John C. Calhoun’s Concurrent Majority

As an antithesis of the unalienable individual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, one of the things that this country’s founders feared most is the tyranny of the majority. It was for the prevention of such tyranny that the Constitution was written to limit the federal government and provide for checks and balances between its three branches. However, the success or failure of any constitution depends ultimately on the people who interpret and implement it. In view of the massive Leviathan that is the American welfare state, it seems that Benjamin Franklin’s worst nightmare is coming true: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

In these perilous times, the thought of former Vice President and political theorist John C. Calhoun calls for renewed attention. Calhoun was a member of the Democratic Party in the first half of the 19th century, a period when the Democratic Party occupied the conservative and small-government end of the political spectrum.

The question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, or “Who will watch the watchmen?”, has troubled mankind since the beginning of civilization. In his classic Disquisition on Government, Calhoun noted that governments throughout history had been restrained with the aid of superstition, religion, tradition and education with various degrees and durations of success. Seeking another, perhaps more effective, way of restraining government abuse, he then proposed to consider the method of formation of government that best prevents its abuse of power.

An answer that easily jumps into the common mind is to select government officials by universal suffrage. However, Calhoun observed that the introduction of universal suffrage alone is insufficient for, if not counterproductive to, the task of limiting government, for it merely shifts the “seat of authority” from an oligarchy to a majority of voters, who can then abuse it. Since the interests among the populace are not homogeneous but varied, the factions that seize control of state privileges would assume the role of net tax-consumers and compel the others into the position of net taxpayers. Thus Calhoun wrote:

It is, indeed, the single, or one power, which excludes the negative, and constitutes absolute government; and not the number in whom the power is vested. The numerical majority is as truly a single power, and excludes the negative as completely as the absolute government of one, or of the few. The former is as much the absolute government of the democratic, or popular form, as the latter of the monarchical or aristocratical. It has, accordingly, in common with them, the same tendency to oppression and abuse of power.”

To ameliorate this problem, Calhoun originated the concept of concurrent majority. A concurrent majority consists of voices from each of the conflicting interests in society, which are given veto powers against each other in a way that incorporates qualitative as well as quantitative features. Hence, any government action can only be taken with widespread consent across all sectors and strata of the community. Calhoun asserted that this “organism” can more fully “collect the sense of the community” and therefore “aid and perfect” the right of suffrage.

By contrast, proponents of the numerical majority rule hold that such an anti-majoritarian arrangement impedes the “will of the people” and prevents the government from being more “democratic.” Calhoun rebuts this critique by asserting that confounding the numerical majority with the “people” actually makes the government less popular because it allows a majority to subjugate a minority.


Keeping Populism in Check

Let us look at a successful example of a system of concurrent majority. Hong Kong has a tax base that is even narrower than that of the United States – 60% of the Hong Kong government’s revenue comes from the top 5% of income earners – but has nevertheless been able to free itself of populist, socialist, redistributive policies thanks to an electoral mechanism called functional constituencies. This invention from the 1980s is a tribute to the great wisdom of the British colonial government that deserves to be defended and promoted.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council contains 35 members returned by geographical constituencies (i.e. region-based direct elections; hereinafter GCs) and another 35 returned by functional constituencies (hereinafter FC). The FCs comprise professions such as agriculture, transport, education, law, medicine, engineering, social workers, tourism, commerce, finance, and information technology. While the legislators from some FCs (e.g. education and medicine) are elected directly by all practitioners in the respective fields, this is not the invariable case. One of the commerce seats, for instance, is determined by members of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. Any motion made by a legislator requires both majority support among the GC members and majority support among the FC members, a procedure known as split voting.  

Although motions and bills proposed by the executive branch only need majority support overall and are not subject to split voting, the formation of the executive branch itself involves FCs too. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong is elected not by popular vote but by an Election Committee of 1200 people, who are representatives of sectors that resemble the Legislative Council FCs. Even in the government’s proposal for electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage (which was struck down by the legislature last year), the candidates would still be nominated by the same 1200-person committee before the general public could vote on them.

For both the Legislative Council FCs and the Chief Executive Election Committee, a constant source of criticism has been their numerically undemocratic structures. Some of their members are elected by only several hundred surrogates, whereas every GC member receives tens of thousands of votes. But, actually, that their representation is not dictated by sheer headcounts is precisely the beauty of these systems.

Lord Acton once wrote, “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own.” Although the FC members may have largely been motivated by their sectoral interests, the effect of their presence in the legislature has been the preservation of individual freedom and limited government. In the face of fierce demands by labor union-backed legislators for raising the minimum wage (at the expense of the weakest workers and small business owners, who are stripped of their freedom of association and forced out of employment and business respectively), legislator Tommy Cheung of the catering industry FC has time and again taken heroic last stands. Countless motions by GC legislators calling for expansion of government have been defeated by the FCs under the split voting rule, even though they have garnered majority support in the whole house. The lack of a concurrent majority across GCs and FCs has also deterred the executive branch from tabling working hour controls and Ponzi-schematic “universal retirement protection,” which are endorsed by virtually all GC legislators. It is safe to say that without FCs, Hong Kong would not have become the freest economy and one of the most affluent places in the world.

If I were to suggest a modification in the current FC system, I would combine some of the seats (keeping the total number of seats unchanged) so as to prevent the represented interests from being too narrow. But, fortunately, the FCs have generally respected Hong Kong’s free market culture and performed defensive functions (against populist thrusts) rather than the offensive function of lobbying for special subsidies. Perhaps Hong Kong’s experience can provide some reference as Americans ponder the possibilities of political reform.


Horizontal and Vertical Balances

In the United States, apart from the horizontal competition between different interests, there is also vertical tension between the various levels of government. In a sense, the Senate was initially designed to orchestrate a concurrent majority between the state and federal levels of jurisdiction, which was why every state, regardless of population, was allotted two Senators chosen by the state legislature. But the seventeenth amendment to the Constitution, which established popular election of senators, has considerably neutered its ability to preserve states’ rights.

If we repeal the seventeenth amendment, not only may we restore some vertical balance between state and federal responsibilities, but, by shifting government activity from Washington to the states, we might also make progress in solving the horizontal problem of excessive taxation and populist-driven entitlement programs. For one, most states have constitutional balanced budget stipulations, which the federal government does not have. In addition, as government expenditure is operated at a more local level, people have a better idea of whether they are getting their money’s worth, which makes them more vigilant against government waste.  They also have more control over government spending at a local level, which enables them to minimize such waste. As Milton Friedman once remarked, “When it comes to the federal government you tend to think you are spending somebody else’s money. You are in a way. But he is spending yours.”

The venture to increase presence of the states in the Senate does not reduce the urgency of passing a balanced budget constitutional amendment at the federal level. In this age, when political leaders could propose a 90% marginal tax rate with a straight face, the amendment also ought to be coupled with a constitutional tax limit like Hong Kong has. Otherwise, the budget would simply be balanced by raising taxes rather than cutting spending.

But if all these efforts to curb federal authority should prove futile, Calhoun’s insistence on concurrent majority would recommend state nullification, or even secession, as a last resort. Indeed, some libertarian philosophers, such as Murray N. Rothbard, take this principle yet further and drive home its logical conclusion: the right of individual veto and secession. Regardless of whether this interesting idea will become viable in the foreseeable future, let us remember the importance of states, local communities and individual citizens adopting a more active approach in asserting their spheres of autonomy. Only by plucking up our political resolve can we salvage the rights of the several states and the sacred individual freedom of the American people.

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