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If Majorities Are Wrong?

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

Dr. Samuel Johnson never heard of “evolution” in our meaning of the word. His world was a static world, untroubled by thoughts of perpetual change. The England which he and his contemporaries had received from their fathers was good enough for them, and their concern was to preserve it, not to improve or enlarge it. Decade had followed decade with but little variation in economic and social life, and the homilies of Dr. Johnson at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street were based on the complacent philosophy that the world would remain what he and his fathers had always known it to be. “Sir,” he said to Boswell, “let fanciful men do what they will, depend upon it, you cannot disturb the system of life.”

But Dr. Johnson had scarcely been buried in his grave in Westminster Abbey when his stationary world began to crumble, and in less than three generations everything that he regarded as permanent and essential in the social order had been wiped out so completely that were he to return to us today, he would be as lost and bewildered as would William the Conqueror or Queen Elizabeth. Instead of a rural, agricultural, individualist society, he would find a society that is urban, industrialized, and regimented. Instead of an era that was classical in its tastes and static in its ideas of progress, he would find one that is scientific and mobile. Instead of a civilization of canals and stage coaches and individual economic self-dependence, in which every farm was all but sufficient to itself, he would find a civilization of airplanes and automobiles and a world-wide economic interdependence, with minute and elaborate division of labor. Dr. Johnson’s intimate talks at the Mitre Tavern, could we listen to them today, would be both intelligible and interesting; our ideas and our books and the lives we lead would be largely meaningless to Dr. Johnson.


It was an event that occurred in 1776, while Dr. Johnson was monopolizing the conversation at Mrs. Thrale’s dinner parties, that undermined the foundations of his world. In that year a man by the name of Wilkinson invented a cylinder that made Watt’s new steam engine really work. Probably Dr. Johnson never heard of Wilkinson, but the invention of that cylinder changed the course of history and the destiny, of men. The Age of Machinery stood beckoning on the threshold, and the human race, with eyes wide open, walked into a revolution whose termination we cannot foresee and whose consequences we do not know how to measure.

For beginning with Watt’s steam engine we have pressed feverishly from one invention to another, harnessing new forces to ever new mechanical appliances. In the first eagerness of our pursuit we did not know that we were following a one-way path along which there could be no retreat. Only within more recent years, as the machine process has fastened itself on every detail of our lives, have we sensed the difficulties into which we have so unwittingly wandered. We know now that we are not completely the masters of the machines which we have created. Their pulsations we can control, but their consequences control us. They have risen like living things to dominate our entire civilization. They have called into being hundreds of millions of people who otherwise would not have been born. For these hundreds of millions they are the sole means of existence. Stop the machines and half the people in the world would perish in a week.

Modern industry has become a mechanical circle: we create machinery in order to increase production, only to find that increased production involves the necessity of creating more machinery. We produce in order that we may consume—and discover that we must consume in order that we may produce. In other words, the machine process has become both the means and the object of life. We are trapped by our own inventions. Our machinery seems almost to be endowed with a soul—a vindictive life within itself: we must tend it or it will turn and rend us. The penalty of neglect is death.

It is this inescapable necessity of keeping the machines going that constitutes the great problem of modern economic life. Idle machines mean starvation to the millions of people whom they have brought into the world; active machines mean a surplus of goods beyond the immediate capacity of the race to consume. To this dilemma but one answer has been found: we have kept the machines going, and we have done it by whipping up the demand for their products, by stimulating new desires, by creating new wants. Our problem has become not how to make things but how to dispose of them; not how to produce goods but how to produce customers; not how to develop output but how to intensify consumption. Consumption must constantly keep ahead of production; the appetite for more things of every kind must be, constantly stimulated. One desire must be used to breed another, and these new wants in turn must be fed and nourished so that other new wants may be born. As the editor of a New York newspaper recently remarked, the citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Thrift, which our fathers prized as one of the marks of wisdom, has become a virtue of doubtful social and economic value. If we would survive we must buy. Says Garet Garrett: “To consume more and more progressively—to be able to say in the evening : T have consumed more today than I consumed yesterday’—this now is a duty the individual owes to industrial society.”

