Conscience of the Majority
MARCH 01, 1961 by LEONARD E. READ
Declared a professor of economics at one of our larger universities: "What government should do is whatever a majority of the people vote that it should."
This teacher of young
The principle of limited government is elusive. Even some of the very men who wrote the principle into the Declaration of Independence in terms of the inalienable rights of individuals, promptly defied this principle by unlimiting majority rule, that is, by not applying the limiting principle to the democratic state. They reasoned that the rule of the majority (democracy) could not be intelligent without a well-educated electorate, so they proceeded to "secure" the required wisdom by a system of government education.’ By doing this, they lowered the barriers they themselves had erected, permitting majority rule, in this precedent-setting instance, to get out-of-bounds, to possess powers over individuals never intended in their own distinctive design for limited government. Like their progeny down to this day, these sponsors of state education must have concluded that any goodness of which an individual is capable would show forth in the majority if all were educated in goodness.
These men failed to see that goodness is never evoked by coercion.2 And they overlooked one striking fact: Whatever goodness may be manifested in individual action tends to be lost in mass action. The majority, regardless of the people who compose it, is an amoral mechanism; a majority conclusion is a concentration—an amalgam—of views which does not include the voice of individual conscience. This is a serious charge considering that we as a people are submitting ourselves to majority rule: a whole nation’s destiny in the grip of a conscienceless force, an amoral mechanism that knows not right from wrong, incapable of learning, and powerless to think or reason—like putting ourselves under the rule of a robot! So, let us examine the charge that majority action displaces individual conscience.
First, what is conscience? "A knowledge or feeling of right and wrong, with a compulsion to do right; moral judgment that prohibits or opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle."
Second, what or who is capable of having a conscience? Is it not self-evident that this is a quality or characteristic that only an individual human being can possess?
Third, what is a majority? It is the greater part of a number in excess of two.
Obeying One’s Own Conscience
Let us now take a minimum grouping of three individuals—any three on earth—and reflect on their "knowledge or feeling of right and wrong," that is, let us take note of their several consciences. Our first discovery is that no two are absolutely identical; no two among all who live are alike; no two have precisely the same concept of goodness or rightness or truth!
This is not to suggest that truth itself is variable, but that fallible human beings will vary in their knowledge of and proximity to truth, even though each were to do his very best at all times. A person behaves conscientiously only insofar as he obeys his own conscience, wherever it leads. His only alternative would be to act unconscionably. Therefore, except in matters where no controversy exists—like two plus two equals four or the blending of blue and yellow makes green—the averaging of two varying consciences must, perforce, result in a conclusion which tends to disenfranchise conscience.
Example: The chairman appoints a committee to prepare a report on what the nation’s tariff policy should be. It is a foregone conclusion that the conceptions of right policy are, to some degree, at variance. For instance:
A believes in private property, namely, that each individual has a moral right to the fruits of his own labor, and further believes that this right includes the right to control the exchanges thereof; that any forcible shifting of control to others is an infraction of the private property principle. He stands for free exchange and, thus, rejects the tariff idea.
B believes, just as sincerely, that domestic producers must be protected against all foreign competitors who pay lower wages than are paid at home.
C accurately reflecting what his conscience dictates as right, favors "reciprocal trade agreements."
The committee, however, has accepted the responsibility of submitting a report. Finally, after discovering that precise agreement is impossible, B and C effect a compromise: Tariffs should be hiked on all foreign products that are showing a competitive advantage over home products (or any one of countless other possible compromises). B and C, of course, vote "yea," A votes "nay." The majority carries the day. Their compromise becomes the committee’s report.
Be it noted that the report—like all majority reports where the issues are in controversy—is not an accurate reflection of what is regarded as right by A or B or C. All connection with conscience, that is, with the individual’s precise conception of rightness, has been severed. It is this severing that makes a conscienceless mechanism of the majority.
It should be borne in mind that the amorality of a majority is not overcome by increasing its number, whether it be upped to ten or to the number in a national plebiscite. Indeed, the more persons involved, the greater is the likelihood that the majority conclusions will be worsened—in all events made devoid of conscience.
