The Might of the Majority

The ultimate manifestation of this principle was the insistence on a Bill of Rights.  And so, ensued the never-ending struggle to realize a meaningful expression of, at least, those few enumerated rights.

Nevertheless, majorities rule.  Or, more pointedly, might makes right.  The will of whichever coalition of interests with the might of the majority will ultimately prevail over any sentiment to the contrary. This phenomenon seems clearly manifested in the example of potentially dangerous products wanted by a majority of avid users.  Alcohol, automobiles, firearms . . .  the list is endless.  One example worthy of examination is—batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are as ubiquitous today as the internet.  Arguably, Americans would regard it their inalienable right to keep and bear such batteries as they defend their enumerated rights to speak via the internet or travel using cars.  Nevertheless, the means to speak or drive puts lethal power in the hands of those who deploy them.  Yet, we persist in defending the rights to speech and automobiles.  And, we will defend our rights to lithium ion batteries for the same reason.  They provide us compensatory, overwhelming utility.

You may not be aware of the hazards of lithium ion batteries. Briefly, lithium ion batteries which do not meet safety standards for internal construction “. . . can overheat from moisture exposure or low-quality insulation layers between the cells.  . . . Once the highly reactive lithium ignites, it cannot be put out with fire extinguishers . . . Using water to put out a lithium fire is debated, since it re-ignites, but this method is approved for airlines.” [More technical information can be found here.] 

In a single incident, 32 passengers and one crew woman of the Conception dive boat died in a catastrophic fire likely caused by lithium-ion batteries.  In another incident, a “lithium battery for an e-cigarette exploded inside a woman’s purse during a Boulder City, Nevada, city council meeting Aug. 8, [2017] sending alarmed bystanders running.”  

We don’t allow civilians to carry firearms onto airplanes: TSA strives mightily, though ineffectively, to screen passengers for guns.  Yet they pay no attention whatsoever to batteries.  They don’t even require that only certified lithium ion batteries be brought onboard planes, whether as luggage or in the passenger compartment.  We accept this hazard because there is nothing practical that government or the airlines could do about civilian use of such batteries.  They are ubiquitous.  

Congress could, of course, regulate the manufacture, import, and use of lithium ion batteries.  It could insist that all such batteries be certified to industry established standards.  Some foreign countries would likely follow suit.  If the EU, Canada, Japan, South Korea joined with the US, the market for uncertified batteries would likely shrivel to the point of non-existence. Then, as the industry discovered better technology, standards could be raised.  Prices for batteries might rise a dollar or two—a small price to pay for public safety in airplanes, subways and other crowded and therefore at-risk venues. 

But this is not going to happen. The majority has ruled by wallet and purse.  We have a right to bear lithium ion batteries in our cell phones and e-cigarettes alike, obtained from any source, standardized or not.  No use is too trivial to countenance infringement.

There are two lessons to take from this:  

First, once use surpasses some threshold, it is not politically feasible to prohibit a product or practice.  Alcohol prohibition failed miserably because too large a fraction of the population enjoyed using it.  Marijuana prohibition has failed for the same reason.  Gun prohibition would fail for the same reason.

Second, in some crude way, societies rationalize the utility of dangerous products.  Just as the utility of lithium ion batteries is overwhelmingly obvious (e.g., for cell phone calls to the police, fire department or emergency medical technicians), guns are overwhelmingly the preferred response to assaults on one’s home or family.  We keep and bear arms just as we keep fire extinguishers at home and carry them in our vehicles.  When seconds count, 911 is minutes away.  Three million Americans bought guns for the first time this year when they first awakened to the intransigent physics of the space-time continuum.  

We could bring organized rioting and looting to a screeching halt by banning lithium ion batteries, making cell phones useless for organizing rioters and looters.  It’s not going to happen.  Nor can we eliminate violence done with guns by deluding ourselves that we can keep them from the lawless.

Alcohol, automobiles, batteries, guns, marijuana and so forth will always be with us.  The majority rules—if not a majority of voters, then those with the plurality of power in whatever issue is in play.  Alcohol is regulated and taxed as are automobiles, batteries, guns and pot.  All, in an earnest effort, to keep them out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. And all failing, always.



—‘MarkPA’  is trained in economics, a life-long gun owner, NRA Instructor and Massad Ayoob graduate. He is inspired by our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and holds that having the means to defend oneself and one’s community is vital to securing them.

All DRGO articles by ‘MarkPA’