Out of this solution of the dilemma with which the machine has confronted us have come all the phenomena of modern business: the pursuit of the buyer; the new science of advertising, the revolutionary methods in salesmanship, involving the creation not only of new ways of wanting but of new habits of comfort and luxury; the cheapening of goods by mass production and distribution; the extension of credit systems; the development of new markets; the exploitation of backward races in an attempt to whet new appetites; and, finally, the struggle of rival imperialisms for new territories in which to sell.

By this necessity of disposing of the surplus product of the machine the life of our age is shaped and dominated. It motivates our political thinking and is the chief factor in controlling our social institutions. It gives rise to what is fast becoming the outstanding characteristic of our time —the standardization of life, the stereotyping of possessions and environment in terms of fixed molds. For if people are to be made to want what they have not wanted before, if sales are to be stimulated, goods must be cheap in price, and cheapness cannot be had without quantity production. The greater the quantity, the lower the cost. But quantity production makes no allowance for variation. The machine must be adjusted to turn out units that are exactly alike. The Ford machines in Detroit and elsewhere stamp out over 2,000,000 automobiles a year, more than 6.000 a day, but within their types there is no difference between them. A single watch factory in the United States produces 1,260,000 watches annually, and they are always the same. One shoe manufacturer in New England turns out 4,000,-000 pairs every year, that vary only by sizes. Cloth that comes from a given loom must be of one width, one color, and one texture; to vary these factors would add to the cost and thus discourage sales. Quantity production is necessary to keep the machine going, and the price of quantity production is the standardization of the product.

Toward this goal of standardization modern industrial methods are driving with determination. Standardization has indeed become one of the chief bulwarks of our economic life. It has been carried into every branch of industry. In the interests of economy we have standardized the sizes of bricks and blackboards and blankets. We have standardized the types and sizes of beds and mattresses and hotel chinaware. We have standardized bolts and nuts and milk bottles and bed-springs. The Department of Commerce is engaged in an effort to hasten the pace and widen the approach toward standardization, and commissions and committees, specially formed for that purpose, are now at work. Standardization is in the air. It even extends to standardized divorce laws and standardized building and plumbing codes.

How far this standardization has gone in altering the age-old habits and environment of mankind a moment’s reflection will show. Indeed it has world-wide implications. It touches human life everywhere. One sees with a feeling of dismay English caps adorning the heads of Chinese throughout their vast country. One sees them wearing European shoes and smoking European cigarettes. What has happened is that by artificial stimulation the Chinese have been made to want something, the lack of which they have not previously felt. In order to keep the wheels moving in European factories, these new desires have been arbitrarily created. Similarly oriental civilization is rapidly taking to European clothing—so that we may look forward to seeing at least the masculine world arrayed in costumes which may possess a limited utilitarian value, but little else. So, too, the nations of the world are using the same breakfast foods, the same shaving soaps and the same agricultural machinery. One hears the same music ground out from the same records by the same type of victrola in New York, Johannesburg, Calcutta, or Tahiti. Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and the whole host of lesser notables are to be seen from Greenland to the south tip of New Zealand. If bathroom fixtures, ice cream sodas, and elevators represent an American contribution to the cultural life of mankind, then we can honestly say that our influence is spanning the world. No matter into what remote region he may travel, an American can scarcely get away from his own civilization. Even in out of the way villages where the language is unfamiliar, it follows him like a spectre, screaming of sewing machines, typewriters, collars, canned soups, cosmetics, and the products of five-and-ten-cent stores.

All around the world the habits and possessions of men are shaking down to fixed, common levels. In a country like the United States the process is even more pronounced. From east to west we eat the same kinds of food, wear the same styles of clothes, and live in the same types of houses or apartments. A hotel menu in San Francisco is exactly like a hotel menu in New York, just as the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, look like the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and the furniture and household utensils in New Orleans are identical to the furniture and household utensils in Minneapolis. The material side of life in America is fast developing a sameness, a uniformity, a monotony without parallel in history over so wide a geographical area. Quantity production, advertising and the new methods of communication and transportation which modern machinery has created are breaking down the differences which hitherto have made of civilization a garment of many colors.


