August 10, 2004

Why should the minority accept the veredict of the majority?

What gives the many the right to impose decisions on the few? How can the few be constrained by the many, and yet remain free? These are deep philosophical questions that have to be answered if democracy is to mean freedom for all rather than freedom for the majority only. As far as I know nobody's answered it better than Rousseau. When we vote, it is the will of the nation, as a single organic unit, that we try to ascertain. That's what Rousseau calls the general will. From this point of view, if the "no" side wins on Sunday, the opposition will have to accept that we were wrong, that what we believed to be the general will is not, in fact, the general will. And we will have to accept the majority's decision as something that is not imposed on us, but rather as something that was, in the end, our will. Needless to say, this applies in the other direction as well.

From Rousseau's Social Contract, Book IV, Chapter 2:

The vote of the majority always binds all the rest. This follows from the social contract itself. But it is asked how a man can be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own. How are the opponents at once free and subject to decisions they have not agreed to?

I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the decisions of the body politic, including those laws which are made in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes.

When, therefore, the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been free.

This presupposes, indeed, that all the qualities of the general will still reside in the majority: when they cease to do so, whatever side a man may take, liberty is no longer possible.