Democracies are often called liberal democracies. So what is a liberal democracy and why might it be the best way of government? There are no easy answers to these questions nor is there agreement on these matters. Liberalism emphasises the value of individuals while democracy is rule by majority. These two principles can be at odds.
Liberal democracies have elections between multiple political parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life, an open society, a market economy with private property, the protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for everyone.1
Liberals believe that individuals and social groups have conflicts of interest. The social order must deal with these conflicts and resolve them in a peaceful manner. To achieve such a feat, all parties must be reasonable and there should be a balance of powers. No party should be able to force its will upon others.2 It is an important reason why liberals stress the importance of individual rights.
Democracy means that government decisions require the consent of the majority of the citizens. In most cases the citizens elect a parliament that does the decision making for them. Sometimes citizens can vote for individual proposals in referendums. In reality many democratic countries aren’t fully democratic because not all government decisions are supported by a majority of the citizens.
Liberal democracy is based on a social contract, which is an agreement amongst the members of society to cooperate for mutual benefits. For instance, labourers may accept capitalism if they get a share of prosperity. That deal turned out to be more attractive than state ownership of the means of production.
Liberalism has two principles that can be at odds, namely non-interference with people’s lives and realising everyone’s potential. In this vein there are two branches of liberalism:
- Economic liberalism promotes freedom of the markets as well as free trade and claims that the state should be of minimal size and not interfere with people’s lives.
- Social liberalism claims that the state should help to realise the potential of people by promoting their freedom to make choices, which includes ending poverty.
Each liberal democracy more or less embraces these values. Liberal democracies come with a market economy and respect for the rights of individual citizens. Governments interfere with the lives of people and try to promote their happiness and to realise their potential. The conflicting nature of both principles makes liberal democracies differ with regard to freedom of markets and government interference.
In the United States liberalism has a different meaning. There it is another word for social liberalism or democratic socialism. In Europe the definition of liberalism is broader and this is also the definition used here. In the 17th century liberal ideas began to emerge in what is called the European Enlightenment. Around the year 1700 the philosopher John Locke came up with the following basic principles for a liberal state:
- a social contract in which citizens accept the authority of the state in exchange for the protection of their rights and property and maintaining the social order;
- consent of the governed, which means that state power is only justified when the people agree;
- separation of church and state, which means that the state doesn’t favour a specific religion and does not require a religious justification.3
Is it the best form of government?
Liberal democracy is part of the European cultural heritage. Proponents claim that it is the best form of government. These universalist claims are sometimes contested on the ground that they are a form of western cultural imperialism. Another argument is that there is no guarantee that liberal democracy leads to better decisions. From a religious perspective people argue that our Creator may prefer a different kind of social order and government, possibly even a theocracy.
The argument in favour of the universalist claims is that liberal democracy emerged out of a historical process that took centuries in which rational arguments played a decisive role. The European Enlightenment challenged existing practices in government on the basis of reason. Ideas that emerged out of the European Enlightenment were tried out in different ways and refined further. Europeans also invested heavily in educating their citizens. This produced a culture of reason and compromise as well as a massive body of practical experience and best practises.
There is also no guarantee that other forms of government lead to better decisions. In an open society better information can be available so well-educated citizens in a culture of reason and compromise may make better decisions. There are a few democracies that live up to these expectations so it can work out that way. And we may not be able to determine what kind of order God desires. If our Creator is all-powerful then the emergence and spread of liberal democracy may not be God’s plan.
One of the biggest problems facing liberal democracy is high expectations. Liberal democracy itself does not guarantee a reliable government that is both efficient and effective nor does it ensure a flourishing economy. This has led to disappointments. A failed and corrupt government can’t simply be turned into a success by allowing elections. Liberal democracy works best with a well-educated population in a culture of reason and compromise that doesn’t allow for corruption and abuse of power.
