At Special Town Meeting, we heard diverging views on the role of democracy in deciding such local issues as adopting the stretch energy code (Article 4).

Early on, we heard that Jeffersonian Democracy should not stand in the way of addressing modern climate problems. Later, it was shouted out by many that “This is a democracy!” suggesting that if a majority of voters felt that adopting the stretch code was the right thing for them, then it was right and just to impose it on all.

It is true that Town Meeting is an arena where nearly pure democracy prevails. But it is also true that for a democracy to thrive, its majority must strive to be just, must recognize that there are times when the minority viewpoint should be respected and protected by the majority.

One speaker correctly noted that the principle underlying opposition to Article 4 was that of protecting freedom of choice in the management of household affairs. He concluded that since the application of that principle was not to marital affairs, but to the more mundane proposals of the warrant, the principle did not apply, need not be protected, and should, in fact, be mocked.

When such a principle is in one case sent into hiding, belittled and diminished, it emerges belittled and diminished the next time it is called forth.

Democracy has come a long way since Aristotle, 2,400 years ago, cited the practice of ostracism as an example of its capacity to be unjust. This, in turn, was 50 years after the good citizens of Athens voted to compel Socrates to drink the paralytic poison hemlock.

It has been 240 years since James Madison warned of the dangers of factionalism, and the risk of a majority voting to the detriment of the freedom of the minority. Protecting freedom of choice in the management of our household affairs from local abridgment ought to be a cause elevated at the very center of Harvard’s common ground.

Last Tuesday, it was chased underground, to shouts of “This is a democracy!”


Prospect Hill Road