But it is not alone on the material side of life that standardization is developing. Out of this environmental uniformity is coming a spiritual and intellectual uniformity of far greater significance. Common physical surroundings and possessions seem invariably to foster common mental reactions. There is something about the mass production and distribution of goods that suggests the mass production and distribution of ideas. If standardization works in one field, why is it not applicable in another? If men have the same types of automobiles and food and furniture, why should they not have the same beliefs? If it promotes efficiency for men to dress alike and act alike, why does it not promote efficiency for men to think alike?

Whether or not there is a deliberate, conscious analogy between these two fields, certainly the same machine processes that have been employed in the one can be and are being employed in the other. The condition of our press furnishes an excellent illustration. The telegraph, the telephone, the wireless, the expensive up-keep of high-power machinery, the necessities of quantity production, are revolutionizing the business of disseminating news. As one travels from east to west across the continent, picking up the local newspapers at the various stations where he stops, one realizes how far the processes of standardization have gone in enforcing a uniformity of taste and thought—the same comic strips, the same political cartoons, the same advice to the lovelorn, the same success hints, the same sermons, the same pictures, inspirational messages, recipes, health-talks, and feature stories. More than all this froth, there are the same identically-worded news items, syndicated from the same central point. Similarly there are syndicated editorials on a great variety of topics so that the whole country can hear the same thunder of applause or condemnation. If the papers are Republican in point of view, a common editorial emanating from Washington extols the virtues of the administration. If the papers are Democratic in persuasion, an editorial coming from the same city views with alarm the degenerate trend of events. From New York to San Francisco one cannot escape from syndicated opinion. On all sides there is the pressure for standardized thinking.

It is not only through the press, but through inventions like the radio that this development is being accentuated. Audiences of five and ten million people listening to the same voice are now almost daily phenomena. One station is linked with another and the political, social, or moral ideas of one man travel with the speed of lightning from ocean to ocean, impressing their force with all the persuasive authority of the spoken word. And this single invention is merely in its infancy. The entire world will soon be linked together, so that the voices and opinions of men will search out the remote hiding places of the earth.

What is happening is that our machines—our power presses, our radios, our telephones, our telegraphs—are creating a mental propinquity from which the individual can scarcely escape. They are refining the technique of gregariousness. Solitude, physical and intellectual, has become a difficult achievement. Whether a man lives in a fishing village on the coast of Maine, or on a Nebraska farm, or on a ranch in the Sierra Nevadas, he lives in a crowd, preyed upon by the power of mass suggestion conveyed to him by the newspaper, the radio, the telephone, and other mechanical devices. For these instruments can recreate the psychology of crowds: they stimulate the collective consciousness; they speak with the authority of numbers; they shake down to a common level of intelligence; they over-ride the critical judgment of the individual: they encourage group-passion and hallucination. Through mechanical invention the vices of the crowd are being sown in wide fields. Intensified propinquity is accentuating and reinforcing the instincts of the herd.

This is the crux of the difficulty. As one of its curious consequences, the coming of machinery has clothed the opinions of the pack with a new authority. Man’s natural instinct for uniformity, his distaste for intellectual individuality and independence, his habitual intolerance of variations from normal standards in the realm of habits and ideas, have taken on fresh sanctity as the machine process has knit together the members of the herd in a new unity. Consequently, conventional opinion tends to become more difficult to resist, and individual opinion more difficult to assert, as the development of science makes the collective judgments of the herd easier of ascertainment and expression. The step from mass production to mass thinking is, perhaps, shorter than we imagine.

Undoubtedly this development is accelerated by the necessities of the modern industrial state. As society grows more organic, more urban, under pressure of the machine, the processes of government acquire more importance. Because the individuals in the state are linked together in the production of goods, and the life of each depends upon the life of all, administration, regimentation and organization take on an importance which they did not have in the pioneer or agricultural society. Consequently, in the machine age individual self-assertion is subordinated to collective action, and individual ideas and ideals give way to the ideas and ideals of the group. Whipped up by the community’s instinct of self-preservation, mass opinion tends to over-ride its minorities and crush out the voices of those who cry in the wilderness.

