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Eberhard Wesche:

A Reply to Ben Saunders on


"Democracy, Political Equality, and Majority Rule"


Ben Saunders article can be read under  GOOGLE Scholars


The article is a reply to Ben Saunders’ essay on "Democracy, Political Equality and Majority Rule" in "Ethics" 2010, which mainly deals with the relationship between democracy and majority rule. Saunders maintains that there may be circumstances, e.g., the case of a permanent minority, in which the employment of majority rule would be undemocratic and should be substituted by some other democratic decision procedure such as lottery voting. He justifies this rather unusual terminology by his central thesis that "democracy" and "majority rule" are separate ideas so that there may be a democracy without any use of majority rule.

Saunders’ position is confronted with the following counterarguments:

1. It is impossible to show that "democracy" and "majority rule" are separate concepts, because such concepts legitimately may have different meanings.
2. The well known shortcomings of majority rule can be compensated by using majority rule within an appropriate, e.g., federalist framework.
3. The problem of a permanent minority has its deeper cause not in majority rule but in the unsuitable structure of the governmental units.
4. Saunders description of ‘lottery voting’ remains incomplete. If it is to be compared with majority rule there must be made at least certain assumptions concerning the setting of the agenda and the behavior of voters together with some results of empirical tests.
5. The new terminology employed by Saunders is unfit for grasping essential normative differences between political systems. The wider Saunders defines the word "democracy", the more democracy is depreciated.


I.)   Ben Saunders’ article "Democracy, Political Equality and Majority Rule" is part of the dispute about the place of majority rule in a democratic state going on since the 1950s[1]. The controversy was initiated mainly by Gordon Tullock, who attacked majority rule as "not by any means an optimal method of allocating resources."[2] The opposite position was advocated especially by Robert A. Dahl and Anthony Downs, who insisted on the close connection between democracy, political equality and majority rule.[3] Saunders’ article shows that this controversy is still going on.

There is, however, a difference between Saunders’ approach and the former dispute. Saunders does not attack majority rule directly. Instead he tries to diminish its importance indirectly by introducing a new terminology in which "democracy" and "majority rule"[4] are separate (distinct, unconnected) concepts (ideas).[5] Saunders argues that in certain circumstances some other decision-making rule may be preferable to majority rule. This should not be excluded a priori by defining "democracy" by "majority rule": "The choice of the appropriate decision-making rule seems to depend upon the context and what is to be decided."[6]

On first sight Saunders’ demands seem to be mild and impartial. It seems as if Saunders only wants to correct a dogmatic preference for majority rule in order to preserve the positive value of democracy. Yet his terminological innovations concerning central political concepts like "democracy" have far reaching consequences that should be reflected carefully. Otherwise it could happen that in the end we get damaged concepts of democracy and political equality and no practicable alternative to majority rule.

In the following I will discuss the arguments put forward by Saunders in favor of separating the concepts "democracy" and "majority rule". This separation is a preliminary condition if in a group majority rule is replaced by some other procedure and the group is still called a democracy.

II.)   If a scholar wants to alter the definition of a concept, he normally demonstrates the defects of the old definition and proposes a new one. Saunders’ approach is different. He begins with the statement: "Democracy is commonly associated with political equality and/or majority rule. This essay shows that these three ideas are conceptually separate."[7] He describes his position as follows: "My argument will be that democracy, even combined with political equality, does not require majority rule. Since democracy, political equality, and majority rule are distinct ideas, each stands in need of separate justification. It is not, here, my intention to attack or defend any of them."[8]

If one wants to answer the question, whether "democracy" and "majority rule" are separate concepts, one has to compare their meanings. However, there is not only one concept "democracy" with one specific meaning but there are different concepts each with a different meaning. To overcome this difficulty Saunders has to select a single concept (or a single kind of concept) of "democracy" as the only correct one.

Let us illustrate the difficulty by a simple example. In "Webster’s Dictionary" "democracy" is defined as: "government by the people; especially: rule of the majority". Obviously, "democracy" and "majority rule" here are conceptually connected. Majority rule is even a defining element of democracy. Saunders must deliver a valid argument to reject such a concept of democracy. At first he gives a new definition of "democracy": "The decisions made by a group must be appropriately responsive to the expressed wishes of the members of that group."[9] He then comments: "This, I believe, is the idea’s essential content."[10] Is this a decisive argument against the definition of "democracy" given in Webster’s? This must be denied because by adding "I believe" Saunders has indicated that the sentence is giving an information about his personal conviction. Saunders is neither relying on any generally acceptable method of distilling the essential meaning of the word "democracy" nor does he offer any other convincing argument to reject the definition of "democracy" given in Webster’s. Consequently, there is no reason to assume that his definition is in any way superior to others. [11]

Last not least, the view that words like "democracy" have a fixed "essential meaning" is not compatible with the generally acknowledged methodological principle that a scholar may redefine any concept, if this seems to be necessary for the further development of a theory. This methodological principle is not questioned by Saunders, for elsewhere in the article he concedes: "Of course, one can use the words any way one likes. One could define ‘democracy’ semantically, in terms of majority rule."[12] The conclusion is that Saunders must fail in his attempt to show that "democracy" and "majority rule" are separate concepts. Sometimes they are not.