When we consider the extent to which public policy in the
Assuredly, it will take a lot of doing to unfasten the grip of this amoral force on ourselves. Perhaps the untangling should begin by reflecting on the basic question that democracy poses: Who should rule? The answer it gives is: The majority. There is an enormous enthusiasm for this answer, and not without reason. For, the alternative, increasingly in evidence, is the dreaded one-man say-so, dictatorship. Not only is that the way most people see it but, unfortunately, that is the only way most people see it. Their high preference for democracy over dictatorship has effectively blinded them to a far more important question than who shall rule: Regardless of who rules, what shall be the extent of the rule?
If the question as to the extent of governmental rule is not posed and properly answered, the conscienceless majority will continue its rampage unabated. Unrestrained, knowing no bounds, this amoral, political mechanism can and will be—indeed, is—as vicious, as tyrannical, and as destructive of the rights of man as any culprit having a monopoly of the police power has ever been.
Very well. If democracy poses and answers the question of who shall rule, what is it that poses and answers the question of what shall be the extent or the scope of the rule?
What Is the Nature of the Limiting Principle?
As we have observed, it is not democracy. The majority, when operating in its political magnitude—a force severed from conscience and reason—cannot possibly know its place. It will steal and kill with the same reckless abandon as a bank bandit and with the same ignorance of its crimes as a mob or a runaway truck.³ Democracy or majority rule, as applied to political action, is powerless to limit itself. Popular elections in our times attest to this observation.
And, contrary to the claims of Ortega, liberalism does not contain the limiting principle. (Ortega used the term in its classical and finest sense.) 4 Liberalism, which insists on the rights of the individual and a severe limitation of the State, does not go beyond the rationality of man for the source of its strength.5 While the genuine brand of liberalism does pose and satisfactorily answers the question in an arbitrary way, the answer is founded more on a splendid opinion than on a fundamental principle.
Nor does the term "Americanism" indicate the principle that prescribes governmental limitation. Americanism has almost as many meanings as there are people who use the term. It means everything from constitutional government to vacations with pay to a democratic attitude of people toward each other to TVA to private enterprise to a melting pot. Americanism neither theoretically nor practically explains what shall be the extent or scope of government.
What we are searching for may be said to have no name at all. A certain something—an idea or a concept—momentarily, almost fleetingly, insinuated itself into the consciousness of a few persons who happened to be Americans—and a miracle was wrought! People became so fascinated with the miracle’s material outpouring that they failed to reflect on the mysterious concept which conferred these blessings. The concept flitted in and out of consciousness so rapidly—like a dream or an idea that is promptly forgotten—that no one ever gave it a name.
A Happy Sequence
More often than not the good things which happen to us are over and beyond our own creation. Minor inadvertencies or happen-stances, of little significance when viewed separately, sometimes combine or occur in certain sequences with the most unexpected, astounding, and efficacious results. If we are observant enough to take note or discover what minor events combined to form the grand result, perhaps we can, by their repetition, continue to enjoy the blessings they confer. Stated another way, mankind advances by developing laws or theories on the basis of observed fact and successful practice. A splendid example of theory devised after the fact was cited by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. Said this wise theoretician of free market economics:
.. he [the common man] practiced the doctrine of marginal utility before economic theory discovered it."
It is my contention that a sequence of seeming inadvertencies—an at-random combination—taking place between 1620 and 1791, if viewed in their wholeness, contains the answer we are seeking.6 We shall find in the combination of these events the only principle for the proper limitation of government or, in other words, the answer to the question, What shall be the extent of the rule?
Communism at Plymouth Rock
Two facts, relevant to this thesis, stand out: (1) For a time, government in the
Part one of the unforeseen combination probably occurred during the first three decades of the seventeenth century. An excellent case in point followed the landing of our Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth Rock. The members of this little Colony began their life together in a state of communism. For, regardless of what each Pilgrim produced, all the produce went into a common warehouse under authority, and the proceeds of the warehouse were doled out as the need seemed to require. In short, they tried to live by a principle which, more than two centuries later, Karl Marx set forth as the ideal of the Communist Party, "from each according to ability, to each according to need."
