The "tyranny of the majority," or the concept that minorities will not be represented fairly in democracies, has been a concern for political theorists for generations. Political theorists from Rousseau to Locke to Mill have wrestled with the tension between the "general will" and the protection of minorities. This concern is expressed in the U.S. Constitution by the Bill of Rights, which enshrined people's inalienable rights and the government's responsibility to protect those freedoms for all people, regardless of status.
This tension has been discussed primarily in the realm of political science, but the issue is present in many different fields. One of the most important contexts where the threat of majoritarianism should be discussed is economics. Economics is the study of how to best allocate resources for the betterment of society. The individual is rarely, if ever, considered in economic theory. This proves problematic when discussing how to best allocate resources, as policy makers and economists can often fall in the trap of doing the best thing for the majority without considering consequences for the few.
This kind of policy-making helped contribute to the rise of anti-free trade politicians on both the far left and far right. Both claim free trade contributes to the demise of the working class — which it undoubtedly does. Free trade agreements allow the sale of imports without taxation, encouraging people to buy goods from outside the U.S. This inevitably endangers the fate of domestic goods, especially when domestic firms are competing against the cheap labor and plethora of natural resources belonging to developing countries. Predictably, this leads companies to move their factories and manufacturing centers overseas to cut costs. However, economists and mainstream politicians love free trade because it makes goods cheaper for the American consumer. Only 8.8 percent of Americans work in factories, and a majority of the American workforce is in the service industry. Economists maintain good reasons for advocating such policies, because free trade economics encourages specialization, assisting in the creation of the most efficient production output. This system produces the best situation for the world and for most people most of the time. But what happens to American factory workers who get left behind in free trade deals?
Theoretically, economics has a solution. They would change jobs. Instead of building cars, a job done more efficiently in Germany and Japan, they can become computer scientists, a job in huge demand. In this scenario, there are more cars and software supplied to the world and both things become cheaper. However, this economic model makes a huge assumption: labor is malleable and that mechanics can become computer scientists overnight. Many factory workers have never been to college. Furthermore, some of them might be too old to learn a new trade and rebuild their skills, but too young to retire, leaving them trapped.
There have been some attempts from policymakers to address this proverbial economic "tyranny of the majority." The U.S. has set up the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which attempts to support people who have lost their jobs due to free trade, providing free education and compensation to those former workers. While this is a positive step, there are still huge flaws in the system. Mainly, some workers are too old and unskilled to learn new trades. Secondly, the program has had a history of ineffectiveness, with some estimates saying the program had no statistically significant effect.
The best solution remains weaning countries off inefficient industries over time. By lowering the cost of education for high-skilled, in-demand jobs, the government can provide incentive to workers to leave inefficient industries. Simultaneously, it can begin making goods cheaper by slowly engaging in more free trade deals over decades. Prices will gradually decrease, and eventually goods will be accessible to all, not just the non-manufacturing segment of the population.
Moshe Klein is a sophomore economics and government & politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.