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Is the majority always right?

By Mohammed Adamu

PROLOGUE: The late William Safire, author of ‘Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History’, was the one who described the American Constitution (which gave birth to her federal system of government) as a “wrangled-over Constitution”; -because it was arrived at through bitter, angry and persistent argument. Although “its original copies (were) viewed reverently” said Safire, “the intent of the founders in some passages (were) hotly debated”. And even as the document was set to be signed on September 17, 1787, many of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention were said to have serious misgivings about it. But the irony was that although they knew it was an imperfect document, virtually every delegate was ready to sign it. Such was the anti-climax about that draft that an 82-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who was the Convention’s leading light and conciliator said he consented to signing the document because he expected “no better”, and because he was not sure that it was “not the best”.

Benjamin Franklin’s pessimistic doubt that a ‘perfect’ American Constitution could have come from a huge Babel of conflicting geo-political interests was one of the reasons he was willing to push for a majority –if not unanimous– votes for the endorsement of a manifestly imperfect document to become the Constitution of the United States. Said Benjamin at the inaugural of that document: “When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views”. He then asked, rather rhetorically: ‘’From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?”

BUT pessimism about the possibility of extracting a perfect document from diverse political interests was not the only reason Benjamin Franklin preferred to push for the endorsement of a “wrangled-over Constitution” in order to save the baby with the birth water. Essentially stability of the polity and integrity of the system were in fact of the utmost consideration as he deployed the reverence of his age to persuade a bitterly divided Convention made up mostly of delegates he was twice older than, to accept to patch up a disintegrating nation rather than to persist in the illusion of giving it an ‘infallible’ Constitution. And it was the reason he said to them that the ‘goodness’ of a government and “the wisdom and integrity of its governors” are essentially the levers that secure the maximum good for the people and not necessarily the perfection of the constitution that governs them.

The magic of majority: A maxim of equity posits that ‘equity does not perfect an imperfect gift’. Well, what ‘equity’ will not do it seems, the ‘law’ has taken up by ‘might’ even if not by ‘right’: the law has conferred powers on any democratic majority –where no extant law will be prejudiced- to perfect even an imperfect document merely by voting to make it so. Benjamin Franklin was able to corral a geopolitically divided Convention into a decisively patriotic supper majority -to approve a Constitution it would otherwise not have been prepared to pass. That majority, by vote alone not by the quality of what it was endorsing, had perfected an otherwise imperfect document. By the same token, a democratic majority can –if it so desires- vote down even the most perfect document. And that exactly is the nature of all democratic majorities, whether in their simplest or in their supermost forms: that they always get whatever it is that they want, -by sheer numbers and not necessarily on merit.

When the majority exercises its constitutional right to approve a measure, that measure does not have to be the best game in time; in fact it can be the worst. Conversely when a democratic majority rejects a measure, that measure does not have to be the worst game in time; it can even be the best. A majority of the electorate has a right to prefer a reputedly ‘bad’ candidate to a ‘good one’. Even as Parliament, when it decides a matter by a simple or special majority, it becomes binding even on the people that voted to establish it. Nor is even the ‘divine’ any helpful in this situation; or so said the English cleric and theologian, Alcuin, in his ‘Letter to Charlemagne’ that “the voice of the people is the voice of God”. And as the Bible would say, ‘whatever is agreed here on earth, is sealed in heaven’. In fact, it is this rampaging power of the majority that David Robertson said, has continued to be the concern of political philosophers “whether or not a majority vote really represents a positive preference, or simply a relative preference for one rather than another of a set of unpopular alternatives.”

And maybe it is the reason that Lord Acton, the British historian said: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority”. Call it dictatorship of the majority. Or the despotism of the ‘many’ over the contrived subservience of the ‘few’. It is not necessarily in the merit of its choice or in the morality of its position that the majority is entitled to ride roughshod over the minority, it is merely in the greatness of its number that a ‘right’ accrues to it legitimately to oppress the minority.  But shouldn’t it make even moral sense to suggest that the ‘many’ alone should have a right to decide the fate of the ‘few’ and not that the few should decide the fate of the many? To the dog is a natural right to wag its tail, and to the tail is a duty to be wagged. For, as the British philosopher A. N. Whitehead asks rhetorically “What is morality in any given time or place? It is what the majority then and there happen to like”.

