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The Dangers of the 51 Percent Majority

It is very natural to come up with a system where decisions are made by the majority. There is a vote and the side that gets the most votes wins the decision. Most of the time it works really well. Well enough that there can be little motivation to do otherwise. After all, it wouldn’t make sense to let the minority make decisions. That just isn’t sustainable. On the other hand, if the minority is completely shut out, that leads to problems in the long run. There is a phrase that exists, called the Tyranny of the Majority, and checks and balances have been put in place to counter it in government, but I fear that the ones currently in place are insufficient.

Starting with a non-government example consider the current state of Sears. For a century, Sears dominated the American consumer economy. In the last two decades though, it has completely fallen apart. One major reason is due to decisions made by the current majority stockholder. That right, not holders; holder. It’s a problem that one individual controls 51 percent of the company. Normally one might think that that wouldn’t be a problem, because the majority owner would want the company to succeed. But that is not the case with Sears.

The person who owns 51 percent of the stock, didn’t buy up all of that control of the company to see it succeed, they did it to make sure that it failed in the right way. That individual owns other companies too. Other companies which are profiting off of the corpse of Sears. The individual didn’t need to buy up 100 percent of Sears stock to take control of it, they only needed 51 percent. Then once they were in complete control, with only 51 percent of the votes, they started to sell off Sears real estate to their other companies. They intentionally setup a system where once the individual stores stopped being profitable, they’d sell the land out from under them and close the store. There was nothing that the other 49 percent of the stockholders could do about it.

So not only are the other stockholders effectively being stolen from, but there are many employees whose lives are ruined because of greedy decisions make by someone who shouldn’t have complete control, but does. Is that really healthy for society to operate like that?

For another scenario, imagine a country, state or voting district where one large portion of the population never wins. Imagine two parties, one which gets 51 percent of the vote every time, and one which gets 49 percent of the vote, every time. If voting for representatives, that gives the 51 percent 100 percent of the representatives, over and over again. How long will 49 percent of the population stand for that? What will they do when they’ve had enough? How will they fight back?

Now in reality, I can’t think of a specific example of it being so constantly close like that, and there are lots of places where the winds of fortune change, but for lots of people still it feels like their vote doesn’t matter, because their “side” never wins. It’s hard to feel like an equal member of society when your voice is never heard. When there is never a need for compromise.

It’s important for people to feel like they’re participating in society and that their vote counts. Years ago, I had a conversation with a co-worker who had just immigrated from China. We were discussing how odd it was for him to see people not constantly trying to cheat the system. My response was how to some degree, we all created the system and we don’t want to cheat the thing we created. If there is something wrong, we don’t cheat our way around it, we work to get the wrong thing changed. Bad law, corrupt police, anything. We are a participating member of society.

 

Is there something that can be done to prevent a tyranny of the majority? And a way to help people know that their vote counts? I believe that there is.

I’ve posted before a voting solution which will cure all voting ills. But many of the people that I’ve talked to about it, find it to be too much of a burden on the voter. As a first step I think that we should move to a multi-victor voting district solution. At the Federal level in the United States, this would work by passing a law which states: The entire state is one voting district. The number of seats in the House will be proportioned out to the different parties based off of the number of votes they received. If the state has more than 15 possible seats, then the state shall be divided up into voting districts of equal population with each district containing no less than 8 seats, and no more than 15 seats.

Imagine a state where 50 percent of the people vote Democrat, 40 percent vote Republican and 10 percent vote Libertarian. Given that the Libertarians are never concentrated enough to ever win a seat in the current system, those voters feel that their voice is never heard. The Democrats and Republicans carve up the state to ensure that most seats are safe, and maybe one or two are contested over. But if the whole state was one voting district, with 10 seats, then Democrats would get 5 seats, Republicans 4 and Libertarians 1. Now there is a chance for third parties to form. In addition, more people will feel more motivated to vote, because it could mean the difference between their party receiving 4 or 5 seats. Whether your vote is part of the majority or the minority, your vote is never thrown away.

What about the US Senate? Same thing. But instead of voting for Senators in different elections, a state would vote for both of their Senators in the same election. Should a party get 34 percent of the vote, they win one Senate seat. The party with the most remaining votes gets the 2nd seat. Should a party win 67 percent of the vote, they get both Senate seats. I suspect though, the vast majority of the time, the two seats will be divided between the two parties with the greatest number of votes.

What about a company where 51 percent of the stockholders are not acting in the best interest of the company? Make it illegal for 51 – 99 percent of the stocks in a company to be owned by a single individual. An individual can own 100 percent of the stocks, or a minority of stocks, but not a majority. Yes, I realize that’s against the spirit of “I should be able to do whatever I want with my money”, but I don’t give much weight to that point of view. Peoples livelihoods are involved here. Leadership decisions should be being made with the interest of the organization in mind; not a takeover. In addition, if money is so precious, what about the money of the remaining stockholders. They didn’t purchase the stock for it to become worthless. Or those shareholders may even be employees who don’t want to lose a job for no good reason. A corporation is a powerful force, that’s why Adam Smith wrote about them centuries ago. Corporations need to follow rules for the betterment of society.

Tyranny of the majority is a real thing, and different systems of democracy have checks and balances against them. But the current checks and balances currently in the United States, may not be sufficient. To prevent Civil War, or to encourage greater civil participation, or to prevent pillaging of other peoples assets, we the people need to make some changes for the betterment of all of us.

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