Tyranny of the Majority


John Stuart Mill also recognized that just because society made  decisions (such as to impose vaccine sanctions or not) in a democratic manner would not give the decision the right to override the essential liberties. There should be limits on the power of society through the ruler, even if a democratic ruler, over members of society—i.e. individuals. That is exactly what liberty means. Certain immunities or “political liberties or rights” would be so important that it would be regarded as a breach of the duty in the ruler” if he infringed them, even if that rule consisted of a democratic ruler, such as Parliament. As Mill said, “The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community.” Even democratic governments must abide by these limitations.


Mill recognized that the people, or a majority of the people, in some cases might want to oppress an individual or a part of a group.  Just like liberty is not absolute, so the power of the ruler/authority must therefore be limited or constrained as well and cannot be absolute. Some people forget this important aspect of Mill’s thought. Some people think that provided a decision is made by the majority they can do whatever they want. Mill denies this.  There must be limits even on the power of the majority.  In fact, Mill had a powerful expression for this—i.e. “the tyranny of the majority.” Mill said, “ ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” So, just because the majority of the people think they should impose the obligation on an individual to get vaccinated does not of itself make that decision just.

Mill waxed eloquent on this subject:

“Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling…There is limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.”


Really what Mill is arguing in favour of is what we now call a liberal or constitutional democracy. That means a democracy that is subject to the human rights of the individuals. A democratic society cannot do anything it wants to do. There must be reasonable limits on that power and Mill helps us to understand what those limits are.

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