On the moral front there are a few issues too. Liberal democracy promises equal treatment for all people. In reality people aren’t treated equal nor do they have equal opportunities. There is discrimination based on ethnicity, gender or sexual preferences. And poor people have fewer opportunities than rich people. Still, the goal of equal treatment and equal opportunities can be something to strive for. It may be better to aim for such goals and fail from time to time than not having these goals at all.
If liberalism promotes tolerance then how to deal to intolerant people? Should their intolerance be tolerated? If people do not accept liberal values, should they be educated or should these values be imposed? And are free markets the best way of organising the economy or is government involvement advised? If the economy is served by stability, should dissent that causes instability be suppressed? An excessive or unnecessary use of force can undermine the foundation of liberal democracy as liberal democracy is based on reason and convincing people by argument. And indeed it is possible that liberal democracy can be overturned.
The preconditions for liberalism had already emerged in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. There was a larger degree of individualism than elsewhere. Liberalism itself emerged during the sixteenth century. At the time Europe was ravaged by devastating religious wars. After several decades of warfare Europeans grew tired of the conflict and began to tolerate religious differences. Some catholic countries accepted protestant minorities while many protestant countries accepted catholic minorities. Germany was almost equally divided. At the time Germany consisted of small states that had either protestant or catholic rulers.
This religious tolerance was at first more or less an uneasy truce. No party had been able to gain the upper hand. Religious minorities at first didn’t receive equal rights. They were only tolerated. Over time the case for religious tolerance became more widely accepted. It was based on two major arguments.
- The argument of ignorance which states that only God knows who is on the right path and who is doomed so humans shouldn’t judge others.
- The argument of perversity which states that cruelty is at odds with Christian values and that religious persecution strengthens the resolve of the persecuted.1
The concept of tolerance expanded into a general concern for the rights of individual citizens. In the 17th century liberal ideas were spreading. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England limited the power of the king. The rights of individuals were written down in the Bill of Rights. Parliament became the most powerful political institution based on the principle of consent of the governed. The 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States was based on liberal principles too. It states that all men are created equal and have certain unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.2
The founding fathers of the United States were also early liberals. The United States Constitution reflects this view. The aim of the United States Constitution is, amongst others, to safeguard the rights of individuals against the state. A large group of Americans believe that individual rights should prevail against democratically elected governments. The widespread support for gun ownership in the United States comes from a distrust of the state as a protector of life, liberty and possessions.
Democracy had not been a seriously considered since classical antiquity. It was believed that democracies are inherently unstable and chaotic due to the changing whims of the people.1 The violence during the French Revolution supported these views. It began as a popular uprising incited by liberal ideas but it soon turned into chaos and bloodshed. Order was restored by a despot ruler named Napoleon Bonaparte who did much to spread liberal reforms throughout Europe by ending the feudal system, emancipating religious minorities and imposing a liberal code of law. The spread of liberal ideas proved to be lasting and democracy was to follow a century later.
The Industrial Revolution started a period of accelerated and constant change that was disastrous for many who found themselves on the losing side. The ruling class changed. Nobility was replaced by a new elite of business people. The position of craftsmen was undermined by factories. And workers in factories laboured under miserable conditions for low wages. There were three major ways of confronting these changes:
- Conservatives tried to hold on the old order of community, religion and nobility.
- Socialists tried to overturn the elite of business people by giving power to workers.
- Liberals tried to manage the change, thereby implicitly supporting the order in which business people were the ruling class.
Liberalism often coincides with the interests of business people. They have possessions and some are rich. They feared that the poor might vote for handing over their possessions to the poor. Socialism became the embodiment of this fear. Liberals were at first inclined to limit the right to vote to people who pay taxes because this excluded poor people from voting. When the threat of socialism became subdued and socialists were willing to compromise, liberals came to accept democracy based on the principle of one person one vote.
