Whether tyranny is wielded by few or by many, those that live under its yoke are oppressed and held in bondage to some extent. In fact, there is an advantage to having a single great tyrant at the helm. For, if he can be deposed, the system of tyranny will fall with him. The situation is similar when tyranny is wielded by a small group. But when masses themselves exercise undue control over others, the oppressed have little recourse.
Consider the slaves in the antebellum South. Though their population in some states eventually exceeded the number of non-slaves, the power of the free masses in slave states sustained the system of human bondage. Even the Supreme Court went along. This system proved so difficult to overcome that a war was waged, followed by a century of official oppression.
Consider the Americans that were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during WWII. The Supreme Court later ruled the exclusion process constitutional. Due to fear induced by Japan’s attack on the U.S., most Americans in 1942 were generally supportive of the policy. But none of this mitigates the immorality of the action.
In both of these cases, the number of people that supported the oppression did not change the fact that tyranny and injustice were being exercised. In both cases, Supreme Court rulings supporting the policies did not alter the fact that these policies were despotic and immoral. In both cases, the masses supported despotism.
The tyranny of the masses is so difficult to overcome because no single person considers himself or herself a tyrant. Many are merely supportive of a despotic system. Often they have very good reasons for such support, sometimes even couched in altruistic terms. Even when the individual questions such policies, they usually feel powerless to do much about it in the face of massive support.
The following scripture (D&C 121:39) applies just as much to groups and masses as it does to individuals:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.For a free society to flourish, it is important that strict limits be placed on what those in power can impose upon other members of the society. In other words, the majority (or even just the majority of those that wield power) do not have a right to do anything they have a mind to do. They do not have a right to oppress others.
Democratic societies where the masses become de facto despots ultimately fail. They often begin with noble aims in mind. While they appeal to the individual senses of altruism, loyalty, and patriotism, they eventually come to find that coercion is required due to a lack of sufficient willingness or enthusiasm on the part of some. The noncompliant are labeled enemies of the state and are punished.
By and by, increasing levels of coercion are required to ensure compliance and to co-opt the masses. The result is that gradually, increasingly ruthless elements are drawn into leadership and enforcement positions. This trajectory eventually leads to a dictatorship, whether it takes a few years or many decades. Even if the masses willingly fawn over and worship the dictator and his court, it does not mean that they have a free society.
I have often expressed my gratitude for living in a free country. But what does freedom mean? How can the majority in a free and democratic society become tyrants? I’ll explore these topics in future posts.