III.)   Though Saunders consequently has to abandon his original aim, his article may still be understood as a recommendation for a terminology containing "democracy" and "majority rule" as separate concepts. One of Saunders’ main arguments for such a terminology is his thesis that general justification of majority rule was neglected because of its close conceptually connection with "democracy" and "political equality". His article ends with the demand: "More care needs to be taken to justify majority rule in particular, rather than only the more general principles of democracy or political equality."[13] However, there may be also other causes for the allegedly insufficient justification of majority rule. For instance, majority rule is so elementary that sometimes further reasoning seemed to be unnecessary or impossible. Besides, there is the difficulty that majority rule appears in different forms: as "relative" or as "absolute" majority, as restricted to binary choices or as not thus restricted.

In face of the large number of publications on majority rule cited by Saunders himself this does not seem to be a neglected topic of research. At any rate, research on majority rule is not in any way impeded by those, who treat "majority rule" and "democracy" as connected concepts.

Besides, Saunders’ demand to discuss majority rule in isolation from other normative principles is of limited importance, since a collective choice rule that produces ethically unacceptable results in isolation may lead to satisfactory results, if it is combined with some other decision rule. This is demonstrated below by the combination of majority rule with federalism.

IV.)   Typical for Saunders’ approach is the following argument directed against those who favor a concept of "democracy" connected with majority rule. Saunders writes: "One could define ‘democracy’ semantically, in terms of majority rule; but one would then presumably have to acknowledge both that democracy, so defined, need not be of any value and that some other nondemocratic system could be preferable."[14]

This may be right, but it does not provide any sound argument against a concept of democracy connected with majority rule. One can never exclude the possibility that a better form of government will emerge in the future. This can only be prohibited by using "democracy" as a synonym for "ideal political system". However, in this case it would be nonsensical to ask, whether there is a better form of government than democracy, for this is excluded by definition. "Democracy" then would be a purely normative concept without any stable descriptive content.
Sometimes Saunders seems to suspect that finally he cannot prevent anyone from treating majority rule as a necessary element of democracy. For those, who stick to such a conceptual connection, Saunders reformulates the aim of his essay
"In this case, the … argument should be taken as showing that there are conceivable nondemocratic systems that respect the ideals of citizen sovereignty and political equality and thus may be as desirable as democracy."[15]

Saunders here refers to the case of a permanent minority: "There are some cases – like when … [majority rule, this author] permanently excludes a certain minority – where it may be not only unjust, but also undemocratic, because members of this minority are effectively excluded from influence altogether."[16] Since the permanent minority is Saunders’ favorite example, which he cites once and again in order to justify the separation of the concepts "democracy" and "majority rule", it seems to be apt to look at this problem in more detail.

V.) Imagine the members of a group of hikers, who have to decide what to drink on the way. There are only 2 alternatives for choice: "coffee for all" or "tea for all". There are 6 of the 10 members, who prefer coffee and 4 who prefer tea. Put to vote, there is a majority for "coffee for all". If this remains a singular decision and if no relevant conditions did escape notice there is nothing to be criticized. But when the members always get coffee and never tea, the case becomes questionable. If the coffee faction uses its majority to win the votes on all the other issues, we get a permanent minority, consisting in our example of those who prefer tea. In politics a permanent minority may occur, where the electorate consists of two ethnic groups of different size each having a language, a religion, and a political party of its own.
In Saunders’ view a permanent minority is caused by majority rule. He therefore recommends to give up the conceptual connection between "democracy" and "majority rule" and to look for alternatives to majority rule. This, however, seems to be a rather narrow point of view. If an electorate consists of two totally divided subgroups, then the social boundaries do not harmonize with the governmental boundaries. Thus an unsuitable governmental structure enforces uniformity, where in face of diverging needs flexible regulations are imperative. In order to reach a durable solution of the problem one has to change the governmental structure, which is the deeper cause of the trouble.

