Edmund Burke on how the Majority Oppresses the Minority

Edmund Burke

Found in Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 2

Among the problems Edmund Burke identified in the French revolutionary ideology was the belief that “the people”—more precisely, a majority of the people—were the sole and unquestionable source of political power:

If I recollect rightly, Aristotle observes, that a democracy has many striking points of resemblance with a tyranny. Of this I am certain, that in a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must; and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. (FROM: The Policy of the National Assembly Criticised)

Burke did not deplore popular government, but he did see unchecked democratic rule as no better—indeed, worse—than the unchecked rule of one or a few. Elsewhere in Reflections, he observes that a prince, being only a single person, must always rely on external supports for his power, these supports inevitably serving as checks on his ability to carry out his will. But in a democracy, the people have an “infinitely greater, because a far better founded confidence” in themselves. There are no natural hindrances, then, to a majority’s desire to take advantage of a minority. Such hindrances must therefore be consciously supplied by constitutionalism and the mixed regime.