One has only to watch the trend of our national life to appreciate the significance of this situation. Lynch law in the moral sense seems to be making a tremendous growth. Probably the war gave impetus to this development, for a nation in arms cannot tolerate the independent opinion of its minorities. War requires a regimentation of the public mind into a flat uniformity of thought and feeling. From the moment that hostilities are declared, truth for its own sake is at a discount, and the concentrated massing of public opinion behind certain elemental ideas is as essential to success as ammunition and battleships. This involves the wholesale planting of selected news and opinion by a common method. It implies a public mind that is suggestible, receptive, uncritical and unresisting. Here in the United States we are still too near 1917 to forget the methods, fair and foul, by which, in the hour of crisis, the fighting instincts were aroused and the nation was welded into a single instrument of vengeance. As Trotter says: “Man is subject to the passions of the pack in his mob violence and to the passions of the herd in his panics.”

Following the exhibition of mass emotion which the war presented, we have witnessed such phenomena as the organization and spread of the Ku Klux Klan, with its doctrine of mass hatred of Catholics, Jews, and negroes. We have seen the attempt to prohibit the teaching of evolution over wide areas and to enforce by law the acceptance of a biological principle to which an uneducated majority could subscribe—apparently on the theory that the ascertainment of truth is merely a matter of adding up voters. We have seen the weapons of the law used to impose particular standards of morality, to enforce particular codes of private conduct, to make the personal habits of the majority the personal habits also of the minority—in other words to standardize by threat of penalty the ideas and preferences of an entire nation. We have seen the passion for uniformity express itself in vast Americanization schemes whose avowed purpose has been the creation of a homogeneous mental type, citizens whose ideas about government, property and the industrial process will conform to a standard acceptable to the majority. We have seen the authorities of industrial towns crushing peaceful strikes by the brutal use of police and sheriffs, invoking “public safety” as a justification for the denial of such elemental rights as assembly, and free speech, gaining the support of the courts in their attempt to over-ride minority opinion and make the world safe for industry. We have wearily followed the long procession of special days and special weeks set aside for mass contemplation and reverence, such as “Constitution Day,” “Patriotism Day,” “Flag Day,” “For God and Country Day”— days in which (to quote from a pamphlet of instruction sent to school teachers) we “implant in the mind of every child the superiority of our government over all others and the sanctity of the principles and forms of government as originally planned by our forefathers.” We have seen the scarehead pamphleteering of professional patriotic societies and the repressive tactics of various boards of education, colleges and universities in their attempts to censor opinion and make the ideas of everybody measure up in Procrustean fashion to the standards to which the mass subscribes. “There seem to be some among us,” said a recent spokesman of a so-called patriotic organization, “who are not satisfied with what the American people do and think. America is no place for knockers; and if these malcontents do not like our ideas and our ways of doing things, let them get out. The overwhelming majority of the American people is satisfied and that is enough.”

Truly, majorities are in the saddle, and, as Walter Lippmann says, “the rule of the majority is the rule of force. For while nobody can seriously maintain that the greatest number must have the greatest wisdom or the greatest virtue, there is no denying that under modern social conditions they are likely to have the most power.”


We in this generation, therefore, face questions of great moment. They relate to the kind of world our children will inherit. How can we maintain the freedom of expression and initiative of the individual when the machine process is accentuating the old herd instinct for solidarity? How in the complex inter-relations of our industrial civilization can we find room for the individual conscience? How far is it possible to combine the uniformity and large-scale operation which industrialism demands with the diversity, originality, and spontaneity which are the supreme contributions of the individual to society? Or, as Bertrand Russell phrases it, is it possible to have machinery in industry without having a mechanistic outlook in our thoughts and mental habits? Does the mass distribution of goods inevitably mean the mass distribution of ideas?