Thus ‘morality’ too –and not only law- is what the majority at any time says it is. Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lampooned democracy as “a state which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority”. And maybe it is the reason also that an intellectually bitter Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, wrote in his play ‘An Enemy of the People’ that “The worst enemy of truth and freedom is the compact majority” –that majority that wields itself un-righteously. And as William Allen, the American journalist who coined the phrase ‘tinhorn politician’ said “We have set as a national custom the habit of majority rule. This custom is maintained not by arms but by a saving sense in the heart of every minority that any majority will not be puffed up”

Of a ‘way’ and a ‘say’

But the law is not necessarily always about what is right or about what is moral. It is rather about what is permissible from what is not. And which is why the popular slogan is not in vain that ‘the majority –like they say of the indulgent customer- is always right’. Even when it is wrong by all other yardsticks, unless its ‘choice’ or ‘position’ contradicts the law- any democratic majority remains always right in whatever it does or fails to do. And although Henrik Ibsen’s antithesis insists that it is “the minority that is always right” and that to the majority only belongs raw “might”, in truth there is only one species of ‘right’ that belongs to the minority, the right to ‘dissent’ without ‘dissension’; the right to ‘disagree’ without being ‘disagreeable’.

Said historian Daniel J. Boorstin “A liberal society thrives on disagreement but is killed by dissension. Disagreement is the lifeblood of democracy; dissension is its cancer…dissension is marked by a break in friendly relations. It is an expression not of a common concern but of hostile feelings….Disagreement is specific and pragmatic; dissent is formless and un-focussed. Disagreement is concerned with policy; dissenters are concerned with identity, which usually means themselves. Disagreers ask, ‘what about the war in Vietnam?’ Dissenters ask, ‘What about me?’ Disagreers seek solutions to common problems; dissenters seek power for themselves.”

 

Postscript

THE reputation of democracy as a system of ‘majority rule’ is hinged on the right of the majority to have a ‘way’, and that of the minority merely a ‘say’.” Meaning that whereas the majority can talk and also kick its way around, the minority can only talk and sit its butt at home. Members of the ‘Resume or Resign’ campaign should have known this limit. They had had their ‘say’ when they said ‘our mumu don do!’ They should just have left it at that. Because being a minority, they had no right to determine when the mumu of the majority should be enough. The majority can choose to be wise or foolish provided it is breaking no law. Plus it alone can decide when to cease being so.

Beyond merely deploring that choice –to have its ‘say’- it should not be the right of the ‘minority’ to make demands or to give ultimatums. That is tantamount to seeking a ‘way’, -a prerogative which it does not have. The way the system of majority rule works, even the right to be ‘mumu’, politically, which is co-terminus with the right to be mumu, electorally, should be both democratic and inalienable. If a man has the right exclusively to go mad on his own, he should have the right to decide when to come out of it.

The minority is a ‘tail’ in the democratic enterprise. it is not equipped to wag the dog. Said political philosopher Edmund Burke in his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent…. do not imagine that those who make noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”   Also Lord Russell, British Prime Minister, in reaction to the rejection by 150,000 Britons, of the passage by Parliament, of an electoral Reform Bill, said “It is impossible that the whisper of a fraction should prevail against the voice of a nation.”

 

Re-law and the politics of Buhari’s return

+2348033816964 “… you and I can stay for as long as it pleases us abroad on vacation, medical or otherwise; but Buhari should not. This is no question of what the Constitution says or does not say; or delving into unhelpful legal sophistry. It demeans the black race for him to remain holed up in the UK for this long! Try picture the way we are taken out there. And I believe you have been there. If nothing else your colleague (Fari Zachariya) of CNN tried to draw Nigeria’s attention to the evident oddity”. –Gab Ezeani/Awgbu/ Anambra State.

 

+2348122283505:- “Mohammed even if Buhari is sound in health or even if he comes back today, any lover of Nigeria will support anti-Buhari protest. He started hate speech by against the Igbos by his appointments. His government has destroyed Nigeria”. Ozo pi

 

+2348064576324:- “You said PMB has not breached any known law; but morally speaking a President who is incapacitated should resign rather than waste tax payer’s money on his personal health. Also if you claim that Osinbajo is given free hand how come he (Osinbajo) has not implemented the report on the SGF scandal? Rather the last time Osinbajo was interviewed on the matter he replied that he was awaiting the President’s decision on the matter. As I write this we are still awaiting the report of the committee. Osimbajo has not been given free hand to run the government. He is only trying to please his boss”

 

Online:– “Thanks for making my day @ Mohammed.” –Ismaila Aliyu

Online:– “On this, my conscience resides.” –Adam Ahmad Mohammad.

 

Online;- “Are we saying it is right for the man to hold on to power even for so long as his illness persists, simply because it is not clearly stated in the Constitution that he should either resign or be impeached in such a scenario. Nigeria my country! When shall we let go of sentiments and do the right thing that would make us prosper as a nation? President Buhari may have good intentions for this country but since he has health challenge I do not think it is a bad idea to vacate the seat if he truly loves Nigeria.” –Baya Dame.

 

Online:- “Well said. Craftily detailed to capture all contentious issues. Unfortunately in Nigeria people don’t go into detail by way of making research and extracting the facts about any subject matter in contention. A reasonable number of Nigerians don’t know about the law that governs them, hence the resolve to blind protest and hate speeches and derogatory comments as we are as we are witnessing of recent.”


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