certain decisions, it is used as an oligarchical tool. No credible democratic theory can be imagined which would not predict such a situation.

The contradiction inherent in the rules of Ideal Democracy is unresolvable with its source being the self-contradiction of the concept of omnipotence. It seems that by far the best way to handle it in practice is not to have any formal mechanisms that can limit the decisions of the majority, and hope that a commitment to democracy by the members of the democratic group will ensure that anti-democratic decisions will generally be avoided.

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6 Responses to “Review of Dahl’s “On Political Equality”, part 4: “Democratic rights” and limits on the power of the demos”


  1. I think this should not prevent majorities from placing restrictions on themselves in the form of a constitution, but it should be recognised that even if “the constitution can only be changed with a supermajority” is a rule in the constitution, then _that_ rule must nonetheless be changeable with a mere majority… although one would hope people realise the seriousness of going back on former statements this entails, and so would be appropriately reluctant to do it.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    But who will determine whether a law is in violation of the constitution?


  3. As long as the representatives have willingly turned the right to decide over to them, and the same principle applies that they can (in extreme circumstances) take it back, does it really matter if a supreme court does it?

  4. yoramgat Says:

    Your scheme relies on a reluctance by the people to over-overrule the supreme court. If no such reluctance exists, then supreme court rulings would be over-overruled as a matter of course, and the existence of the supreme court would have no impact on the resulting public policy.

    If, as you would like it to be, the people are reluctant to take back powers from the supreme court, then over-overrulings of the supreme court are a rare event. In such a case, your scheme gives the supreme court justices a lot of power. At the very least, their position gets much more attention than that of other people. This grossly violates the principles of political equality.


  5. […] about the “Ideal Democracy“, “Actual Democratic Systems“, and “Democratic rights.” Then, Dahl moves on to describe what he sees as the forces leading to political equality – […]


  6. […] argument against regulating the utterance of ideas is that a such regulation infringes on what Robert Dahl calls a “democratic right”, (or could alternatively, and perhaps better, be called a democratic need). These democratic rights […]

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