The founding of the United States as a nation was based on a number of principles. And one of these principles is the avoidance of the tyranny of the majority. This is the fear that a majority of people would impose their will on minorities and put them at a disadvantage. To avoid this, several checks and balances were created as a compromise. For example, the representatives to the House in congress reflect the number of people in a given state, but in the Senate each state has two representatives regardless of its population. This prevents the most populous states from banding together and imposing their will on the least populous states. Another check and balance is the electoral college, which was conceived as a compromise between two extremes, one being that the president is directly elected by the voters, while the other is that the president is elected by the legislatures.
Some critics claim that this system has in fact worked so well that, enhanced by other phenomena such as gerrymandering and partisan primaries, it has resulted in a tyranny of the minority. However, many of the issues considered in the national debate depend on the political, social, and religious beliefs of people, and often are a matter of opinion. Consequently, many would argue that these issues should not be resolved in one way or another unless there is a clear political consensus involving a majority of people in both the more and less populated states manifested through their elected representatives. But what about issues that are not a matter of opinion?
What if a majority of people, or even a minority of people empowered by the checks and balances of the political system, embrace a notion that runs contrary to facts and evidence and seeks to impose this notion on others? This would not only be a tyranny of the majority or the minority, it would be a tyranny of fantasy. If individuals are going to be subjected to political, social, and legal norms, don’t they have the right to demand that these norms be based on facts and evidence when applicable? Many would contend that what constitutes facts and evidence is itself a matter of opinion, but this is not true. That is why they are called facts and evidence. They exist regardless of what we want them to be. The interpretation of facts and evidence in a given context can, of course, be subjective, but how well any proposed changes in the laws or norms tally up to facts and evidence should be a prerequisite for their acceptance, no matter how many people vote for them or how many elected representatives support them.
Some would argue that that’s what the courts are for. If you don’t agree with any law or local norm, you sue and have the courts deal with it. However, the courts do not necessarily deal with what is aligned with facts and evidence. The courts often deal with what is legal. Thus when creationists tried to impose their views regarding the teaching of evolution, they were denied their wish, not because what they wanted to do was at odds with facts and evidence, but because it was unconstitutional. It violated the principle of separation of church and state. Our methods of governance seem to be designed not mostly around facts and evidence, but rather around the law and the will of the people tempered by the checks and balances of the system. A given law or norm may be approved not because it is moored in reality, but because it is legal, a majority of the people want it, and their elected representatives push for it.
Thus what are we to do when, for example, millions of people swayed by QAnon beliefs or 2020 election denial beliefs pressure their elected representatives to pass laws that affect others? The QAnon belief system or the notion that the 2020 election was fraudulent are not supported by facts and evidence. This is not an opinion. It can be demonstrated to be true. Is it therefore fair for people swayed by these unfounded beliefs to impose laws or norms upon others based on these beliefs?
I want to suggest that our political, social, and legal system is missing the most quintessential check and balance of them all. We should not only be asking whether the majority of people want it or voted for it. We should not only be asking whether it is legal or constitutional. We should be asking whether it is supported by facts and evidence. Now, I do not mean to imply that everything in our society should be viewed through these lens. There are clearly a lot of aspects of the way our society works that depend on local practices and values, which in turn impact the political and legal realms in our communities. But when important changes to our laws are considered which are based on specific notions or assertions about the nature of reality, then whether these notions or assertions are supported by facts and evidence should be a litmus test for their approval. And this test should trump the will of the majority or of that of their elected representatives.
I claim that I, as a citizen of this country, should be free from the tyranny of fantasy. I claim that this is one of my fundamental rights, and no majority of people, or minority of people empowered by the system of checks and balances, has any right to impose on me laws that make or are derived from specific claims about the nature of reality which are not supported by facts and evidence.
In this so-called “post truth” era, where large numbers of people with political and economic power refuse to yield to reason and accept reality, I consider that this new right is vital to preserve individual freedom.
What do you think?
The image, which is not related to the topic of this post and is a free download from pixy.org, has been modified and is in the public domain.