From Abortion to Circumcision, Democracy Won’t Save Minorities from the Majority

Ryan McMaken – February 14, 2018

The UK Independent reported last week that legislators in Iceland have proposed a ban on circumcision of boys. In practice of course, a ban on male circumcisions essentially outlaws Judaism. Anticipating opposition from advocates for religious freedom, the legislation “insists the ‘rights of the child’ always exceed the ‘right of the parents to give their children guidance when it comes to religion’.”[1]

Iceland is not alone in considering laws that pit the majority against the allegedly barbaric practices of a minority group.

In the Netherlands, for example, animal rights activists are hard at work trying to outlaw kosher and halal meats.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, lawmakers have recently prohibited the use of head coverings by — presumably Muslim — women in certain public places.

Nor is the circumcision debate limited to Iceland. Male circumcision has been on shaky legal ground in Germany in recent years where a court banned the practice in 2012. Perhaps recognizing that banning Judaism could look bad for German “tolerance,” lawmakers intervened to allow the practice again.

For the subjects of this regulation, the activities being targeted are no mere preferences. They touch on fundamental values, and they present a clear conflict with other value systems. In cases such as these, where there is no apparent room for compromise, whose values ought to prevail?

Democracy Doesn’t Always Work

Throughout most of the West, of course, we’re all taught from an early age that “democracy” will allow everything to work itself out. The parties in conflict will enter into “dialogue,” will arrive at a “compromise” and then everyone will be happy and at peace in the end.

But, that’s not how it works in real life. While there [are] some areas for compromise that can be found around the edges of issues such as moral values and ethnic identity, the fact is that in the end, kosher meats are either legal or they’re not. Circumcision is either legal or it’s not. Abortion is either legal or it’s not. Muslim head coverings are either legal or they’re not.

After all, if one group of people believe that a 3-month-old fetus is a parasite that has trespassed against the mother, those people are going to find little room for compromise with a group of people who think the same fetus is a person deserving legal protection.

Indeed, we see the shortcomings of democracy at work every time this latter issue comes up. One side calls the other killers who are complicit in the killing of babies. The other side calls their opponents rubes and barbarians, probably motivated by little more than crazed misogyny. Similar dynamics, of course, are present in cases involving animal rights, circumcision, and headscarves. One side thinks that their side is the only acceptable option for virtuous people. “Virtue,” of course, can be defined any number of ways. Some are so blinded by their cultural biases, in fact, that they even conclude that no “civilized” person could possibly believe that, say, circumcision is anything other than a barbaric practice.Those who continue to believe in such things must therefore be forced “into the 21st century” by the coercive power of the state. Their religious beliefs, as Hillary Clinton demanded in 2015, “have to be changed.”

These problems also exist under authoritarian, non-democratic regimes. But anti-democrats usually admit that the state is using force to support one side over the other. Democrats, on the other hand, often prefer to indulge in comforting fictions. What many supporters of democracy refuse to admit is that there is no peaceful debate that will solve this conflict. The conflict is philosophical and moral in nature. And, so long as both sides are forced to live under a single legal system, any “compromise” will take the shape of one side imposing its position on the other by force. In the end, the losing side will be taxed to support the regime that disregards its views and forces compliance with laws made by the winning side.

Majority Rule: Conquest and Colonialism by Other Means

In his work on nationalism, Ludwig on Mises examined the fundamental problem that comes from various groups with different value systems living under a single unitary state. Even when there are certain theoretical guarantees for minority groups, the political reality is that groups with minority beliefs are at the mercy of the majority. This is true in matters of conflicting ethnic groups and religions, but is also applicable to any number of groups with conflicting values.

Joseph Salerno ably sums up Mises’s thought:

Mises maintains that two or more “nations” cannot peacefully coexist under a unitary democratic government. National minorities in a democracy are “completely politically powerless” because they have no chance of peacefully influencing the majority linguistic group. The latter represents “a cultural circle that is closed” to minority nationalities and whose political ideas are “thought, spoken, and written in a language that they do not understand.” Even where proportional representation prevails, the national minority “still remains excluded from collaboration in political life.” According to Mises, because the minority has no prospect of one day attaining power, the activity of its representatives “remains limited from the beginning to fruitless criticism . . . that . . . can lead to no political goal.” Thus, concludes Mises, even if the member of the minority nation, “according to the letter of the law, be a citizen with full rights . . . in truth he is politically without rights, a second class citizen, a pariah.”

