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Liberalism versus democracy

Published on February 8, 2010 by: in: Thought

The 20th anniversary of the events from 1989 is currently being celebrated. Poland regained its independence, and the most tangible proof of that was the implementation of democracy. The right to free election, which the Polish nation was deprived of almost all its history, identifies with freedom. A free man is one who can cast his vote in free elections and thus have a small partial impact on the public affairs in his country. In today’s world, in fact, freedom is identified with democratic governments. However, it is worth looking at the evolution of the concept of democracy, to realise that the general elections in themselves are no guarantee of human freedom. On the contrary, if democracy does not meet certain conditions, is a lethal threat to freedom.

Democracy rests on the authority of the people who are the sovereign, the ultimate disposition of the power. This is obvious that the reasonable chance of attaining the ideal consensus and the full consent of all citizens in any case is not possible. If the political system is truly democratic (and it is not “people’s democracy”), it entails a plurality of the political views, and that precludes a full consensus. As a result, democracy is not people’s rule, but its majority and here the problems begin.

Unlimited democracy, that is the unlimited majority’s rule, was practised in some of the Greek polis. Benjamin Constant, one of the most prominent liberal of all time, gave a critical and crushing judgment of their system. He did not mean at all what is now commonly perceived as the shortcomings of the Greek democracy, or exclusion from a group of people entitled to vote a number of men, women, foreigners and slaves. Constant saw the problem and the great threat to human freedom elsewhere. It was the ancient concept of the idea of individual freedom. That freedom consisted in a power of disposal of the right to take part in the discussion about public affairs, in voting and the elections. The citizen was free to the public sphere of his life, because he had political freedom, and was deriving from the benefits of democracy. However, at the same time he was completely enthralled in the private sphere of his life. It happened because the majority’s right to take any decision on the fate of all citizens, their life and death, tax burdens and responsibilities to the community, the lifestyle and moral injunctions and prohibitions, was fully unrestricted. The citizen was a slave to the congregation, which indeed he belonged to, and had a voice in it, but each time he had to submit to the arbitrary decisions of the majority. As a result, he was in the majority of the people’s rule good graces and he was not free.

Classical liberalism was born as a protest against the arbitrary power of man over man. Due to the circumstances in which it developed, a system of the absolute monarchy became its natural and first enemy. Liberals were terrified with the vision of one man, who is responsible only “to God and history”, which in a completely arbitrary way may dispose of the life and the property of his subjects. That is why liberalism has taken the challenge to present an alternative proposal for the system, based on the principle of rule, which concerned all, including the king, the law (as opposed to the rule and the whims of the ruling) and complemented with constitutionalism. It was namely the principle of strict limitation of the prerogatives of the power, so as to the king lost the opportunity to intervene legally in the private sphere of the subjects’ life. Constitutional barriers to the monarch took the form of the catalogue for the individual freedoms, which could not be affected by them.

Since the unlimited power of one man has not been acceptable, it is also not acceptable the unlimited power of people’s majority. Yet it causes the same adverse consequences and interference with the private life, makes rapes of freedom. So that victim had the right to cast his vote, since he was voted down and arbitrarily captivated? We are only dealing with the transfer of the same scope of the powers of a single tyrant, for the whole of the society. Not the arbitrary power’s administer is a problem and a threat to freedom, but its scope. A change the administer for the democratic one does not mean the better position of the individual. Constant warns: “If it is assumed that the sovereignty of the people is unlimited, a degree of the power – in human society – is created and left by chance, which is too high itself and which is evil, anywhere it will be put. (…) In a society based on national sovereignty, it is certain that any individual or class, has no right to subordinate the rest of the personal intention, but it is false that the whole of the society has the sovereignty without borders in relation to its members” Finally, “even the will of the whole nation cannot do just that is unjust.”

Constant had personal experience in the degeneration of the democracy idea in the direction of the people’s tyranny during the Jacobin revolution period. Therefore he presented an alternative vision of the individual liberty in the modern society. It was to enjoy inviolable legal safeguards for their freedom and individual liberty. At that time is no need to engage all citizens in the process of the emergence of the power, since majority of them is not interested in any way. The latter observation remains valid, while in Poland it is even confirmed by the turnout results.

The liberals of the classical period, as well as some liberals from the more conservative wing, still in the second half of the nineteenth century, pronounced against the common law of the election, or for a gradual and slow mitigation of the requirements. Two main arguments that had been put forward were related to lack of knowledge and lack of capital as factors, which disqualified a potential voter. In the first case, against the widespread illiteracy, the lack of many people skills was emphasised. Those skills were essential to understand the complex issues of the public affairs. That fear was not unfounded, which the problem of buying the votes from the lower classes and the manipulation of the results was related to. Today, it seems too many people that, thanks to the universal education and technological development and to the information world, that problem do not affect modern democracy that those concerns are passed along to the age of the nineteenth century. It is deviating from the truth Childish level of the public debate and the election campaigns, adapting to the lowest levels occurring among voters merits, is an obvious proof that there is an insufficient preparation of many of our fellow-citizens to take responsibility for political decisions.

