In Defense of Elitism
by Roger Scruton
There is a very famous phrase, “the tyranny of the majority,” that was introduced into political discourse by two near contemporaries in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French writer who wrote Democracy in America, travelled around this country trying to understand how it is that people can survive without an aristocracy. He was amazed to discover that they did, he being a member of the aristocracy. And while he thought that human life could change in a democratic direction, he discerned a permanent danger, which he described in these terms: the tyranny of the majority—that is to say, the danger that every public decision will be taken by the majority for the majority and disregard both the rights of minorities and the possibility of disagreement. He discovered that in America this tyranny of the majority had not emerged. So he asked the question, why?
John Stuart Mill, the famous English political philosopher, issued a similar warning. He worried that if one had a real democracy, which was then beginning to emerge in England and had already emerged in America, individuals, minorities, and legitimate groups would lose protection against majority opinion. And, as we know, majorities have more power than minorities. If they have the power to impose their views, then what happens to the minorities? What happens to the people who disagree?
Both Tocqueville and Mill recognized that a true political order can only exist if there is discussion about the issues of the day. There can only be discussion if there is legitimacy of disagreement. But people don’t actually like disagreement. So how do you make disagreement possible? How do you get the majority to accept the fact that there are people who are not part of it?
And it was understood, in America at least, that you need a constitution that in some way stands above popular sentiment and also sets a limit to it. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is what I call “the liberal fantasy”: the fantasy that people are basically nice, whereas power and privilege are nasty. And so we mustn’t have these powerful things like constitutions or rule of law, people who hold judicial office, or people who stand above the majority and tell them what to do. That’s because people, being basically nice, will always do the right thing as long as you leave them free to do so.