Welcome to the next instalment in the weekly series about Liberal Democrat political philosophy. This week we take a look at the concept of Liberal democracy (with a deliberate lower-case d) itself.
I hope you are enjoying this series. If you are, please let your friends and colleagues know that they too can sign up for the series.
The content for this series draws very heavily on an excellent pamphlet edited by Duncan Brack for the Liberal Democrat History Group and by contributors to the group's (now sadly out of print) Dictionary of Liberal Thought. In particular for this week's email, Ed Randall.
If you aren't familiar with the group's work, particularly the website and quarterly Journal of Liberal History, I'd highly recommend taking a look.
If you like elements of the emails that follow, most likely Duncan and colleagues deserve the credit. For the bits you don't like, the brickbats should come my way.
Liberal democracy, otherwise known as constitutional and representative democracy, is the form of government espoused by liberals. Many liberal thinkers, including John Stuart Mill, recognised the dangers inherent to democracy stemming from poorly educated electors, tyrannous majorities and demagogues. They therefore argued for democratic forms of government to be accompanied by limits to state power, protection of individual rights, the separation of powers, and an active political culture with an educated and engaged electorate. Mill’s hope was that democratic government would prosper in a liberal society and that liberty and democracy would become and remain mutually reinforcing: a liberal democracy.
The defining characteristic of democratic society is that 'the people' decide. Of course, such a definition of democracy begs all kinds of questions, not least who are 'the people'? and what do 'the people' really decide?
Governments in 'democratic societies', including the member states of the European Union amongst whom the commitment to democracy is a defining characteristic, claim that they possess legitimacy and political authority because 'the people', typically defined as the whole of the adult population (with some exclusions) are entitled and empowered to decide who enters government.
However, the majority of electors believe (and are surely right to believe) that their direct and personal influence over government is vanishingly small. Democracies are, in recognition of the occasional and highly attenuated influence that individual electors exercise through the ballot box, said to be representative rather than direct democracies. Indeed, beyond the act of voting, modern democracies, including liberal democracies, operate with very small numbers of people – elected representatives and government officials – becoming deeply involved in the business of government.
Political theorists, including the distinguished writer on democracy Robert A. Dahl, recognise that most modern states are simply too large, and public policy-making too complex, to involve more than a very small number of people directly in the detailed formulation, approval and implementation of public policy. (You may notice echoes here of the arguments sometimes used against referendums, that other way of giving the public more power for their votes.)
It is for this reason that the political authority and legitimacy of those who govern is said to rest primarily on the results of elections, in which rival teams of would-be representatives compete for the people's votes. Yet, while fair and free elections are generally regarded as the linchpin of legitimate democratic government, the electoral processes at the heart of democratic societies have often become the focus of intense criticism, including in particular their failure to motivate, inform and accurately reflect the wishes of their citizens.
While liberals have long been supporters of democracy their support has almost always been qualified and conditional: liberty, rather than democracy, is the core liberal value. The anxiety that the great liberal thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill and James Madison, expressed about the possibility that democracy might extinguish liberty led them to invest considerable intellectual energy in specifying the institutional, legal, social and economic requirements for establishing and maintaining democratic systems of representative government. They were both certain that it would require a great deal of hard work to foster societies that were both liberal and democratic. Mill and Madison were not alone in recognising and warning of the threat that poorly educated electors, tyrannous majorities and demagogues posed to individual liberties and to the integrity and longevity of democratic institutions.
Liberal democracy calls for much more than a majoritarian electoral system. Liberal enthusiasm for self-determination can only be reconciled with support for a system of elections and government driven by the will of the people if there are limits to what can be done in their name - and it is vital that these limits are clear to all. A written constitution and a system of common law and/or precedent that entrenches individual rights are key features in virtually all versions of liberal democracy.
This liberal armoury, deemed essential for liberal democracy, is multi-faceted. As Madison and his fellow Federalists – framers of and propagandists for the American constitution – recognised, a clear statement of individual rights is unlikely to be sufficient to protect personal liberty. A free and democratic society needs to be supported by institutions strong enough to uphold personal liberties. Those who interpret and apply statute and common law – and whatever other statements of rights and entitlements a free society promulgates – should be separated from and unmistakeably above the partisan interests that might, from time to time, affect the judgement of elected representatives and members of the executive. A liberal democracy is a society of laws, not just of votes, that are applied consistently without fear or favour.
This framework of liberal democracy is intended to impede all attempts to concentrate power in any single part of government. The executive is answerable to and balanced by the powers accorded to the public's elected lawmakers. The legislature is required to conduct its business publicly and in ways that ensure that law-making is undertaken thoughtfully and deliberatively. Legislature and executive are held in check by an independent judiciary. Liberal democracy, in short, is defined by a system of checks and balances and also by its openness. Each branch of government is accountable, by one means or another, to 'the people', to civil society. Constitutional freedoms, the cornerstones of liberal democracy, empower citizens to speak and assemble freely and are meant to serve as a bulwark against attempts to curb basic liberty. Freedom of conscience is one amongst a number of constitutional entitlements, including the right to a fair trial and to due process, intended to give liberal democracy its special liberal character.
True democracy also depends, in the minds of liberals at least, on the viability and vitality of a liberal political culture. John Stuart Mill, an enthusiastic supporter of female emancipation and proportional representation, was an even stronger supporter of educational ideals and the universal provision of educational opportunities. He was wedded to the proposition that the health of democratic societies depended upon their ability to develop the intellectual faculties of their citizens; an educated and engaged electorate was the ultimate assurance that democratic, representative and efficient government would prosper and survive. Winning and retaining the consent of the governed, once the mass of the public was well educated and well informed, would be an intellectually exacting task. As educational opportunities grew, Mill anticipated that civil society would become better equipped to maintain a political climate in which public judgements about the great questions of the day were well informed and rational.
