Liberty meets democracy: a car crash, or creative tension?

Warning: this post may contain traces of political philosophy

Norway’s Prime Minister has vowed to fight terrorism with “more democracy”. But would he still be so keen if Norwegians voted to execute the man responsible for the terrorist attacks on Oslo and Utøya?*

Democracy is the ultimate hurrah-word. It is used by so many people as a catch-all description of a just political system that we are at risk of forgetting the actual meaning of the word. Fundamentally, “democracy” means “rule of the people”. Or, to define it more accurately, “rule by the majority of adult citizens”. Put that way, it becomes obvious that the values of democracy and liberty can collide, as Chris Dillow has pointed out in two thought-provoking posts.

It shouldn’t take an Isaiah Berlin to realise that there can be clashes between two values that are both good. So if you believe that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them”, there will be many situations where the will of the majority is in conflict with an inalienable right. Though that is a quote from the libertarian thinker Robert Nozick, any liberal and many followers of other ideologies also believe in individual rights. In other words, this is not just a problem for libertarians to grapple with.

So is liberal democracy possible?

In practice, there seem to be plenty of countries where liberty and democracy manage to get along with only boundary disputes, rather than all-out wars where one triumphs over the other. This involves compromise: for example, all members of the Council of Europe have signed away the right to make democratic decisions to execute or torture people.

In fact, I would argue that – despite the conflicts that arise between them – liberty and democracy need each other. Liberal democracy is not only possible, it is also highly desirable.

Why liberalism needs democracy

Ultimately, some kind of compromise is unavoidable. Except for anarchists, everyone believes that there needs to be a state of some sort. By definition, the state has a very big stick (its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence). So any non-anarchic society must decide who wields that stick, and who settles disputes where different rights clash.

Equality of rights is fundamental to liberalism, since it is impossible to justify how one arbitrary category of people (e.g. men) can enjoy a set of natural rights than another category (e.g. women) cannot. This fundamental equality excludes almost all forms of government, since they rest on some kind of hierarchy that is itself regarded as “natural”, or at least not open to challenge by the governed. So the only form of government compatible with liberalism is the one that gives each member of society an equal share of the exercise of the state’s power over society. That form of government is democracy, either direct or representative.

Why democracy needs liberalism

While it is fairly obvious that liberalism ideologically requires democracy, it is less obvious that democracy needs liberalism. After all, there are plenty of what Fareed Zakaria calls “illiberal democracies” around the world.**

As Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in a very perceptive chapter in Democracy in America, the risk facing democracies is that their egalitarianism leaves them open to falling under a paternalistic elected authority, removing more and more free choices from citizens “for their own good”. From a liberal perspective the response to illiberal democracies like Hugo Chávez’ Venezuela is the same as Tocqueville’s:

There are many men today who accommodate themselves very easily to this type of compromise between administrative despotism and sovereignty of the people, and who think they have guaranteed the liberty of individuals when it is to the national power that they deliver that liberty. That is not enough for me. The nature of the master is much less important to me than the [fact of] obedience.

But as Tocqueville argued, such a form of government is not likely to last long:

A constitution that would be republican at the head, and ultra-monarchical in all the other parts has always seemed to me an ephemeral monster. The vices of those who govern and the imbecility of the governed would not take long to lead them to ruin; and the people, tired of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or would soon return to stretching out at the feet of a single master.

Illiberal democracy contains a fundamental ideological contradiction: for democracy to be a just form of government we have to assume that ordinary citizens (or at least most of them) are capable of making sensible, informed choices about very important matter of public policy and law. Yet a paternalistic democracy spends much of its time limiting its citizens’ free choices, not to protect other citizens but “for their own good”. How can an individual make the “right” decision over other people but not over his or her own life? (I have argued this in more detail here.)

Only liberalism accepts both conclusions of trusting the judgement of individual people: that they can be trusted both to make their choices about their own lives intelligently, and to take a part in making society’s collective decisions. And, as Tocqueville argued, an illiberal democracy that takes away each citizen’s right to exercise individual judgement will destroy itself – for who can make intelligent choices in elections if they have no practice of making them in their own lives?

This is why democracy needs liberalism.

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*This may sound far-fetched. But during the Second World War the Norwegian government-in-exile reinstated the death penalty (which had been abolished in 1902). 37 people were executed in Norway after the war in a legal purge, despite contemporary opposition to the reintroduction of the death penalty. (The exiled cabinet’s decision had of course been taken without a parliamentary vote.)

**A term I much prefer to Rob Marchant’s “pseudo-democracy” for the reason that democracy itself does not include any guarantee of basic freedoms – just look at the miscarriages of popular justice in ancient democratic Athens. But I strongly recommend his blog post despite my quibble with its title.

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2 Responses to Liberty meets democracy: a car crash, or creative tension?

  1. Pingback: The liberalism of Harry Potter | Niklas Smith

  2. Pingback: Locke, Hobbes and two smoking barrels | Niklas Smith

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