Is the Notion of Liberal Democracy inherently contradictory?

The notion of liberal democracy consists of two components- one, “democracy”, referring to a political process, and the other, “liberal”, referring to a political outcome. The argument that it is a contradictory notion lies in the fact that to presuppose or predefine politcal outcomes as liberal (consistent with liberal principles of individual autonomy, freedom from coercion, and equal and inherant rights) appears incompatible with the political process of democracy- under its literal definition meaning “rule of the people”. There is no apparant reason why the “rule of the people” will necessarily produce a society which is liberal. Might the people not instead choose illiberal political outcomes? Indeed, empirical analysis of political systems around the world suggests that illiberal democracy is the reality of many of them. However, an examination of some of the prominent theories of democracy reveals common liberalist themes running through the various definitions of, and justifications for, democracy. Theories of democracy as a system of balance are those that come closest to recognising the potential contradiction in the notion of liberal democracy- arguing that democratic rule must be underpinned by constitutionally protected bodies of rights in order to ensure desirable political outcomes. Clearly, understandings of the notion of democracy itself are crucial to the question of whether liberal democracy is a contradictory notion. Another crucial question is how the notion is used. If used as a descriptive term, it would appear entirely valid- many political systems may reasonably be described as liberal democracies. If however the notion is used prescriptively, at once prescribing a political outcome (liberalism),  and a political process by which the “people” decide outcomes, the inherant contradiction is more clear.

Zakaria’s 1997 article The Rise Of Illiberal Democracy highlighted a significant trend evident during the widespread processes of democratisation which had swept the world over the previous half century. In many cases democratisation of political sytems had not been accompanied by liberalisation of those societies. Freedom House’s most recent Freedom In The World survey (2011), which identified 115 “electoral democracies” but classified less than 80 states as “free” based on the civil liberties offered to their populations, suggests this remains the case. So, whilst in the West democracy has long been held to equate to liberal democracy, in much of the rest of the world the relationship between democracy and liberal outcomes appears far less certain.

Nevertheless, many democratic political sytems can, as Freedom House’s survey attests, reasonably be described as liberal democracies. Democracy in itself is of course a complex notion, but an analysis of several prominent democratic theories would suggest that liberalist themes run central to the conceptualisation of, and functioning of, democracy. Central to Dahl’s theory of democracy are key liberal assumptions such as that of “intrinsic equality” and of “personal autonomy”. Freedom- both to compete for, and to choose government- is at the core of Schumpeter’s theory of democracy as competition. And the model of a consolidated democracy which Linz and Stepan develop broadly resembles a liberal society- with autonomy in civil, political and economic society, supported by the rule of law, identified as vital ingredients of a consolidated democracy. On the basis of these theories there would appear to be a close association, rather than a contradiction, between the principles of liberalism and the democratic process. It could then perhap be argued that “illiberal democracies” represent flawed democracies, rather than instances where illiberal outcomes are the legitimate product of democratic processes.

Theories of democracy as a system of balance come closest to acknowledging the contradiction between a preference for the “rule of the people” and the desirability of liberal political outcomes. The primary representation of such theories in action is in the design of the US political system- a system of checks and balances designed to limit power, central to which is the existence of a comprehensive body of individual rights which is constitutionally protected so as to ensure that liberal political outcomes are not jeopardised by majority rule or the actions of political elites. The question is, does this system represent “democracy” or is it in fact the embodiment of liberal democracy’s inherant contradiction, in that to ensure the “rule of the people” produces liberal outcomes the “rule of the people” is restricted so that they are not actually fully in control of political outcomes?

Whether liberal democracy is an inherantly contradictory notion or not appears therefore to rest on how exactly democracy is defined. If it is accepted that, as in the US political system, democracy is a political process underpinned by a constitutional body of rights, then there is nothing contradictory about the notion of liberal democracy. In fact, if the constitution is a liberal one, then democracy is liberal democracy. However, if on the other hand democracy is conceived solely as a process by which the people govern, or choose their government, then the answer is rather different. Then, if the notion of liberal democracy is, as is common in the contemporary world’s ideological climate, used as a prescriptive term- to prescribe the form a political system should take- then it is inherantly contradictory, as it entails prescribing a political process by which people rule whilst at the same time prescribing the outcomes which are available to them (liberalism). But, as a descriptive term, the notion has more legitimacy- as there are many political systems which may fairly uncontroversially described as liberal democracies. Where the danger, and the contradiction, lies is in the assumption that all democracies equate to liberal democracies. As we have seen, this is far from clear.