Mises characterizes majority rule as a form of colonialism from the point of view of the minority nation in a polyglot territory: “[It] signifies something quite different here than in nationally uniform territories; here, for a part of the people, it is not popular rule but foreign rule.” Peaceful liberal nationalism therefore is inevitably stifled in polyglot territories governed by a unitary state, because, Mises argues, “democracy seems like oppression to the minority. Where only the choice is open [for] oneself to suppress or be suppressed, one easily decides for the former.” Thus, for Mises, democracy means the same thing for the minority as “subjugation under the rule of others,” and this “holds true everywhere and, so far, for all times.” Mises dismisses “the often cited” counter-example of Switzerland as irrelevant because local self-rule was not disturbed by “internal migrations” between the different nationalities. Had significant migration established the presence of substantial national minorities in some of the cantons, “the national peace of Switzerland would already have vanished long ago.”

Those on the winning side, of course, don’t see any problem here. What the minority thinks of as “oppression” is really — according to the winners — just “modernization,” “progress,” “decency,” “common sense,” or simply “the will of the majoirity.” The fact that the enforcement of that will of the majority is founded on state violence is of little concern.

The Solution: Secession and Decentralization

Mises, who was himself a democrat, offered a solution to the problem of democratic majorities: self-determination through secession and decentralization.

For Mises, populations must not be forced perpetually into states where they will never be able to exercise self-determination due to the presence of a more powerful majority. On a practical level then, populations in regions, cities, and villages within existing states must be free to form their own states, join other states with friendlier majorities, or at least exercise greater self-government via decentralization.

Moreover, in order to accommodate the realities of constantly-changing populations, demographics, and cultures, borders and boundaries must change over time in order to minimize the number of people as members of minority populations with little to no say in national governments controlled by hostile majorities.

In Mises vision, there is no perfect solution. There will always be some minority groups that [are] at odds with the ruling majority. But, by making states smaller, more numerous, and more diverse, communities and individuals stand a better chance of finding a state in which their values match up with the majority.  Large unitary states, however, offer exactly the oppose: less choice, less diversity, and fewer chances to exercise self-determination.

The Option of Decentralized Confederations

Nor do all political jurisdictions need to be totally independent states. Mises himself advocated for the use of confederation as a solution to problems of cultural and linguistic minorities.[2] Confederations might be formed for purposes of national defense and diplomacy, Mises noted. But in any country with a diverse population, in order to maintain internal peace, self-government of domestic affairs must be kept localized and so as to minimize the ability of a majority group to dominate a minority group.

Mises didn’t invent this idea, of course. This sort of confederation was justified on similar grounds by the founders of the Swiss Confederation and the United States. Moreover, while not planned out ahead of time, the government of Austria-Hungary was by necessity decentralized to minimize internal conflict.  In cases such as these, matters of language, religion, education, and even economic policy must be handled by the local majority, independent of any nationwide majorities. Or else democracy becomes little more than a tool for the winning coalition to bludgeon the losing coalition.

For decades, this worked at various times in the United States. On the matter of abortion, for instance, Americans agreed prior to Roe v Wade to allow abortion laws to be determined at a local level and be kept out of the hands of the national government. Public schools — and what was taught in them — were governed almost exclusively by local school boards and state governments. Even immigration policies and linguistic issues were decided by local majorities, and not by national ones. So long as these matter remained local matters they were irrelevant to national politics. Under these conditions, a victory for one party or another at the national level has little impact on the daily practice of one’s religion, moral values, or schooling.

As localized democracy turns into mass democracy, however, majorities exercise increasing power over minority groups. Each election becomes a nationwide referendum on how the majority shall use its power to crush those who pose a threat to the prevailing value system. Even worse, when there is one nationwide “law of the land” there is no escape from its effects, save to relocate hundreds of miles away to a foreign land where the emigrant must learn a new language and a new way of life far from friends and family.

Needless to say, as this sort of democratic centralization increases, the stakes become higher and higher. The potential for violence becomes greater, and the disenfranchisement of minority groups becomes ever more palpable.

Mises understood well what the end game to this process is. It’s political and social unrest — followed by political repression to “restore” order. War may even follow. For Mises, the need to guarantee localized self-determination was no mere intellectual exercise for political scientists. It was a matter essential to the preservation of peace and freedom. We would do well to take the matter as seriously as he did.

This article was originally published on Ryan McMaken is an economist and editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian.

[1] Chinese communist officials have taken this a step further by banning children from churches and taking other measures to “restric[t] children from joining Christian groups and attending religious activities.” (

[2] For more on this, see Mises’s 1941 essay “An Eastern Democratic Union: A Proposal for the Establishment of Durable Peace in Eastern Europe.” Mises discusses the issue of handling linguistic and ethnic conflicts within a larger confederation. Found in Selected Writings of Ludwig von Mises, Volume 3, edited by Richard Ebeling.


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