Let us say at once that we do not know how to answer these questions. The reconciliation of the group with the individual, of government with liberty, has always defied solution. Mankind has always stoned its prophets, and from Socrates through Servetus to the present time runs the long line of those who testify to the indestructible inheritance of intolerance. But these troublesome questions press with peculiar insistence in our generation, for the machine process which has accentuated the pack instinct for solidarity is reinforced by the enthusiasm of democracy for levelling human expression and imposing the measures of mediocrity. Democracy is “the apotheosis of the commonplace,” the glorification of “the divine average.” Its proud boast is that it makes all people equal and all life uniform. Too often, in Rodo’s words, it is “an organized hunting party against everything that shows aptitude or daring wing to fly.” Our generation, therefore, in attempting to find place for the individual conscience, is under double attack. All the forces of our time are driving toward standardization.

But although we can give no complete answer to the questions which face us, we can at least reassure ourselves as to the validity of the life lived from within, not forced into conformity to an external mechanism. We can reaffirm our faith in the principle that the state, the community, the family, and all other social institutions are merely a means to an end, and the end is the individual. We can repudiate, for ourselves at least, the Hegelian fallacy which has formed the basis of so large a part of our thinking in this generation: the belief “that the state, or the community as a whole, is capable of some different kind of good from that which exists in individuals, and that this collective good is somehow higher than that which is realized in individuals.” There is no social good apart from individual good. There is no such thing as collective happiness except as it comprises the happiness of individuals. We need a new definition of individualism in the interwoven complexities of our modern society. No one, of course, would subscribe to the laissez faire individualism of the nineteenth century with its emphasis upon acquisitive rights. Its day is gone, although its unhappy influence still persists. But the other extreme by which, in our thinking at least, we substitute a collective entity for the individual as an end to be served, is equally untenable. Somewhere in our scheme of things—indeed at the very core of it—we must find place for the self-expression and spontaneity of persons. Somewhere we must lay the same emphasis upon the spiritual freedom of the individual in his pursuit of what he believes to be good, regardless of the opinion of the mass, that was laid by Buddha and Lao-tsze and Jesus of Nazareth.

But the majority. What about the majority? We need to be frank about this matter of majorities. Not only is it impossible to make virtue and wisdom dependent on fifty-one per cent of any collection of men, but the unintelligent mouthing of this old superstition serves to incite majorities against minorities in fields where the collective judgment has no business to go. For knowledge, for truth, for a valid line between right and wrong, for an appreciation of spiritual values, one does not consult the greatest number. The coarse thumb and finger of mass opinion cannot shape to any given pattern the conscience and intellectual integrity of a man. “No man,” says George W. Martin, in a recent, notable essay, “surrenders his whole being to the state. . . . The state is for him sovereign only when his conscience is not stirred against its performance. Whatever, therefore, concerns the conscience of man, whatever brings its activity into operation, must, for the state, be sacred ground. As for the state itself, even where the opposition is small, it is probable that more is gained by the possession of that energy of character which is willing to offer challenge than by destroying it.” Said Lord Acton: “The great question is to discover, not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe; for no prescription is valid against the conscience of mankind.”

There is real truth in Herbert Spencer’s observation that majorities are generally wrong. Certainly human history is one long record of the scornful overturn of standards which the majority in the preceding generation had fought and died for. It was the majority that stood behind the Spanish Inquisition. It was the majority that supported the burning of witches. It was the majority in America that upheld in election after election the institution of slavery, and passed laws to suppress those who criticized it. It was the majority that rallied behind our unjust war on Mexico in 1846. It was the majority that prohibited the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. It was the majority on both sides that wallowed in blood from 1914 to 1918. It is perhaps the majority in the United States that is today opposing our entry into the League of Nations. Yes, majorities are generally wrong. On all questions involving moral or ethical considerations they are pretty sure to be wrong. a people should be judged, said Emerson, not by its majorities, but by its minorities.

