Monday, October 15, 2007

Tyranny of the Majority

Dear Citizens of the World,

There are many of us who fear that the international Rule of Law is akin to tyranny. We fear that surrendering even a slice of our sovereignty to a global legislature will erode our defenses against vast populations that don't share our interests nor have any concern for our general well being. These fears are well founded. China is not our friendly neighbourhood worker bee.

Most human beings are only benevolent to strangers when there is an abundance of resources. And resources always become scarce at some point. There are, however, means to prevent the Tyranny of the Majority but still reap the benefits of a global legislature.

The Founding Fathers devised a clever yet imperfect system of checks and balances that gave the federal government sufficient powers to unify its member states without fully centralizing government under one single tyrannical authority. The unity they established was precarious as was later demonstrated when the Civil War broke out.

But despite its imperfections and overlooking the troubled years of the 1850ies and 1860ies, the U.S. Constitution managed to set the ground rules for (so far) 218 years of a (mostly) healthy tug-of-war between state sovereignty and federal authority.

The basic concept was to:

  1. Constitutionally limit the authority of the federal government to matters regarding interaction between the member states and the most basic rights of individuals.

  2. Split the federal legislature into 2 parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives. One afforded equal representation to all states while the other gave power to each state according to its size.

By putting greater weight on the Senate and ensuring its seniority through longer terms, the Founding Fathers made sure that a tyranny of the majority would not establish itself. Even the smallest states had the power to block federal legislation through coalition building.

Several federations have since been built up according to this recipe. It is, however, not the only means by which to prevent a Tyranny of the Majority. Explorations into mathematics has afforded us solutions that are potentially even better.

One great problem with a bicameral system is the stasis brought on by having to pass legislative acts in both houses. Would it be possible to design a more effective unicameral system that still affords protection against the 800 pound population bullies like China and India? It certainly would. In the 1940ies, Professor Lionel Penrose devised an ingenious method for weighing votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations: the square root.

It is a simple, elegant and beautiful solution to the Tyranny of the Majority. The power of the square root has been known to us since at least 1650 B.C. Strictly defined, the square root of a number X is a number R, such that R^2 = X. The square root tempers linear growth in a most elegant, in fact exponential, way. As X grows, R grows too but less and less so as X gets ever greater.

By weighing votes in the General Assembly of the U.N. according to the square root of a member states population, Lionel Penrose might have prevented Israel and the U.S. from dismissing the majority and the majority of the General Assembly from tyrannizing Israel. As the population of a country grew, its influence would have increased. But only ever so slightly, not in a linear train wreck towards eventual tyranny.

Lionel Penrose idea can be taken even further. Votes (or representation) in a global assembly can be weighted according to various characteristics beyond just population. For example, the square root of the GDP can be added. Or the square root of contributions to the organization itself. Or, perhaps, the square root of foreign aid.

The importance of characteristics themselves can be weighted by giving them different coefficients (weights). Instead of the square root of the GDP, it could be half of the square root of the GDP, or one tenth for that matter.

The square root method would allow us to create a unicameral legislature that would afford the same protection against the Tyranny of the Majority that the Senate provides in the U.S. Accompanied with strict constitutional limitations regarding what such a legislature can do, we would be protected against those who in times of need could care less about us than a famished grizzly.

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