A common argument against direct democracy is that it allows majority groups to unfairly discriminate against minorities; in motto form, "mob rule."

Question. Have any systems of direct democracy ever been proposed that are specifically designed to prevent or otherwise mitigate the problem of "mob rule"? If so, what mechanisms have been proposed to combat this problem?

  • Is there something more in-depth that you are seeking compared to Wikipedia's summary? ("Supermajority rules, constitutional limits on the powers of a legislative body, and the introduction of a Bill of Rights have been used to counter the problem. A separation of powers may also be implemented to prevent the problem from happening internally in a government").
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 16:00

1 Answer 1

  • First of all, a moderating solution is supermajority rules. In many cases a sufficiently high supermajority would prevent the worst abuses of the mob rule - the mob's opinion is rarely THAT unanimous on most issues.

  • Second, a very generic philosophical solution is basically (using the term very loosely and imprecisely) a libertarian system, that sharply limits the things that a direct majority vote is allowed to do.

    E.g. you can't have a majority vote and take away someone's life or property as a result of the vote - and the rule that you can't do that requires 99% votes to repeal.

  • Third, a more nuanced solution is "cost" structure associated with preferences. This would be familiar to geeks who read Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon", in that it's the system that the Waterhouse Family used to allocate the inheritance of Grandma Waterhouse.

    Basically, everyone gets not just equally-weighed votes on every decision - but a certain amount of "voting power" - let's call them tokens - that they can spend on any vote, and you can allocate any amount of tokens you own to any of the votes.

    So, if you have 1000 tokens and you have a deeply important pet issue where you're the minority (say, you're homosexual and you care about permission for same sex couples to adopt kids), you spend 500 of your tokens on that vote; and 0 tokens on 499 votes you care less about.

    This gives a cohesive - even if small - minority - ability to sway the issues they greatly care about and that deeply affect them negatively, because usually the mob rule issues are such that the people in the majority care a LOT less about them (per person basis) than minority does. Yes, random Joe B. Gayadoption-is-against-my-morality may vote "nay" on a referendum about gay adoption. But he very likely will NOT spend his precious tokens on that vote (or especially more than 1 token) if he has 500 other votes that directly affect his life in a more immediate way, like how much taxes he pays on his home, or permission to keep bison in his backyard, etc...

    By the way, this approach is already proven to work in general economy - a small minority willing to pay top dollar is usually enough to have a certain good with very narrow appeal/interest to be produced. Think super-high-end professional equipment (SLR cameras, or monitors).

  • Nice answer; however, I can see a few issues. Firstly, in mu opinion any reasonable system of direct democracy would choose only a small random subset of the population - say, five thousand people chosen at random from a population of 20 million - to vote on any particular issue, the reason being that otherwise, people don't feel that their vote counts for much, and are thereby less likely to get educated on the issue before voting, even if the system is designed to facilitate getting educated on the issue. Unfortunately, I cannot see how to make this compatible with the third suggestion. Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 19:59
  • As for suggestions 1 and 2, while nice, they fall far short of a complete solution, in my opinion. Imagine, for example, that 90% of the population work in occupation A and 10% in occupation B. Assume also that each occupation produces its own kind of pollution. Then even in the presence of both suggestions 1 and 2, there is nothing to stop group A from passing a law that very heavily taxes the kind of pollution produced by occupation B, while group B cannot similarly pass legislation to tax the pollution produced by group A without the express cooperation of group A. Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 19:59
  • 1
    @goblin - if you wish to restrict the answers to "would choose only a small random subset of the population", you should indicate so in the question (too late to do so at this point but you can always post a separate question dealing with that specific circumstance, since that's a distinct question with different answers from the ones for generic referenda type direct democracy)
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 20:18
  • @goblin - re: #1/2, your example is really a degenerate case. In reality, no occupation has 90% of population, which is exactly why supermajority is a workable approach in many - if not most - cases. With some notable excemptions (homosexuality/US-race issues), most governance issues' constituent groups are far less than 66%.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 2, 2015 at 20:21
  • 2
    It does at least have a precedent (kinda) en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boule_%28ancient_Greece%29. Doesn't look like anyone's named the idea though, bc you would think Wikipedia would refer to it if it was a named concept.
    – Tyler
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 4:19

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