Advocates of liberal democracy continue to attach, as Mill did, particular importance to developing the capacity of electors to understand and participate in the public discussion of political issues. The quality and maturity of public debate in a liberal democracy is generally regarded as the key to assessing its health and durability. While there is less agreement about how far it is necessary or, indeed, possible to go in strengthening civil society in order to meet the requirements of liberal democracy, most liberal political thinkers agree that informed consent and political participation depend upon the existence of a free and diverse press, legal guarantees affording citizens unimpeded access to official information and the existence of extensive educational opportunities. The latter is deemed to be particularly important, especially so when it comes to the education of citizens in the making; most supporters of liberal democracy have come to believe that popular education should include an introduction to the values and mechanics of liberal and democratic systems of government.
Nevertheless, supporters of constitutional or liberal democracy have little option but to acknowledge that, even in those societies where educational opportunities have been developed most strongly and successfully, political equality – even of the limited kind envisaged by Madison – remains an elusive goal, primarily because of the imbalances consequent upon economic inequality.
As early as the seventeenth century, liberal writers such as John Locke identified the importance of the right to enjoy private property, which played a critical role in securing economic independence and thus the opportunities needed for self-determining citizens to develop as political beings. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Adam Smith, Richard Cobden and others extended this to the right to free exchange of goods and services unhindered by privilege, and the right of every individual to use their talents in an open economy. Economic independence and the self-determination that went with it were the hallmarks of liberal society: freedom, enterprise and democracy went together.
Liberals expected concentrations of wealth, and therefore power, to diminish in such a free society. Modern democracies, however, are very far from being equal societies: economic and social inequalities persist (indeed they have been growing, not least in polities that label themselves democracies) and powerfully influence life chances. Economic power feeds through to political power: persistent and deeply entrenched social and economic inequalities, concentrated media ownership and the privileged position of producer groups all lead to political distortions where elected representatives are more attentive to the needs of some groups than to those of others. Particularly in the United States, where the escalating costs of running election campaigns and the failure to cap campaign contributions trap politicians in an endless round of fund-raising, money clearly buys influence in the political system. While liberal democrats believe in the need to establish a 'level playing field' they also recognise just how difficult this is to achieve in societies where economic inequalities go deep. Indeed, concentrations of economic power continue to unbalance political competition in Western democracies.
Similarly, many developing countries have failed to strike the balance needed between capitalism and democracy which is required to establish liberal democracy – notably in Latin America, as pointed out by José Nun. Nun argues that Europe's capitalists accepted a compromise that enabled democratic governments to formulate citizenship rights and fabricate welfare states. By comparison, in Latin America there has often been great reluctance to accept such a political settlement. Nun's conclusion is that liberal democracy can only succeed in Latin America if the sub-continent becomes more egalitarian.
Liberal or constitutional democracy makes many assumptions about the practicability and desirability of marrying liberalism with democracy. Liberal democracy is championed, by liberals, as the best way of reconciling respect for individual rights with the political choices of majorities, of accommodating highly divergent majority and minority interests, of overcoming disagreements and moderating conflicts, and of promoting compromise and mutual understanding, facilitating or requiring peaceful arbitration and assisting in the identification of common interests.
The preservation and promotion of liberal democracy, both domestically and internationally, requires that those who are in the majority accept that they cannot always get their own way and recognise and willingly bow to the need for change. Indeed, it is the opportunities that liberal democracy affords for learning and for reform that make it the most attractive form of government available to human society, from a liberal point of view. Managing conflicts peacefully and persuading majorities that their interests are not always paramount also presents liberal democracies with the opportunity to show just what they are capable of.
The need to demonstrate the ability of democratic societies to overcome or, at the very least, reconcile differences, including those between religious and ethnic groups, has become increasingly pressing for the European Union and the United States. Both seek to promote democracy throughout the world and to make the world safer for democracies. Such goals make it especially important to strive to establish a moral and philosophical basis for mutual respect between democratic and undemocratic, liberal and illiberal states.
The need to open and sustain a true dialogue between liberal democratic states and societies, and states and peoples who did not share or accept liberal and democratic ideals, preoccupied the liberal political philosopher John Rawls towards the end of his life. In The Law of Peoples (1999) and The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (1999) Rawls explored an enduring concern for liberal democrats: how to persuade others of the good sense and necessity for toleration between states and peoples. He was motivated by a conviction that democratic and liberal societies needed not only to work together but with their erstwhile opponents in order to sponsor values that appealed to liberals and to others. Belief in public reason and a just world order are indispensable if the world is to be safe for liberal democracies and more welcoming to emergent liberal and democratic states.
Liberal thinkers, most notable amongst them Condorcet, Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill, and Liberal political leaders, among them Lord John Russell and William Ewart Gladstone, can be counted amongst those who were most instrumental and most determined to advance the cause of democratic government. All of them insisted on the importance of allying liberalism and democracy in order to build societies in which democracy was informed and secured by liberal values. All of them believed liberal values to be indispensable, not only to the realisation of democratic societies but to liberal democracy's prospects and very survival.
Though liberals put liberty first, they should be true champions of democracy in the modern world.
- Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy (Yale University Press, 2000)
- David Held, Models of Democracy (Polity Press, 3rd edn., 2006)
- Barry Holden, Understanding Liberal Democracy (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 2nd edn., 1993)
- Steven Lukes, 'Epilogue: The grand dichotomy of the twentieth century', in Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government (1859 and 1861)