Saunders does not analyze the problem from such a wider point of view. He recommends to replace majority rule by "lottery voting". "In lottery voting, each person casts a vote for their favored option. ... A single vote is randomly selected and that one determines the outcome."[17] Saunders classifies lottery voting as democratic and egalitarian. "This procedure is democratic and egalitarian, since all have an equal chance to influence outcomes, but obviously not majoritarian."[18] For Saunders this seems to be a proof of his thesis that "democracy" and "majority rule" are separate concepts: "Democracy, even combined with political equality, does not require majority rule."[19] However, by this Saunders has only demonstrated that it is possible to change the meaning of "democracy" in such a way that "democracy" and "majority rule" are two separate concepts. But nobody denied this.

VI.)   At this point it seems to be necessary to discuss the questions connected with the evaluation of collective decision rules and lotteries. However, this surely would be beyond the scope of a reply. Nevertheless some short remarks on majority rule may be allowed.
Majority rule is not a highest normative principle but a useful procedure for collective decision making. In many cases it produces acceptable outcomes, especially if a "majority alternative", also known as "Condorcet winner", exists.
[20] One cannot expect more than this from a decision rule that considers only the individual rankings of the alternatives. Under unfavorable conditions like a narrow majority, widely differing intensities of preferences, or poorly informed individuals there may appear a discrepancy between the results of majority voting and the collective interest of the group as determined by ethical argument. This is why majority rule in real life usually is only one element among others in the constitution of a political system. So majority voting is not applied, if for instance human rights, minority rights or basic voting procedures are at stake.

VII.)   Saunders does not discuss a suitable constitutional framework for majority rule, though he sometimes mentions this possibility. If he had looked for such a solution, he probably would have noticed that e.g. federalism may compensate the shortcomings of majority rule and may also avoid permanent minorities. In a centralized governmental system the individuals have to vote on all issues. This makes it very probable that sometimes a slightly affected majority overwhelms a strongly affected minority. By establishing institutions of regional and local self-government those individuals that are interested in the same local issues are put together in a common territorial electorate.

Moreover, the costs of information and decision making are lower with federal government. Different regulations for subgroups become possible so that offering coffee and tea at the same time is no longer a problem. If this is correct, no permanent minority can develop and consequently there is no need to choose between majority rule and lottery voting.

VIII.)   At this point a detailed discussion of lottery voting would be desirable. However, this does not make much sense as long as there is no complete description of lottery voting. Saunders himself stresses the incomplete character of the outlined procedure: "Lottery voting is simply a heuristic to illustrate shortcomings in arguments for majority rule."[21] At least, assumptions concerning the behavior of voters and the mechanism for the setting of the agenda should have been formulated and tested empirically. Until then Saunders’ optimism as well as the doubts of his critics have no solid foundation. Therefore a detailed discussion of lottery voting would be unproductive at least at this stage.

IX.)   Collective decision rules produce a group preference by aggregating the preferences of the individual group members[22]. Dahl and others maintain that, considering collective choice rules, only majority rule is compatible with political equality: "Unless government policy responds to the preferences of the greater number, the preferences of some individuals (the lesser number) must be weighted more heavily than the preferences of some other individuals (the greater number). But to weight preferences in this way is to reject the goal of political equality."[23] Saunders denies this: "Robert Dahl and Charles Lindblom … claim that if the minority prevail over the majority then their votes must be given greater weight. As I show below, this is not the case." [24] One minor problem for the reader is to find the place "below" Saunders is referring to. The greater problem is that Saunders’ interpretation of Dahl and Lindblom is not correct. They speak about the equal weight of the individual preferences, whereas Saunders speaks about the equal weight of the votes of the individuals. Dahl and Lindblom argue under the premise that the preference of the group is to be determined only by the preferences of the individuals. All other data have to be neglected, including the whims of goddess Fortuna. Nowhere in the text Saunders refutes the special logical connection between "political equality" (as defined by the equal weight of the individual preferences) and "majority rule".

Saunders shows instead that this connection vanishes, if lottery voting is used. In lottery voting the preference of the one selected voter is the only preference that gets real weight. The preferences of all the other voters only have a potential weight. Nevertheless there is equality concerning each voter’s chance of being selected. Taking a group of 10.000 members (e.g. the inhabitants of a small town) the chance to be selected is 1:10.000. This does not seem to be very attractive for an individual that is not fond of gambling, though lottery voting is "democratic" and an "example of political equality at least in the terminology of Saunders.

A lottery may be useful to break a tie, e.g. when two or more alternatives get the highest number of votes. In this case the lottery does not change the evaluation of the alternatives by the group. The only function of the lottery is to make sure, that no one is partially preferred. This is important if one wishes that the results of the procedure can get a general consent, the latter being an important criterion of justice and normative validity.

