Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 8:43 am | Fair 46º


Harris Sherline: The Tyranny of the Majority

A look at taxes, tobacco, health care and property illustrates how the rule of a simple majority affects our rights

When I was in high school in the 1940s, we were taught to believe that majority rule was best, that the function of government was to help us, that our system of justice was intended to be a “search for the truth.” These ideas were widely accepted as immutable truths. Today, more than 60 years later, to my eye, they are no longer as true as we once thought. The cause may be directly attributable to our treasured democracy in action.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

A brief examination of four major issues — taxes, tobacco, health care and property rights — helps illustrate how the rule of a simple majority has been affecting our rights as American citizens.

» Taxes: Everyone should pay their “fair share,” especially the rich. But, who are the rich? How many people do you know who think they are rich?

According to recent IRS figures, 50 percent of all taxpayers pay only about 3 percent of the total federal income tax burden, while the top 10 percent pay about 66 percent of the bill. Nearly half of all those who file federal returns pay no tax at all, the top 25 percent contribute 86 percent of the total, and the top 1 percent pay about 39 percent of all income taxes collected.

Is that fair enough? Or should the “rich” pay even more? Remember, the definition of rich probably includes you, no matter how you view yourself, since taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of about $55,000 are in the top 25 percent of taxpayers. So, is the “fair share” concept really fair?

» Tobacco: The tyranny of the majority is also seen in matters involving the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies have been cast in the role of villains and should be punished for selling a legal product but lying to the public about the effects of smoking on their health.

The power of the government has been used to levy a massive tax on the industry through litigation and settlement of court cases, in spite of the fact that cigarette packaging and advertising have carried warning labels for 25 years. Whatever you may think about the tobacco companies, we should question the actions of federal and state governments extracting money from any industry by this means and using it to fund pet projects that couldn’t gain the necessary public support to increase taxes to pay for them. If they can do that to the tobacco industry and get away with it, who will be next?

» Health care: Government intervention in health care has become a major focus. It’s no longer possible to escape the consequences of Big Brother’s involvement in health care. Driven by the votes of a growing elderly population, the “tyranny of the majority” continues to expand government intervention in our lives with cries for government funding of health care for all Americans.

» Property rights: Here, too, the “tyranny of the majority” is at work. Do you actually own your real property? Your home? The apartment complex or commercial building you bought as an investment? Your ranch or farm? If you think you do, consider just some of the following limitations on your ownership:

The government can take your property if it wants it for some public purpose (eminent domain).

Even if your property is paid for, you still have to pay a form of rent — forever (in the guise of property taxes and assessments) — to keep it. If you fail to pay, the state will eventually take it from you and sell it at public auction.

Limitations on the use of your land can be forced on you for such purposes as riding trails, access to the beach, power lines, view corridors, roads and highways, and maintenance of public areas. Zoning laws tell you what you can build — how to build it and what it must look like, how much you can charge tenants (rent control), and a host of other restrictions too numerous to include here.

The answer to the question “Who owns your property?” is — you don’t! Not really. You may have the title, but your control is limited.

It’s important to note that a majority is only “one” over half. One vote more than 50 percent is enough to win an election. One is enough to rule. And that “one” often delivers the power to dictate to the other half. One-half plus one can truly be a tyrannical majority in every key aspect of life in America: taxation, gun control, abortion, education and school choice, defense, Social Security, health care, property rights and land use — you name it.

Perhaps a “super majority,” say 60 percent to 65 percent, should be required to pass certain types of legislation, such as tax increases, bond issues and major programs such as health care.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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