Mill's Tyranny of the Majority

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Question for the group: In a democracy, what limits ought there be on the power of the majority? We sort of veered off topic onto this subject in another thread, so I thought I'd offer it for discussion as a new topic.

My own opinion is along the lines of those offered by John Stuart Mill and Frederic Bastiat, among others, namely that the majority only has authority to organize and support a common force that protect the individual rights of all citizens. Laws that go beyond this, those that infringe upon the rights of citizens, are, as Bastiat calls them, perversions of law. By this he means that such laws, rather than serving to protect our individual rights, actually infringe on our rights. Usually such laws serve to benefit one group at the expense of another group.

Here are a couple of exerpts for your reading pleasure.

From Mill's essay On Liberty (http://www.bartleby.com/130/1.html) :

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right... The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

From Bastiat's essay The Law (http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html#SECTION_G710):

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
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Bill Huggins
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Sep. 16, 2010 11:49 am

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