Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter two: On the Rights of the Majority - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter two: On the Rights of the Majority - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
On the Rights of the Majority
No doubt individuals should submit to the majority. It is not that majority decisions have to be seen as infallible. Any collective decision, that is to say, any decision taken by a group of men, is exposed to two kinds of drawback. When it is dictated by passionate feelings, it is clear these can lead to mistakes. Even when the decisions of the majority are taken in a spirit of calm, however, they are exposed to dangers of another kind. They are formed by negotiation between divergent opinions. Now, if one of the opinions was right, it is clear that the transaction can have been achieved only to the detriment of truth. It may have corrected wrong opinions in some respects, but it has misrepresented the correct opinion or made it less accurate.
It has been shown by mathematical calculations that, when an assembly is held to choose between a certain number of candidates, usually the victor is not the object of the most  complete agreement, but of the least repugnance.1 The same thing happens to majority opinions as happens to such candidates in an assembly. This is an inevitable ill, however. If we were to conclude, on the grounds of the possible errors of the majority, that we should subordinate our wills to the will of the minority, we would find ourselves with violent or mendacious institutions.
The prerogative of the majority is that of the strongest. It is unjust. It would be still more unjust, however, if the will of the weakest were to prevail. If society has to make a decision, the strongest or the weakest, the most or the least numerous, must triumph. If the right of the majority, that is, the strongest, were not recognized, the right of the minority would be. This is to say that injustice would weigh down on a greater number of people. The liberum veto (the free veto) of Poland, which intended that the laws should have force only nemine contradicente (no one being opposed), did not make all the citizens free, but rather subjected them all to one person. It is in order to conserve the freedom of the greatest number that the most just lawmakers have found themselves obliged to undermine the freedom of all.2 We have to resign ourselves to disadvantages inherent in the nature of things and which the nature of things puts right. There is a restorative force in nature. Everything natural carries its remedy with it. That which is artificial, on the contrary, has disadvantages at least as great, and nature furnishes us with no remedy. But what she does do to counter the errors of the majority, is to circumscribe its rights within precise limits. If you say its power is boundless, you abandon all defenses against the consequences of its errors.
The majority can make the law only on issues on which the law must pronounce. On those on which the law must not pronounce, the wish of the majority is no more legitimate than that of the smallest of minorities.
I ask pardon for perhaps overextending this subject—it is so important—and for having recourse to an example in order to make these  truths more tangible. Let us suppose some men get together for a commercial undertaking. They pool part of their wealth. This is the common wealth. What is left to each man is his private wealth. As a majority, members can direct the use of common funds. If, however, that majority claimed the right to extend its jurisdiction to the rest of the wealth of other members, no law court would uphold this claim.
It is the same with political authority. If the comparison is inexact, this is in respect of one point only, and this inexactitude works in favor of our argument. In the case of our private hypothetical association, there exists outside that association a constraint preventing the majority from oppressing the minority. A small group of men cannot take over the name of the majority in order to tyrannize the association. After all, this association may have entered contractual arrangements for which it is jointly liable, with an outside party. In politics, however, none of these conditions obtains. The political community is not responsible to any outside party. There are only two fractions: the majority and the minority. The majority is the judge when it acts within its competence, and becomes a faction when it exceeds this role. No outside force prevents the majority from sacrificing the minority, or a small band of men from calling themselves the majority in order to control everyone. It is therefore vital to make up for this missing external force, by fixed principles from which the majority never deviates.
Political authority is like government credit. Governments, being always more powerful than their creditors, are by this very fact forced into more stringent scrupulousness. For if they deviate from this a single time, no coercive force being exercisable against them, confidence is frightened away and no longer to be reassured. Just so, the majority always having the power to trespass upon individual or minority rights, if it does not most scrupulously abstain from such, all security vanishes, for there is no guarantee either against the repetition of such offenses or ever-increasing excesses.
A frequent source of error about the proper scope of political authority is the constant confusion of the common interest with the interests of all. The common interest concerns only society as a whole. The interests of all are simply the sum of individual interests. Apart from fractional interests which concern only an individual or fraction of society and hence fall outside all political jurisdiction, there are further things which concern all the members of society and which  nevertheless must not be subject to the force of the general will. These things interest each person as an individual and not as a member of the collectivity. Religion is a case in point, for example. Political authority must always act upon the common interest, but it must act on the interests of all only when the common interest is also at stake. The comparison I have previously used will explain what I mean. That part of their wealth individuals hold in common is their common wealth. You could call the sum of what each member retains privately the wealth of all, but if members have not pooled it, it is precisely the wealth of all rather than the common wealth. It is not one undifferentiated thing. It is the sum of all individual fortunes, independent one from another. These are not all of a piece, nor do they merge together. The polity can legitimately make use of the common fund but not of the private wealth of all. It is an error to conclude from the fact that an issue touches on all members of a society that it must be an issue of the common interest. It may be something which touches people only as individuals. Religion, for example, is a case in point. Before we concede the right of government to get involved in this issue, we need to see if it includes any point of common interest, that is to say, if the interests of individuals are of such a nature that they collide and cause mutual offense. It is only then that political involvement is called for, and even then only to prevent friction. If, on the contrary, these interests live side by side without troubling each other, they are not under political jurisdiction. It is de jure that they are not, and we will show that they must not be de facto, since such jurisdiction would merely harass them pointlessly. They should retain their independence and their complete individuality.
Most political writers, above all those who wrote according to the most popular principles, fell into a bizarre error when they spoke about majority rights. They represented the majority as a real person whose existence is protracted and which always comprises the same parts. In fact, however, it happens all the time that a section of the population which was in the majority yesterday forms today’s minority. To defend the rights of minorities is therefore to defend the rights of all. Everyone in turn finds himself in the minority. The whole society is divided into a host of minorities which are oppressed in succession. Each one, isolated to be made a victim, becomes again, by a strange metamorphosis, a part of what is called the exalted whole, which serves as a pretext for the sacrifice of some other  minority. To grant the majority unlimited power is to offer to the people en masse the slaughter of the people piecemeal. Injustice and misfortune make their way round the whole society, becoming ever more oppressive of individuals in isolation in the name of all. At the end of this dreadful rotation, all people find they have lost more, irretrievably, as individuals, than they had transiently gained as members of society.
[1. ]A probable reference to the Essai sur l’application de l’analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix by the marquis de Condorcet (Paris, Impr. royale, 1785), in which pp. lix–lxx of the Discours préliminaire deal precisely with the choice between several candidates taken in an assembly.
[2. ]The example of Poland comes, as is indicated in a note by Sismondi, in his Recherches sur les constitutions des peuples libres (éd. cit., p. 89), from Leszek Leczinski, La voix libre du citoyen, ou observations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, s.l., 1749. Constant had had this manuscript by Sismondi from October 1800 until the start of 1801.