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How Democracies Turn Tyrannical

How Democracies Turn Tyrannical

Both monarchs of the past and dictators more in the present have denied limits on their power to command and coerce those under their control.

For most of the last three centuries, the ideas of liberty and democracy have been intertwined in the minds of both friends and foes of a free society. The substitution of absolute monarchies with governments representative of the voting choices of a nation’s population has been considered part and parcel with the advancement of freedom of speech and the press, the right of voluntary and peaceful association for political and numerous social, economic and cultural reasons, and the guarding of the individual from arbitrary and unrestrained power. But what happens when an appeal to democracy becomes a smokescreen for majoritarian tyranny and coalition politicking by special interest groups pursuing privilege and plunder?

Friends of freedom, including many of those who strongly believed in and fought for representative and democratically elected government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often expressed fearful concerns that “democracy” could itself become a threat to the liberty of many of the very people that democratic government was supposed to protect.

The Tyrannies of Minorities and Majorities

In his famous essay “On Liberty” (1859), the British social philosopher John Stuart Mill warned that tyranny could take three forms: the tyranny of the minority, the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny of custom and tradition. The tyranny of the minority was represented by absolute monarchy (a tyranny of the one) or an oligarchy (a tyranny of the few). The tyranny of custom and tradition could take the form of social and psychological pressures on individuals or small groups of individuals to conform to the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of wider communities who intimidate and stifle individual thought, creativity, or (peaceful) behavioral eccentricity.

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