In the 19th century European countries held vast colonial empires. These colonies were kept for profit. It was generally believed that the people in these colonies had to be educated before they would be able to govern themselves. The colonial era helped to modernise these countries and most Europeans at the time believed that the oppression and the economic exploitation were justified on these grounds. There were only a few dissenters, for instance the Dutch writer Multatuli.
Liberal democracy faced a few major crises like World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. World War I demonstrated that liberal democracy and free trade weren’t a guarantee for peace and stability. The Great Depression once again challenged liberal democracy as the Soviet Union remained unaffected while Nazi Germany was able to recover and achieve full employment while other countries were still struggling. And during World War II Nazi Germany overran most democratic countries in Europe.
After World War II the European colonies became independent. The Soviet Union came to dominate Eastern Europe and China became a communist country. The United States became the protector of liberal democracy but also a number of dictatorships. This era is called the Cold War and it lasted until the Soviet Union dismantled itself after allowing the peoples of Eastern Europe to make their own choices. Major challengers of liberal democracy nowadays are the one-party system in China and political Islam.
The citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan don’t like to lose their freedoms. Chinese too probably prefer freedom if they have a choice. And the Islamic State has shown Muslims all around the globe that political Islam can easily turn into a reign of terror. The foundations of liberal democracy may be strong, but a collapse of the global economy may turn be a more serious threat to liberal democracy than the alternatives. Reason can easily disappear once people become fearful of the future.
Reasons for success and limitations
The success of liberal democracy is therefore not a historical necessity. Liberal democracy might never have been invented or dictatorships could have gained the upper hand. That didn’t happen. Communist and fascist dictatorships came and went. Perhaps liberal democracy is a temporary phenomenon but we can’t know that now. Only the future can tell. There are a number of causes that might explain the strength of liberal democracy.
- Liberal democracy is based on the consent of the governed so it is has the consent of the governed by default while other forms of government do not.
- Science greatly contributes to the success of states and science is best served with an open debate that liberal democracy provides.
- The economy greatly contributes to the success of states and the economy is best served with individual rights that liberal democracy provides.
A despot ruler or a ruling party in a one-party system might have the consent of its subjects, but if not, only force remains for the ruler or the party to maintain power. Liberal democracies usually resolve such issues peacefully through elections, making liberal democracy more stable by default. Intellectual freedom is helpful to science while economic freedom is helpful for the economy, so liberal democracy can be a potent force. Only when leadership is required, liberal democracy might not always be adequate.
Liberalism has no higher moral value than the individual, which is peculiar because the individual human is an insignificant part of this universe. And individualism may be at odds with human nature as humans are social animals. Humans are not atomic beings that choose to cooperate for mutual benefit like liberalism supposes. Cooperation is part of human nature and not a choice individuals deliberately make.
It is the success in cooperation that makes a society win out. Liberalism gives a framework for living together in peace as long as all major parties are reasonable and willing to compromise. This makes larger scale cooperation possible and that can make a society successful. For instance, the United States integrated people from different cultural backgrounds, which contributed to the success of the United States as a nation.
It is said that history is written by the victors. Strength may be the reason why liberal democracy prevailed. Liberal philosophers have tried to provide a moral justification for liberal democracy or they may have opposed it or they may have tried to improve it. Liberal democracy emerged out of thought and action, experiment and failure, and it was a process that took centuries. Philosophers like Locke contributed to its success as they set out the goals people could strife for.
Apart from individualism, liberal societies lack a higher purpose. From a scientific viewpoint there is no higher purpose to this universe. The moral codes humans live by are not more than an agreement. Only when this universe is created for a purpose there is a reason for our existence. But moral individualism can be dangerous. The challenges humanity is currently facing, most notably living within the limits of this planet, most likely requires making individuals subject to a higher causes like the survival of humanity and caring for the planet.
1. Liberal democracy. Wikipedia.
2. Liberalism: The Life of an Idea. Edmund Fawcett (2015). Princeton University Press.
3. History of liberalism. Wikipedia.