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.