Return to Freedom
There was a compelling reason why the Pilgrims threw overboard this communal or communistic practice. Many of them were starving and dying! It seemed that when they organized themselves in this manner, the warehouse was always running out of provender. The needy became everyone.
During the third winter Governor Bradford met with the remaining members of his Colony.
They agreed to quit the idea of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" and would, come spring, try the idea of to each according to merit.
To each according to merit! It is inconceivable that these people were fully aware of what they were saying. In the
The Private Property Principle
Using hindsight—which we can do and Governor Bradford could not—to each according to merit is an excellent definition of the private property principle. It is another way of saying that each individual has a right to the fruits of his own labor. "Each of you is to have what you yourselves produce" was the sense of the Governor’s conclusion that third winter.
What happened came the spring? Read Governor Bradford’s own words:
The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.7
The result of practicing the private property principle:
By this time harvest was come, and in stead of famine, now God gave them plentie, and ye face of things was changed, to ye rejoysing of ye harts of many, for which they blessed God. And ye effect of their particuler [private] planting was well seene, for all had, one way & other, pretty well to bring ye year aboute, and some of ye abler sorte and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any generall wante or famine bath not been amongest them since to this day.8
One cannot read this statement by Governor Bradford without detecting his sense of amazement that any such "plentie" had come about. These colonists attributed the outcome, if you please, to God, a confession that it was not of their own creation. This practice of the private property principle, I am submitting, was but the first in a sequence of happy actions which made for a combination that contains the key to a principled limitation of the State.
Had Governor Bradford been able to glimpse the latter half of the next century he would have seen that his words, "so as any generall wante or famine hath not been amongest them since to this day," were, indeed, prophetic. For, after him and the other
"Endowed by Their Creator"
Then came the second in the sequence of happy actions—the American Revolution!
The real American Revolution was not the armed conflict with King George III. That was a relatively unimportant incident. It was, instead, a concept which, when understood, is seen to be a fundamental principle. To fully appreciate the fundamental nature of this revolutionary principle, it is necessary to keep in mind that in other lands and during previous times mankind had been contending with and slaying each other by the millions over the age-old question of which among the numerous forms of authoritarianism—that is, man-made authority—should preside as sovereign over man.
Then, in 1776, in a fraction of one sentence, was recorded the real essence of the American Revolution—concisely and solemnly stating for the first time in any significant political action9—the idea which rejected the ancien regime: ". . they [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . .’¹º There you have it! This is The Principle, the very essence of the American miracle.
Endowed by their Creator! Was this an at-random action, that is, an action which was not consciously related to the grand combination? There appears little evidence to the contrary. For decades American thinkers had been examining and rejecting one form of authoritarian government after another. From what form, among them all, was man endowed with his right to life, liberty, and property? What previous form of government would preserve "to each according to merit"? Not a single one! From where, then, come these rights? There are such things as rights. Therefore, there must be a source. Ah, the Creator; that’s it. Some of the eighteenth century clergy were saying this. That would dispense with the whole squabble over the forms of authoritarian governments.
This is no attempt to belittle the spiritual faith of our Founding Fathers. Some were devoutly spiritual; others, it has been suggested, were agnostic or deistic. No, this claim that "endowed by their Creator" was, in a sense, an inadvertency is based on the conviction that the writers of the Declaration were not wholly aware that they had written the principle on which all sound political thinking must be premised! They could not have been aware of the significance of their act because, by itself, without the third action which was to come later, "endowed by their Creator" was, from a practical and a political standpoint, little more than graceful phrasing.
A Spiritual, Political, and Economic Principle
Before going to the third action in our remarkable sequence, let us reflect further on this revolutionary concept, this break with all political history. Men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are the right to life, liberty . . . is at once a spiritual, a political, and an economic principle. It is spiritual in that it proclaims the Creator as the endower of men’s rights and, thus, as sovereign; political in the sense that such an acknowledgment implicitly denies the State as the endower of men’s rights and, thus, the State—be it managed by a dictator or a majority—is not sovereign; and economic in this way: If a man has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain his life, the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s own labor. Note the relationship here to the private property principle—"to each according to merit."
