By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
When it comes to resolving conflicts, consensus provides a much greater protection for minority interests. Countries around the world have developed creative ways to force majorities to pay attention to minority interests. These are creative ways to make decision-making more consensus-based, and less strictly majoritarian. Let’s take a look.
If a decision requires everyone’s approval to pass, then every individual holds an effective veto over the collective decision. The majority has to consider minority interests, or else nobody will get anything at all.
And yet the problem that remains is that decision by consensus is terribly inefficient. Negotiation takes time, and there might not be a compromise that satisfies everyone. Reaching consensus among 5 friends is one thing, but among 50—or 50 million—isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
Enhancing Minority Representation
In order to make decision-making less majoritarian, countries such as the USA have a system of checks and balances. Other countries require, for example, that laws get the approval of two legislative houses, rather than just one. This also enhances minority representation, especially when one or both of the houses overrepresent regions with small populations. (This is true in the US Senate, but many countries—including the world’s largest democracy, India—have legislative houses that give disproportionate representation to states or provinces with small populations.)
Other countries have voting systems that encourage the formation of multiple political parties, and institutions that essentially force parties to form large, inclusive coalitions in order to govern. Some countries even have super-majority voting requirements for the passage of certain laws, especially fundamental laws like amending the constitution or changing parliamentary procedures.
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Representing a Broader Set of Interests
All of these institutions are attempts to force a society into a more consensus-based approach to collective decision-making. They essentially posit the view that for a decision to be made, it needs to have the support not just of a bare majority, but of segments of society that collectively represent a broader set of interests.
The problem is that institutions like this also carry the risk of slowing down the system—of creating paralysis and gridlock, even in situations where government action is essential. Government by consensus is probably better than strict majority rule at representing minority interests, but it’s not going to win any prizes for efficiency.
And so, this is the fundamental dilemma of democratic politics: How does one go about protecting minority rights, while also empowering the majority to rule? How can we guarantee—or can we guarantee—that minority interests will have at least some say in collective decisions?
In the words of James Madison: “The great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
A Benevolent Dictator
The American Founding Fathers were keenly aware that there was an unavoidable trade-off between government efficiency (on the one hand) and representation of minority interests (on the other). Now, there’s a way to avoid the trade-off entirely. Remember, we don’t have to do things democratically.
A benevolent dictator might be able to look out for minority interests in a way that majority voting cannot. And the dictator might be able to make decisions very efficiently, without the need for pesky little things like negotiation or elections. A benevolent dictator might be efficient, and might be able to protect minority interests at the same time.
But of course, there’s no guarantee that the dictator will be benevolent. If the dictator’s a tyrant, there’s no guarantee that anyone will have a say in the decision-making process.
This is the trade-off one needs to consider while studying comparative government: Consensus decision-making tries to make sure that a broader public has influence over political decisions. But it’s inefficient, and becomes harder and harder the larger and more diverse the society gets.
Majority rule is easy, by comparison: one just counts up the votes and reveal who wins. But there’s no guarantee that the majority will know—or care—what the minority wants. Nothing stops the majority from depriving the minority of anything, and keeping everything for itself. Dictatorship can work, at least in theory. But now there’s no guarantee that anyone will have a say in the political process. In a dictatorship, the only person who’s sure to get his way is the dictator.
Democracy Versus Dictatorship
In the real world, no government follows any one of these recipes completely. But in comparative politics, one can clearly see a spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum, we have democracies that put a lot of emphasis on consensus, even at the cost of efficiency. In the middle, we have democracies that empower the majority to have its way: gaining efficiency, but giving up a little in the way of minority representation. And then finally, on the other end of the spectrum, we have, which can be very efficient, but which does away with the idea of representation entirely.
It leave us with an appreciation for just how high-stakes this trade-off can be. If the drive for consensus leads to gridlock and paralysis, it can become impossible for government to solve society’s problems, with instability and infighting the inevitable result. But when people feel like their interests aren’t represented—when they end up on the losing side of a political process again and again—there’s a risk that they’ll resort to violence.
Tyranny—whether that’s dictatorship or tyranny of the majority—can lead to a vicious cycle of riots and reprisals, revolution and reaction, violence and genocide. This is what happens when political systems fail.
Common Questions about a Consensus-based Approach to Collective Decision-making
When it comes to resolving conflicts, consensus provides a much greater protection for minority interests. If a decision requires everyone’s approval to pass, then every individual holds an effective veto over the collective decision.
A benevolent dictator might be able to look out for minority interests in a way that majority voting cannot. And the dictator might be able to make decisions very efficiently, without the need for pesky little things like negotiation or elections.
Consensus decision-making tries to make sure that a broader public has influence over political decisions. But it’s inefficient, and becomes harder and harder the larger and more diverse society gets.