It is then difficult to give a concise answer as to whether the notion of liberal democracy is inherantly contradictory or not. From one point of view, the contradiction is clear. “Democracy” refers to a political process by which the “people” are able to rule, yet the “liberal” component of the notion refers to a political outcome, thus dictating the outcome of the supposedly “democratic” process. The existence of “illiberal democracies” would appear to demonstrate that if allowed to rule, the people may just as readily choose illiberal political outcomes. On the other hand, examination of prominent theretical analyses of democracy reveals close associations between democratic theory and liberal principles of autonomy, equality and individual rights. Significantly though, theories of democracy as a system of balance recognise that unconstrained democratic processes can produce illiberal outcomes, and prescribe a constitution underpinning those processes in order to ensure desirable (liberal) outcomes. The question is whether such a system can truly be considered democracy, or if it restricts the democratic process to the extent that it is compromised. Given the complexities of these issues, it is clear that caution should be exercised in the use of the notion of liberal democracy. As a description of an empirical reality it has much validity. As a prescriptive term on the other hand, whether it is inherantly contradictory depends on what assumptions are made on the nature of democracy itself.


3 thoughts on “Is the Notion of Liberal Democracy inherently contradictory?

  1. Sharat says:

    Andreas I have returned to your site quite frequently. Actually you have been a sort of godsend, because I find the writing of essays extremely difficult and it has been such a help to see how you have constructed yours.

    Having covered the material, I see now how important the so called tyranny of the majority is to answering this question and my previous comment was quite ignorant. I am however now not sure how relevant a discussion of illiberal democracy is to this question though. I am trying to formulate my own response now. whilst I accept there is no guarantee that democracy must be consolidated or liberal in nature, I am not sure what that facts adds to a discussion on the contradictory nature of the terms liberal and democracy, and resulting contradiction in terms that arises when you put both together.

    I don’t have a lot in my essay beyond the idea that personal freedom and majority rule tends to conflict with one another, and am looking for more to add. I have no problem with entering into a discussion on whether democracy must also be liberal because it is interesting but I am not sure how relevant it is. Perhaps it can be discussed as a logical extension of the contradiction. because it is contradictory many democracies simply choose to be illiberal instead, deferring to the majority and ignoring minority rights. Liberal democracy is something that needs to be worked at, in fact building of institutions and enforcement requires sustained effort and many regimes are not interested.

  2. Sharat says:

    Good answer, Im also not sure how relevant tyranny of majority is to a discussion liberal democracy (though I am only looking at this question from a comparative politics chapter one perspective). That is if you are citing Zakaria’s discussion on Illiberal democracy. What he is saying is everyone’s personal freedoms are not respected in an illiberal democracy, not just those of the minority, which lies in sharp contrast to a liberal democracy where such things as property rights etc form the bedrock of society regardless of minority status. Though of course those rights in theory can be infringed upon by the majority resulting in the so called tyranny. Not having done the reading or started the unit, I think my response would qualify and centre on a successful liberal democracy as counter to Zakaria’s illiberal democracy, and in such a democracy, personal freedoms regardless of status would as much as is possible be respected and I would not use examples where majority’s routinely oppress minorities, perhaps such democracies it could be argued are only partial and not fully consolidated (though that is debatable).

    Not having done the reading or the chapter, I would focus on contradictions of liberalism, It favours personal freedoms but in order to guarantee those freedoms requires strong interventionist institutions. Often liberalism itself provides contradictory policy responses. If I were writing this essay I think I would focus on internal contradictions of liberal democracy. I think to much time was spent defining the terms, though I appreciate my opinion could be one based on illiteracy and naivety.

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