No sensible person thinks something becomes good just because the majority wills it. Enslavement of 49% of the population does not somehow become morally okay just because the other 51% say so. At the same time, most of us believe that some form of democracy is the best possible form of government. How do we square those seemingly incongruous facts?
Let me back up and discuss what got me thinking more about this longstanding problem. After the legislative session ended, Democratic activist Deep Singh Badhesha Tweeted, “Things ‘accomplished’ by our Democratic Trifecta & Supermajority: Killed Assault Weapons Ban (1230), Killed Gov’s Signature Up-zoning & Housing Proposal (213), Killed Overdose Prevention Centers (1202), Killed Local Authority of Rent Control (1115).” He included other examples in subsequent Tweets.
Conservatives are pleased about the defeat of each of those measures. But I’m more of a libertarian, so I favored two of those four measures, up-zoning and controlled drug use sites (although I’d rather they be privately funded).
To my mind, this legislative session was a mixed bag, passing and rejecting good and bad proposals. Things could have been a lot worse from a liberty perspective. Although Jared Polis rubber-stamped many of his party’s statist bills, he did push back on some of them. Unfortunately, the Republicans are in such disarray that Democrats will continue to control the political agenda in Colorado for years to come.
Badhesha’s Tweet prompted a discussion. Chase Woodruff, a reporter for the left-leaning Newsline, remarked, “With the exception of overdose prevention sites, everything on this list that has been polled is supported by a majority of Coloradans or the U.S. as a whole.”
When majority will is immoral
For example, Magellan Strategies recently found that 68% of Colorado voters favor rent control, at least the way they phrased the question. In every demographic listed, more people strongly or somewhat supported the policy than opposed it. Even Republicans favored rent control by a margin of 49% to 40%.
But rent control remains an immoral and harmful policy even if 99% of people supported it. Rent control violates the rights of contract both of the owners of rental properties and of renters. It discourages the building of new housing and the maintenance of existing housing. If we want less-expensive housing, rent control is not the answer. The answer is for government to stop forcibly restricting the supply of housing. That’s why I favored the up-zoning proposal—people should be free to redevelop their residential properties into multi-family structures if they want. It’s called a free market.
Woodruff also pointed to a poll from last year showing that Colorado voters support an “assault” weapons sales ban by a margin of 57% to 40%.
But how many of the people who said they support such a ban could offer a coherent definition of an “assault” gun? The answer is zero, because the made-up term refers to arbitrarily selected semi-automatic guns that are functionally equivalent to other semi-automatic guns. If we’re worried about people being able to fire a lot of ammunition in a short period of time, people could propose something like a restriction on magazine capacity. Which Colorado already has.
My goal here is not to get caught up in the intricacies of the policy debates. I just wanted to illustrate why I oppose certain policies even though most people seem to support them. I don’t think something is right just because the majority favors it.
Careful what you wish for
Another activist replied to Woodruff’s comments, “It’s the radical influence of wealth and power that stifles our democracy from enacting laws aligned with majority will.”
This is the “No True Scotsman” version of democratic theory. Any democratic outcome that you like is a straightforward and proper implementation of “majority will,” whereas any democratic outcome that you don’t like is “not true democracy” because the process was somehow tainted, say by people paying lobbyists. This presumption allows some people at the same time to hold that majority will is inherently good but that specific majoritarian outcomes can be bad.
The alternate view, my view, is that democratic outcomes are neither inherently good nor bad. Rather, they are good or bad depending on whether they conform to underlying moral truths.
Here is an example. Interracial marriage is perfectly fine, and laws against them are immoral. Yet most U.S. states, including Colorado, once banned them. When Gallup polled people on the issue in 1958, only 4% of people supported interracial marriage. Now 94% do.
If we thought that implementing majority will were inherently good, then we’d think that bans on interracial marriage were good until the 1990s, when finally most people approved of such marriages. But that’s obviously ridiculous. Bans on interracial marriage always were horrifically immoral, even when 96% of people disapproved of such marriages. (Incidentally, I recommend the 2016 film Loving on this topic.)
Why, then, do I think some form of democracy is the best form of government, even though I do not think there’s anything inherently morally special about majority will? I think a republican form of democracy, one with dispersed power, checks and balances, and constitutional limits on government force, is most likely to lead to moral outcomes. Yes, democratic systems also often lead to immoral outcomes, but other systems of governance tend to do even worse, and at least republican democracy offers means of reform. Within republican democracy, we can always hope for better outcomes and strive toward them.
Unfortunately for Colorado centrists, many Republican “leaders” are too busy conspiracy mongering about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election to actually become serious about participating in Colorado’s democratic processes. This further illustrates that outcomes of democracy depend on the character of those participating in it.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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