Welfare state perpetuates the tyranny of the majority

It takes a lot to make me drop what I'm reading and shout "That's ridiculous,'' especially if I'm reading Maclean's. But it happened when pollster Allan Gregg declared in their April 5 issue that "The tyranny of the majority is to be feared only when the masses are uninformed.'' Ironically, that statement is itself profoundly uninformed. Regrettably, Mr. Gregg's statement is reflected in the profound lack of interest, across our political spectrum, in any sort of institutions that might prevent governments from doing what a majority wants. (The considerable interest in institutions, primarily courts, that allow governments to do what a majority does not want is not at all the same thing.)

The problem of the tyranny of the majority, as phrased by Cicero 2,000 years ago, before we had Maclean's to enlighten us, is that "Democracy is an evanescent form of government which lasts only until its constituents discover that their vote is the key to the treasury.'' Which you'll notice is not a mistake. Not then, and not today.

In principle the purpose of the "welfare state,'' that is, a government whose principal activity is providing material benefits from welfare to pensions, education and health care, is to relieve want. However it is a fact, and not a coincidence, that most of what our governments spend goes not to the indigent but to the middle classes who are articulate, politically active and well-informed about costs and benefits (a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, for instance, reveals that Canadians with family income under $30,000 overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefit of a university education far more than the wealthier people whose children are more likely to receive one). You will notice that governments may cut welfare, but never the sacred middle-class "entitlements:'' health, education and pensions.

You will also notice that for decades people have been extracting benefits from all three at an unsustainable pace. But again the problem is not ignorance. It's an accurate understanding that they can load up on benefits and leave behind an IOU they know they will not be around to pay. And even as yesterday's extravagance becomes today's unfunded liability, it remains rational for "political hedonists'' interested only in maximizing their own material well-being to continue to try to squeeze more out for themselves than is affordable over the long run. (Mind you, it also becomes increasingly rational for governments to try to restrict our ability to discuss among ourselves how best to extract benefits from the state, for instance through election gag laws.)

I concede one sense in which Mr. Gregg has a point. A properly informed majority is not a threat to the minority if that majority understands that its true interest is in virtue. But to take that point of view requires one to believe that morality is, at its most fundamental level, about fact and not sentiment, that there really is such a thing as objective Truth and that it includes there being no group discount on Thou Shalt Not Steal. Such a definition of properly informed is unlikely to be vigorously advanced in the pages of Maclean's.

It was by the American Founding Fathers, who felt that virtue was necessary to self-government because it would not matter how carefully a constitution was crafted if the majority was determined to find ways around the restraints it placed on their political appetites. And in case appeals to American or even Roman examples should seem unpatriotic, our own Sir John A. Macdonald was no Cicero and no stranger to the art of the deal but he did warn that "In all countries, the rights of the majority take care of themselves.'' However, it is "only in countries like England enjoying constitutional liberty, and safe from the tyranny of a single despot or of an unbridled democracy, that the rights of minorities are regarded.'' By which he meant not racial or sexual but political minorities, namely whomever had just lost an election. In Canada today, what prevents an electoral coalition from plundering wealthy individuals and regions or, indeed, future generations who, while not technically a minority, have no one to safeguard their interests now?

I think everyone has a sneaking suspicion that it is wrong to take money you have not earned. It would explain why people who have plundered the treasury do not roll around cackling in their ill-gotten gains but rather speak sententiously of "social justice.'' But the fact is that voters certainly behave as though they were very well informed indeed about their capacity to vote themselves more than their fair share regardless of the long-term consequences.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson