We are the people, we are the majority

“We are the people, we are the majority!” – one of the slogans recited by anti-government demonstrators last Saturday only confirms how arbitrary the concept of majority is. Or, more precisely, how every majority is a construction, a fact aptly shown by the recent issue of Heti Válasz. The table below shows how the same proportion of voters would have produced entirely different results in different electoral systems.

Proportion of mandates

The perhaps most interesting fact is that no procedure on the list would have reflected that more than 50 percent of the voters wanted the government to leave. (It is quite obvious regarding the present friend/foe division in Hungary that everyone not voting for the government voted decidedly against it.) On the other hand, it is also dubious whether 100,000 people in the streets do represent this majority. (Which is also a relative one, btw, compared to the entire adult population.)

Needless to say, the first half of the sentence is even more dubious. “We are the people” (because we are the majority) is exactly what everyone should avoid saying when talking politics. The original sin of democracy (from ancient Greece up to the present day) is the almost imperceptible semantic shift from “the rule of the people” to the “rule of the majority” and then to “rule of those claiming to be the majority.” As Vilfredo Pareto once put it:

“We must not be led astray by the term ‘people’, which seems to designate a concrete thing. Of course the sum of the inhabitants of a country might be called a ‘people’, and a ‘people’ in such a case is a real, concrete thing. But only in virtue of an abstraction wholly foreign to reality can such an aggregate be regarded as a person possessing a will and the power to express it. (…) Why should those who did not [approve a certain measure] be privileged to call themselves ‘the people’? Were not those who approved just as much a part of ‘the people’? The usual answer in such cases is that the term ‘people’ means ‘the majority’. But in that case, to be exact, the antithesis to divine right would be not ‘the right of the people’ but ‘majority right’. (…) No one knows, oftentimes, what exactly the majority wants. A solution of the problem is more or less approximated in countries that have the referendum. But even in those countries very considerable numbers fail to vote, and it is only by a legal fiction that the will expressed by the voters – granted that they all have understood the question that had been put to them – is taken as the will of the majority. In countries where there is no referendum, the will of a small number of individuals is taken as equivalent to the ‘will of the people’ only by a complicated series of abstractions, fictions, inferences.” (Vilfredo Pareto: The Mind and Society. Volume Three: Theory of Derivations. London: Jonathan Cape, 1935, pp. 972-973)

See also what Schumpeter had to say about this.

On a more personal level, I’m happy to see how such a weird ontological question is slowly becoming to worry large crowds of people nowadays.

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