X.)   Finally I want to hint to some problems of the new terminology formulated and already used by Saunders[25]. Criterion of "democracy" is: "The decisions made by a group must be appropriately responsive to the expressed wishes of the members of that group."[26] This definition raises various questions: What if the group members have conflicting wishes? How do we know, whether a group decision is "appropriately" responsive to the wishes of its members?

I am not sure that Saunders’ unassuming definition of "democracy" excludes an authoritarian system from being a democracy, if only the ruling authority sometimes uses the results of public opinion polls. Saunders writes: „These definitions are intended to be as minimal and ecumenical between different theories of democracy as possible…"[27] He does not see that by extending the meaning of "democracy" he at the same time depreciates democracy. Apparently he does not notice that it will be difficult to formulate ethically relevant differences between political systems with his new terminology.

Saunders’ definition of "political equality" is problematic likewise. He defines: "Each group member must have an equal (chance of) influence over the group’s decisions".[28] Here the equal influence of the group members on the group’s decisions is mixed with the equal chance of influencing them, although these are two different things and two differently evaluated things.

According to Saunders it is even possible in a democracy that some voters have more votes to distribute than others. Against Dahl, who wants to build political equality into the definition of democracy, Saunders objects that some individuals may be given more votes than others, for instance those having more at stake in the matter being decided.[29] Obviously, Saunders wants to classify as "democratic" even those groups, which do not acknowledge the principle "One person, one vote". Is then a meeting of the owners of a joint stock company democratic? Is the Prussian voting system with its three classes of voters democratic?

Saunders admonishes us: "We should not … beg the question against nonmajoritarian forms of democracy."[30] My reply is: We should not destroy the significant order of our political concepts and the orientation they give us. To change the meaning of central political concepts such as "democracy" has far reaching consequences. It should be executed only when it is obviously necessary for theoretical progress. This necessity could not be found in this case.


[1] Ben Saunders, "Democracy, Political Equality, and Majority Rule," Ethics 121(2010):148–77.

[2] Gordon Tullock, "Some Problems of Majority Voting," The Journal of Political Economy 67(1959):579.

[3] Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (New York: Harper,1963), 44 and Anthony Downs, "In Defense of Majority Voting," The Journal of Political Economy 69(1967):192-99.

[4] Saunders concentrates his arguments on the two concepts "democracy" and "majority rule" and I am following him in my reply.

[5] Unfortunately, Saunders does not clarify the exact meaning of the relation he designates varyingly as "separate", "distinct", or "unconnected".
 In the following "democracy" is classified as "separate" from "majority rule", when "democracy" is defined without mentioning "majority rule" or a synonym.

[6] Saunders, "Democracy",177. Unfortunately, Saunders does not try to say more than: This depends from the context.

[7] Saunders, "Democracy",148.

[8] Saunders, "Democracy",150. In spite of this declaration Saunders does not miss to point at all shortcomings of majority rule.

[9] Saunders, "Democracy",149.

[10] Saunders, "Democracy",150.

[11] Saunders, "Democracy",149, footnote 3. Likewise, the reference to a manuscript, which is not publicly available, cannot be esteemed as a scientifically relevant argument.

[12] Saunders, "Democracy",149, footnote 2.

[13] Saunders, "Democracy",177.

[14] Saunders, "Democracy",149, footnote 2.

[15] Saunders, "Democracy",149, footnote 2. (Notice that Saunders here uses the word "nondemocratic" in its usual sense.)

[16] Saunders, "Democracy",151. (Notice that Saunders here uses the word "undemocratic" as defined by himself.)

[17] Saunders, "Democracy",151.

[18] Saunders, "Democracy",149. (Notice that Saunders here uses his own terminology.)

[19] Saunders, "Democracy",150.

[20] Eberhard Wesche, "Die 'unsichtbare Hand' in der Demokratie', in Gerhard Göhler (ed.): Politische Theorie, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta 1978, 77-84.

[21] Saunders, "Democracy",169.

[22] "We shall call methods of going from individual orderings to social preference ‘collective choice rules’."  A.K. Sen, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, (San Francisco: Holden-Day,1970), 22-23.

[23] Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindblom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (New York: Harper, 1963),44.

[24] Saunders, "Democracy",149, footnote 1.

[25] Considering the rather provisional results given in the conclusion of the essay one gets the impression that the main point of the essay is the introduction of a new terminology which is already used from the beginning, even before the new definitions of "democracy", "political equality", and "majority rule" are given at the end of page 149.

[26] Saunders, "Democracy",149.

[27] Saunders, "Democracy",149-50.

[28] Saunders, "Democracy",149.

[29] Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 109–11, and R. A. Dahl, On Democracy, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 37–38.

[30] Saunders, "Democracy",152.

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