The first in the sequence of revealing actions took place in 1623," the second in 1776. The third came to pass during the following fifteen years.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights may not be generally thought of as an at-random action. Nearly everyone will claim that the framers of these documents were fully conscious of what they were doing. In a way, yes. But were they not thinking more about how best to implement "That government is best which governs least" than deductively reasoning from the premise, "Men are endowed by their Creator"? There is no evidence that they were aware that their work was the last in a series of three political moves which, separately, were more or less insignificant and unenduring but which, if pieced together, understood and believed in by their progeny, would present a picture making perfect political sense. Their progeny could use hindsight in assaying the significance of their actions; they could not.
To recapitulate: In the early 1600′s, the principle of private property took its root in this land of ours, a political acknowledgment that each individual had a right to the fruits of his own labor. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence, a political document, identified the Creator as the source of this and other rights, thus denying the State or any other human authority as the source. Practically, the Creator as the endower of rights has no meaning unless men and their political agencies abdicate the role of Creator, that is, remove from themselves any pretense of serving as the endower of rights.
A Set of Prohibitions
That the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—the third in the sequence—were perfect complements to the right to the fruits of one’s own labor and to the concept that the Creator is the endower of rights, there can be no doubt. These political instruments were essentially a set of prohibitions not against the citizenry but against the thing the citizens had learned from their Old-World experience to fear, namely, over-extended government.¹² They more severely limited government than government had ever before been limited. They deposed government as the endower of rights. Furthermore, government was shorn of the responsibility for the people’s security, welfare, and prosperity.
There were remarkable benefits which flowed from this severe limitation of government. First, when government is so limited that it has nothing on hand to dispense nor the power to take from some that it may give to others, to whom or to what do a people turn? They turn to themselves! As a result, there developed among early Americans a quality of character which Emerson later praised, "self-reliance." Americans earned a world-wide reputation for being a self-reliant people.
Second, when government is limited to the only principled function it possesses, that is, when it is limited to restraining and penalizing fraud, violence,13 predation, misrepresentation, and to the invoking of a common justice, there follows as a consequence of that limitation a freeing, a releasing, of such creative energies as are in the people. When government duly inhibits the destructive actions of people, there is no force inhibiting the creative actions.
A Burst of Creative Energy
It was this freeing of creative human energy on an unprecedented scale, among a self-reliant people, that accounted for the greatest outburst of productive and creative energy ever known. The American miracle came about as a consequence of three political actions taking place in a fortuitous sequence, a sequence that Americans did not contrive nor plan, nor even name."
Suffice it to say, government today in the
The Simple Lesson
However, it is not necessary that we suffer the fate of Old-World societies. Our own history has a lesson to teach us if we will but open our minds to it. The lesson is simple: The Creator, not the State, is the endower of men’s rights. As in other aspects of life, so in the political aspect of life, this is the primary principle around which all else must be built.
This concept, with a minimum of reflection, should be acceptable to most people. For, the alternative to this is the State, a man-concocted arrangement, as the en-dower of men’s rights. Is it not clear that man does not obtain his right to life, for instance, from any particular Joe Doakes or from any two Joes or from any 182 million Joes? How, then, can any Joe-contrived agency, government or otherwise, gain an endowership which does not exist in the Joes who form the agency? Going one step further, if the State or the majority does not and cannot grant the right to life, does it not follow, logically, that they do notpossess the moral right to deprive anyone of life and liberty and the means to sustain them?15
Once the Creator concept is settled on, the rights which are socially inalienable become quickly apparent. Society, regardless of how it organizes itself, cannot take life, liberty, or the means to sustain them. People are free to act creatively as they please. The moral questions, so far as they pertain to society, are settled in the acceptance of the Creator Principle. There are no moral principles remaining for the amoral mechanism, the conscienceless majority, to vote on.
