Liberalism v. Democracy, Round 1

Sure, everyone wants both. But throughout most of human history, you’d have been fortunate to have one or the other. And forced to choose, many prefer the security of liberalism to the dignity of democracy.

Not to be accused of splitting hairs, we can agree that, for certain purposes, democracy is an indispensable part of modern-day liberalism. But each tradition – liberalism and democracy – has its own independent history. For the purposes of this essay, when we use the term “liberalism”, we mean procedural fairness: that cops and courts are neutral in their application of the laws, and specifically that property rights are sacrosanct. This form of liberalism does not encompass the right to vote, which of course is the sine qua non of democracy. One must however recognize that rights of speech, assembly and petitioning the government are not guaranteed by democracy, but by liberalism! Majorities, after all, like nothing more than to illegalize the speech, gathering and petitioning of minorities, as occurred in the US during the McCarthy era, e.g., and in every other democracy at some or another time.

The fact is, an illiberal democracy isnt a very fun place to be. Saying the wrong thing in Classical Athens, Revolutionary France, or modern-day Egypt could get you killed. 4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank can tell you first hand what it means to be a disenfranchised minority in a democracy whose majority has enshrined into law imperialism, colonialism and apartheid. More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans could have pointed out the shortcomings of democracy from their WWII internment camps – as could millions of slaves in the antebellum American South.

Meanwhile, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Colonial America and England were, for many years, liberal dictatorships, and pleasant places to live and work. Talk to a few Syrians about life under Assad, before the civil war, and they’ll tell you that as long as you didnt spout off on politics, life was peaceful and predictable. You went off to work, you came home to family; the streets were safe; the crazies with bad hair and weird beards were few and far between.

It’s not that the right to vote isnt precious – but rather that the right to live your life and be left alone is no less precious. We tend to make a fuss over democracy wherever it flowers – to be too often reminded that it doesnt always smell sweet. Liberalism, distinct from democracy, also deserves its due. A liberal government, democratic or not, guarantees procedural fairness – what Americans call “due process” and the Brits have called “the law of the land” since 1215. You may not get to vote, and printing op-eds can put you in the clink – but if you have a contractual dispute, you can rely on the courts for a fair adjudication. If you pay your taxes, you dont have to worry about the state taking your home away. Many countries have grown rich and prosperous in the absence of democratic processes, because they were fortunate to have a liberal leadership that understood the economic importance of respecting and upholding property rights.

By contrast, democracies can be excruciatingly illiberal. Today across the American south, majorities, if they had their way, would pack minority children into separate, inferior schools, if only to teach them how 6000 years ago, Jesus and His Angels buried faux dinosaur bones to confuse archaeologists. They’d deny rights to gays and women, while stripping away numerous rights of the accused. One American political party, whose sole objective was the perpetuation of segregation, revealingly called itself “The States’ Rights Party.” Their protest, in the end, was that of a majority, frustrated by Constitutional limitations on what majorities are allowed to do. Liberalism, after all, is what protects us from democracy run amok.

The Field Guide resumes this line on Monday, exploring the sometimes competing traditions of liberalism and democracy, and how tension between the two informs US foreign policy today.
















One comment

  1. billbuchman

    Dear Carlton…I think you’ve got a problem here which must be explored pretty thoroughly before you go further on this line. *Liberalism* is not a uniform term. It is defined quite differently in Europe and the US and and even in different countries within Europe and no doubt elsewhere in the world as well. In the US it mainly has to do with poltical stances and ideals whereas in Europe it refers to economic ones . I will be interested to know what you find out through exploring this terninological tangle.

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