The second problem raised by liberals 150 years ago was the issue of the assets’ lack, in other words the absence of the economic independence of many voters in the democratic conditions. Not only has it enhanced the vote buying phenomenon. First of all, the domination in numbers of voters, who suffer from a deficiency, is the way to popularise the common postulates of claim. The majority of the electorate does not think in terms of the good of the country and its future, but rather in terms of their wealth portfolio. The universal suffrage leads to properly constituted political parties, which use populist slogans, which are the supply side response to demand for the poorest electorate. Not without reason is the Thomas Babington Macaulay’s fear that universal suffrage is a tool to “plunder the rich” according to the quantitative preferences of the most voters. Both problems show clearly that the quantitative majority in the democratic conditions is not a majority of the qualitative and cannot be such one.

For this reason, ideas to get back to the principles of Greek in modern times and to introduce republican egalitarian democracies, would result in the worst dictatorships and tyranny in the human history. We would have learnt the lesson of totalitarianism a century earlier, if the concept of democracy Jean Jacques Rousseau had won. He was the one of the sworn enemies of the liberalism in history (as unreliable, in the scientific studies he was sometimes considered by the authors blinded with his beautifully sounding demands of political freedom for everyone, as one of the liberals.)

But it happened otherwise. Recent decades the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century ended with the tragic experience of World War II, this process of rapprochement between liberalism and democracy, to the point at which they merged into the one set of values and ideas. Today, when in the West we say “democracy”, we think of “liberal democracy”. The work of liberals from the various trends, so fairly conservative Alexis de Tocqueville, and inclining toward utilitarian social liberalism John Stuart Mill, was to develop the surface on which liberalism and democracy met. It happened, because that democracy was a democracy which was strongly modified and reduced in comparison with the egalitarian debauchery from the writings of Rousseau.

Strongly simplifying an interesting liberal ideological discourse in the 1840-1890, you can say that liberal democracy was the synthesis of an essential element of democracy, namely the method of the emergence of the power through the universal suffrage with the participation of all citizens and demands addressed to the monarch’s power, which were made by the classical liberalism 150 years earlier by Locke in the era of the Glorious Revolution and later by Montesquieu. An authority designated by the will of the majority of the people may be subjected to the same limitations of constitutionalism and the rule of the law, as it did in relation to the royal power. The exclusion of the arbitrariness in a democracy is a similar protection of individual liberties in the private sphere of the life. Moreover, liberal democracy broadens the scope of freedom in comparison with a constitutional monarchy, as it gives to all political freedom. Yes, but only the majority enjoys the full political freedom, because its representatives act in the line (at least in theory) with its will and according to its approved program. The minority has guaranteed the inviolability of freedom in their private lives, but also has a certain (smaller) the extent of freedom in public life as it is represented by their representatives in the form of the official opposition.

Next is a potential opportunity to reach for the fullness of the political freedom at the expense of the current majority in all subsequent elections. Mill emphasised the great importance of the presence of the opposition in the correct proportions (he considered the system of democracy with the majority acknowledged as a crooked system, slightly less democratic and libertarian than democracy applying to the proportional electoral law) and its position as a guarantor of preventing the expansion of the prerogatives of the rule. This opposition, armed with the constitutional provisions and the mechanism of the power’s separation, aims to uphold the freedom of the individual. Thus the liberal democracy is the majority rule positively limited by the rights of minorities. Lucien-Anatole Prévost-Paradol added, liberal democracy, even better suited to defend against a breach of constitutional order than the liberal monarchy. In the second one the monarch’s ambitions will always tempt him to rescind restrictions on his power and do step towards despotism, only when he feels that there is an acquiescence. The mechanism of the universal suffrage and a lot less power in terms of democracy and increasing the chances of getting rid of the government, whose leaders exhibit similar inclinations.

Paradola’s idea is correct, and recently we had a proof in our public life. Unlike most commentators disposing an idea of “IV RP” as a cheap electoral catchphrase of the one political party or just a program to fight with the corruption in the country, I thought that it applied to the period of the Kaczynski party as relevant. Their concept of the exercise of democratic power in fact differs from that represented by the earlier teams, as well as the currently ruling team. You can highlight this time in the history of the Third Polish Republic and give it a name, because the meaning of the system was qualitative different. Do you remember even as the leaders of that government pushed on to question the role of the Constitutional Court, as they reluctant related to the idea of the rule sharing? In the end, do you remember the complaint of those politicians against the “legal impossibility”? This “impossibility” was just the system limits to their power. By these barriers they could not do anything they wanted, despite the parliamentary majority. Nineteenth-century debate on the essence of the liberal democracy has become the current importance on the Vistula River in 2005-2007! Kaczynski who claimed that since he gained the support of the majority, he should have had the right to “free rule” in a democracy.

To govern in an arbitrary manner, with the omission of the rule of law, and probably a further step to undermine freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. Besides, they wanted to change the constitution and this guarantee was not simply in the new project. A few years ago in Poland we could have observe an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the liberal democracy and its salutary “impossibility” for our freedom and to replace it by a republican democracy, not at all facade, but still a system in which our fate would depend on the goodwill of the Kaczynski government. This is precisely the kind of democracy which is the greatest threat to freedom, including economic, because there is no way to conduct business if one decision of the government can change the conditions, deprive of licences or manipulate the law. Any other democracy than liberal is the way to slavery. Extolling democracy in the 20th anniversary of its launch in Poland, we must remember that it has a dark side.


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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party –

Fredrich Naumann Foundation For The Freedom
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