Left for democracy, for majority vote, will be questions where conscience does not come into play—for instance, who shall be elected to manage the agencies limited to the defensive functions? An amoral mechanism to decide amoral questions! Splendid! But do not let the amoral mechanism decide moral questions.
Faith and Freedom
Considering the extent to which interventionism has insinuated itself into our lives in a cancerous manner, it looks, on the face of it, as if our social situation were beyond repair. Certainly, there is not one of us who can detail the remedial pattern. It is utterly baffling.
Yet, what miracles may right thinking bring about? Could any of us, in 1860, have detailed the pattern for delivering the human voice around the earth in one twenty-seventh of a second? Indeed, not. But it came to pass. Not a man on earth knows how to make an ordinary wooden lead pencil, let alone an automobile or a jet airliner.¹6 But we do have them!
If the remedy for our plight required any measure of mass understanding, a reversal in national form would be impossible. But impossibilities such as that have never been obstacles to progress. Required only is a leadership in reaffirmation of the Creator Principle—and faith that right ideas radiate and do, indeed, perform miracles.
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of Government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a Dictatorship and then a Monarchy.
(Written by PROFESSOR ALEXANDER FRASER TYTLER, nearly two centuries ago while our thirteen original states were still colonies of
Reprints of Conscience of the Majority are available at 10 cents each.
1 "He [Thomas Jefferson] was the first American statesman to make education by the state a fundamental article of democratic faith." Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. XII.
2 The three distinguishing features of government education are coercive: compulsory attendance, curricula dictated by government, and the forcible collection of the wherewithal to pay the educational bill.
3 This is no exaggeration. A majority through the instrumentality of the State will take property without consent for golf courses, for paying farmers not to produce, for building baths for Egyptian camel riders, or for whatever. The participating individuals have no more sense of wrongdoing than does a member of a lynching party. If asked, "Who did it?" he will reply, "The lynching party." There is more truth than exaggeration in Aldous Huxley’s comment, "Humanity is in inverse proportion to numbers; a mob is no more human than an avalanche."
4 See pp. 125-26 of Invertebrate
5 For an example of this type of rationality at its best, see F. A. Hayek’s reasoning on "the rule of law" in his The Constitution of
7 Taken from
8 Ibid., p. 167.
9 The Declaration of
10 There seems little doubt that the authors and signers of the Declaration considered the protection of private property of utmost importance, equivalent to their "pursuit of happiness." See Pittman, R. Carter, "Equality Versus
11 It is not my contention that the Plymouth Colony experience was the sole source of the private property idea but, rather, to represent it as typical of what was going on in early seventeenth century America—at Jamestown and, no doubt, in many other circles. The
12 The words "no" and "not," employed in restraint of governmental power, occur 24 times in the 7 original articles of our Constitution. In the Bill of Rights the words "no" and "not" and the correlatives "or" and "nor"—all in restraint of government—appear 22 times.
13 Violence, as here used, is meant to include foreign as well as domestic threats to life and property.
14 America’s fortuitous combination, left nameless, accounts for the wide variety of incorrect and misleading titles used to identify the American ideal: Democracy, Republican Form of Government, System of Checks and Balances, Constitutional Government, and so on. Any one of these, at best, is but a part of something much more profound.
15 This is a tricky point and, at first blush, would seem to deny government the right to impose penalties of any kind whatsoever. My own thoughts on the matter go like this: if a man has a right to life, liberty, and property, he has a right to defend his life, liberty, and property. Also, it is not improper that he delegate this right of defense to a formal agency—government. In short, man, or the government which man organizes, has a right to employ defensive or repellent force against aggressive force, that is, against any person or persons who would take life, liberty, and property. Those who employ aggressive force initiate the action. Any truly defensive force remains inactive until aggressive force appears. Thus, if aggressors are killed or otherwise penalized in the employment of defensive action against them, they are killed or penalized by an action which they initiated—by their own hands, as in suicide. Government has no moral right to take (aggress against) anyone’s life, liberty, or property any more than has an individual. It has only the moral right to inhibit aggressive actions, as has an individual.
¹6 Should the reader question the point that no person knows how to make a pencil, send for a copy of my I, Pencil. Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.,