Liberal democracy

A definition

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.

Principles

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 a mere coincidence. It may 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 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.

History

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 loose 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.

Wisdom of crowds and mass delusions

Ideally the decisions of a government are rational but the idea of rationality is abstract. In practice there are competing interests and choices to be made between them as well as unknown outcomes of proposed ideas. Despite rationality should be something to strive for rather than catering interest groups at the expense of good ideas. Sadly no form of government was ever perfectly rational as the rationality of a government tends to reflect the rationality of the people in it. This is also true for democracy.

The quality of decisions in democracies depends on how large groups of people form their opinions. In this respect there are two opposing ideas, the wisdom of crowds and mass delusions. The wisdom of crowds was first discovered in 1906 by Francis Galton. He was visiting a livestock fair where an ox was on display. Villagers were invited to guess the animal’s weight. Nearly 800 people participated in the contest. No-one guessed the weight of 1,198 pounds exactly, but the average guess of 1,197 pounds was almost perfectly right.

At least in specific cases groups of individuals on aggregate assess a situation quite good and better than nearly every individual on his or her own including experts. The average guess included the extremes on both sides. Galton was impressed. He came to believe that this was an argument in favour of democracy. One can argue from this discovery that if all views are reflected in parliament, it can result in good decisions.

The wisdom of crowds depends on individuals having different backgrounds and making their assessments independently so that they look at the issue in different ways. The more people are alike or the more they influence each other, the more they can become prone to group think so that the wisdom of the crowd disappears.1 In extreme cases this can lead to mass delusions like stock market bubbles.2

Diversity of opinions is a reasons why decision-making in democracies can be better than other forms of decision-making. Ideally, in a democracy all information is freely available to everyone. Mass delusions are a reason why democracy can fail. The greatest mass delusion humanity is suffering from currently is not dealing adequately with the limits of our planet. It is a fact that our planet can’t support our life styles for much longer. Democracies have difficulty dealing with this brutal fact.

The reason is that the required measures affect us all directly and significantly. They require considerable sacrifice, while we won’t feel the consequences of our inaction right now. Most people have a short-term bias and value the present more than the future, most notably a distant and uncertain future. And no country can take action alone as that wouldn’t make a difference. That is why people do not make the necessary changes and either ignore the facts, prepare for the worst or hope for a miracle.

1. The Wisdom of Crowds. James Surowiecki (2004). Doubleday, Anchor.
2. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Charles Mackay (1841). Richard Bentley, London.

The assembly of the canton Glarus

Swiss democracy

In the interest of the people

For a society to function, it needs a kind of order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap as traditionally governments were often a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.

Even today many governments more or less resemble crime syndicates. They are oligarchies working in the interest of those in power. Government officials often take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Switzerland, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to very corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, citizens often feel that it doesn’t work in their interest.

country-corruption-map
corruption per country (flaxen = most clean, crimson = most corrupt)

The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of the corruption in each country. Poverty is seen as a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a country suffers from corruption, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.

Main features

The Swiss have the most trust in their government.1 That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy. It should be noted that Swiss banks have been a safe haven for criminals, tax evaders and dictators all around the world. Hence a significant part of Switzerland’s wealth has been generated at the expense of the rest of humanity. For instance, Switzerland has been important for Nazi Germany’s war effort by facilitating trade with the outside world

These issues should however not cloud the evaluation of the Swiss political system. The Swiss model for democracy is unique. The Swiss combine representative democracy with direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hand, this is possible.

Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding, which means that the government must respect the outcome.2 The following types of referendums exist in Switzerland:

  • mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
  • optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
  • similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
  • citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged

Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence.

The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.

The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.

The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.

Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members.

It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.

Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.

Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.

Evaluation

Combining representative democracy with direct democracy means that the citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue when they feel that is needed.

Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.

Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this is important.

Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.

Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.

All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. Citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.

The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.

Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation between political parties as individual political parties mostly don’t have a majority so that they need to work with other parties to achieve their goals.

Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited.

Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have these restrictions. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.

Direct democracy undermines the effects of lobbying for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians in order to achieve their objectives.

In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. Hence, a decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.

Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but many are unitary states and not federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.

Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but better safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.

Conclusion

The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.

Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.

To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.

The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.

The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.

Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]

1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/ [link]