Majoritarianism and Majority Rule Research Paper

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This research paper will use ‘majority rule’ to denote the voting rule requiring (n+1)/2 to carry a decision, and ‘majoritarianism’ to denote the belief that this rule, and others closely resembling it, are desirable. These ideas may be analyzed by posing four questions:

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(a) Is majority rule fair?

(b) Does majority rule efficiently match preferences to outcomes?

(c) Does majority rule comply with basic require- ments of formal rationality?

(d) How well do the more complex procedures and electoral systems used in governments match up with majoritarian requirements?

1. Fairness

In the long history of human governance, majoritarianism has for the most part been trumped by the rule of minorities. Often, these minorities have been elites based on military prowess, land-ownership, heredity, or priestly knowledge—whether the priests be religious or, for example, socialist. In capitalist and market societies, elites with major ownership stakes and elites constituted by managerial expertise have in many respects held authority denied to popular majorities (Lindblom 1977). In other cases, such as the American Constitution of 1789, generic minorities threatened by majorities seeking new uses of governmental power are granted the authority to block action. The US system builds in no bias in favor of a specific minority, and it is indeed prejudicial toward all minorities seeking new uses of government. The favorable bias is specific to defensive minorities seeking to preserve existing policy. The overall historical pattern, we may safely conclude, is that most societies have not been governed in majoritarian fashion.

Majoritarianism arises against this background, in major part, as a demand for political equality. Foremost among the meanings of political equality is the doctrine ‘One man [one person], one vote.’ This powerful idea links majority rule to the central appeal of popular democracy without specifying exactly the nature of the equality in question. Kenneth May has conveniently formalized this idea with the criterion of anonymity: if a decision process yields the result that X is preferred to Y in a given case, it should again do so for every other case in which the preferences of any two blocks of voters of equal size are transposed (May 1952). Put otherwise, you should always be able to count the votes (and announce a decision) without seeing whose votes they are. Another feature of equality or equity entailed by majority rule concerns the content of the alternatives under consideration. Majority rule is formally neutral in its treatment of alternatives. Whether X or Y is the status quo, for example, makes no difference to the counting of votes. Whether X or Y is pro-labor, respectful of racial minorities, consistent with the tenets of a prevailing ideology, or consistent with the interests of economic elites—none of these or similar considerations about the alternatives in question will matter under majority rule. This additional requirement of ‘neutrality’ combines with anonymity in ‘May’s Theorem’ to define majority rule as uniquely best among decision rules which respond positively and nonrandomly to voter preferences (May 1952).

The foregoing considerations constitute a strong case for the egalitarian fairness of majoritarianism on an abstractly a priori basis. They do not, however, say anything about the fairness of majority rule in specific historical cases where known groups have predictable or announced preferences. Indeed, the neutrality of majority rule toward alternatives implies an embedded incapacity to discriminate in favor of fair, egalitarian, or just policies as against unfair, anti-egalitarian, or unjust ones. Majority rule provides no defense against majorities embracing evil. In racially and religiously divided societies, where strong conflicts predictably divide large groups from small ones, this is a crippling disability which occasions sharp resistance to majority rule. One only needs to think of recent conflict in the Balkans to see this point. The time-honored remedies in cases of this sort are partition (to produce more homogeneous, less conflictual, and smaller polities), the protection of minority rights against specified forms of majority action within each polity, and, of course, emigration opportunities for members of an afflicted minority. The development of civic cultures which surmount and eventually attenuate conflict is probably superior to any of these more mechanical solutions, but requires historical time and good fortune. It is nevertheless worth noting that even some very hierarchical and undemocratic cultures—India, Japan, quite possibly South Africa—have made great strides in this direction (see, in particular, Shapiro 2001).

2. Preference Efficiency

Quite apart from considerations of fairness, a case can be made for majority rule based on its efficiency in matching preferences to policy outcomes. Indeed, it can be shown analytically that all other procedures for making collective decisions are inferior to majority rule in their ability to maximize direct fit between preferences and outcomes (See Rae 1969; for a critical evaluation, see Mueller 1989). This applies to other voting rules, rules giving priority to specific types of policy, and all manner of random or arbitrary procedures. Preference-matching efficiency appears most plausible for issues where the determination of basic policy issues and entitlements is concerned. If decisions entail starkly different stakes for different voters (‘Shall we destroy the reader’s home?’) nominal matching of preferences to outcomes is obviously inadequate as a criterion. Where decisions offer gains from trade among the rights so established, market and market-like arrangements appear superior on efficiency criteria. Indeed, as Ronald Coase has shown, trade can turn any well-defined set of initial rights into a Pareto-efficient set of rights on a voluntary basis (Coase 1960). Insofar as such a process of exchange can be embedded in a voting rule, that rule would require unanimity for each change of policy (Wicksell 1896). These market-oriented schemes of course give great leverage to groups and individuals who are privileged by the initial distribution of rights and assets, and are explicitly anti-majoritarian for that reason. It must of course be accepted that neither these market-oriented schemes nor majoritarianism can purport to efficient treatment of preferences which are manipulated, distorted, or subject to intimidation.

3. Majority Rule and Formal Rationality

It has been well known since the late eighteenth century that majority rule possesses some quirky features, especially when multiple alternatives are considered in one process. Most famous among these is the ‘cycle of voting’ identified by the Marquis de Condorcet (1785). In the simplest case, we imagine three voters and three alternatives. In sequential application of majority rule, A defeats B on the strength of voters 1 and 2, B beats C via 1 and 3, but then C beats A due to the preferences of voters 2 and 3. This violates the axiom of formal rationality known as transitivity, and opens the possibility that control over agenda sequences is tantamount to control over outcomes. Majority rule is hardly alone in having such quirks. This transitivity requirement, together with others which tap additional aspects of formal rationality, defines the justly famed Arrow Theorem showing that all decision procedures, or ‘social welfare functions,’ may violate the dictates of formal rationality in one way or another (Arrow 1951).

4. Majoritarianism in Complex Institutions

Far more important than these formal properties for most purposes is the task of realizing majoritarian aims in complex institutions. The American ‘electoral college,’ for example, contains the very real potential for reversing national majorities—having done so as recently as the fall of 2000. Most single-member electoral systems place an immense premium on spatial distribution of the vote, often giving majority status to parties with well less than majority status in the electorate. Worse yet, where regional parties dominate, as in India, they may fragment outcomes so that nothing close to national majorities are formed. Systems of proportional representation, particularly those based on large districts and exact proportionality, pass the problem of majority formation on to parliaments, and create the opportunity for small parties to exert influence out of all proportion to their size—as with the case of Israel in the 1990s (Taagapera and Shugart 1989). Most, if not all, legislative procedures, entailing many critical veto points, conspicuously violate majority rule. It follows that majoritarianism is less a blueprint than an aspiration.

5. Conclusion

We live in an era when democratic aspirations have very nearly swept the field of direct rivals, particularly among nations that play leading roles in the world economy. Yet in practice, movement toward democratization has been slow, halting, and uncertain in many places. Most of Africa has made little progress, and many key systems from the former Soviet bloc have made minimal progress. Majoritarianism may usefully be seen as one of the key aspirations that should help to shape change and reform in coming decades.


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