And as a matter of fact it is always the minorities that hold the key of progress. The still small voice speaking through the conscience of a man, bidding him choose obloquy and ostracism rather than conform, is, now and always, the hope of the race. It gave us Wycliffe and Huss and Savonarola and William Wallace and Bruno and Hugh Latimer and a whole host of heroes and prophets who challenged the mass judgments of their generations. What a glorious record it is and how it relieves the drab and complacent pages of history! We see Socrates, on trial for his life, saying to his jury: “Athenians, either acquit me or do not acquit me; but be sure that I shall not alter my way of life, no not if I have to die for it many times. . . . For no evil can happen to a good man in life or in death.” We see Woodrow Wilson, »not as the brilliant leader of a nation in arms, but as a grim, stricken man, leaning on a cane, saying to a group on his doorstep: “I have no anxiety for the League of Nations. It will take care of itself. My only anxiety is for the people of this country.” Spirits like these give dignity and worth and glory to human life. In the light of their high courage, Emerson’s words take on a fresh significance: “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.”

Certainly a little more of this spirit of non-conformity would constitute a healthy admixture in American life. It would be a tonic to tone up the sluggish body politic. And it is sorely needed. For science has armed majorities with instruments of persuasion and coercion far more effective than any which they have previously wielded, and the individual must seek protection against the new usurpations of society. More completely than in the days of his grandfathers is he swallowed up in the collective mechanism; more menacing are the encroachments of the mass upon his inner freedom; more determined is the effort to establish the comfortable standard of the commonplace, and iron the intelligence, the emotions and the will of everybody into a perfect smoothness. We need to teach this new generation that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of their own minds.” We need to say with Thomas Jefferson: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every, form of tyranny over the mind of man.” We need to breed a scepticism of intellectual authority, a distaste for unruffled unanimities, a toleration of differences.

But this is dangerous talk, some will say; these are wild and whirling words; this is the gospel of radicalism. On the contrary, it is thorough-going conservatism in the best sense of the term. For the enemies of society are not those who promote the processes of freedom, but those who try to block them. The danger to any civilization, or any living thing whatever, does not lie in progress, but in stagnation, not in growth but in dry-rot, not in change but in the lack of change. The peril is that under pressure of intrenched and satisfied majorities we shall cling to the shell of our social and economic institutions too long after they have been outgrown, adhere to the husk and form of ideas too long after they are dead. For it is always to the outward symbol rather than to the inner principle that mass loyalty attaches itself, and the mob-mind is quick to resent and if possible repress the lone voices that would call us back to reality. But these lone voices are the true conservatives. Their aim is not to destroy, but to preserve, not to kill the roots of the social order, but to prune the dead branches that sap its life.

But our timid friends will not be satisfied. Change means unrest, they will say. Certainly it does. It is the business of man to be restless. It is the salvation of man that he is willing to “agitate” and “rock the boat.” It is the glory of man that he is never satisfied, never content, prone to seek adventure in uncharted seas.

We come, then, to an inevitable conclusion: in the realm of ideas standardization means death. Society cannot afford to stamp out variations from type; they are the biological steps by which the race advances. It is by the uniqueness, the differentiation, of a St. Francis, a Goethe, or a Darwin that we have any civilization at all. No society can be healthy which does not contain strong ingredients of non-conformity. No mass opinion has any claim to validity which is not continually, challenged by the critical judgment of the individual.

In 1813, eighteen workmen died on the gallows at York, England, on the charge of destroying machinery. They had resented the coming of the new civilization, they had feared the extension of its power, and they had struck out blindly to destroy it. It was a pathetic, foolish act. It was like trying to stop a glacier with a fire-cracker. Remorselessly and irresistibly the machine age has ploughed its way across the life of man. Today we are in the complete grip of its gigantic force. Some of its consequences we know to be appalling; some seem to be good. In the midst of the revolution we can scarcely tell the good from the evil, so great is the upheaval. But we know this: that if as an incident of the machine process the opinion of the individual becomes more hampered in expression, and diversity and spontaneity, are checked, then there are no compensatory advantages that can out-weigh the disaster. Then, indeed, are we headed for spiritual bankruptcy. For man does not live by bread alone. The things that make life worth preserving are not created by mechanism nor are they born of organization, however efficient. They come only from the freedom of the human soul.


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