Recently there was a parliamentary decision in Portugal that approved a referendum to the co-adoption and adoption by homosexual couples (already allowed to marry). This is generating a scandal in Portugal, the argument being that the rights of minorities should not be referendable, exactly to avoid the Tyranny of the majority

From my understanding of Rousseau's the social contract (as far as the book 1+2 is concern), the general will is the only thing the state follows. It thus seems to support that referendums should be valid for any matter.

My question is, within the social contract theory, is it correct to say that all matters should be referendable?

In this case, what is the theory that is compatible both with the social contract and at the same time accounts for the Tyranny of the majority? Because Rousseau's social contract does not seem to account it for.

  • 3
    I'm having a bit of a hard time following the question, but is the potential of a Tyranny of the Majority relevant?
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 21:35
  • @Bobson, thanks for point it out. I reformulated the question to try to make it more clear. Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 9:31
  • Definitely clearer. I don't have any answers for you, though.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 14:37
  • 1
    That's the weakness (if you consider it weakness) of social contract theory. From it follows all other "democratic" oppression. I'll leave to someone more academically incline to write a good answer with citations.
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 16:16

1 Answer 1


A few reasons a referendum might not reflect the will of the people.

  • The will of the people should come from behind Rawls's veil of ignorance. People want to live in a just society, but if they think about society without knowing what their role will be within it their idea of justice is different. If I don't know whether or not I will have physical handicaps, I will probably be more likely to support laws mandating handicap accessibility than if I vote at a specific time knowing I am able to walk. If your conception of the general will is from this Rawlsean perspective, a specific vote on exactly what the people want given their circumstances is less important.
  • Voting isn't a great measure of the general will. The public choice economics literature can give plenty of reasons to mistrust the vote. Since voting and educating oneself about issues is costly and one vote is statistically unlikely to sway an election; it makes sense to not vote, or if you do vote, to not bother doing careful study of the issues involved. The referendum will then be skewed towards the most obvious or easy to convey solutions. It may reflect common ignorance rather than the actual will of the people. For a careful explanation of a take on this idea, I recommend Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational voter. Summary here.

Political institutions like representation and constitutions can attempt to act as buffers between the will of the people and power, but they are certainly not without their own weaknesses.

  • What modern political science point of view to potentially possible direct voting via public and other networks like internet?
    – lowtech
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 16:27
  • @lowtech Even if the act of voting itself is almost cost-less(like it would be if internet voting were implemented well), the act of researching public policy is expensive and people have little incentive to invest time in it. Voting only leads to good policy(the general will) to the extent that people have carefully evaluated the competing claims as to what good policy is.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 17:13

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