Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Liberty - what it's for

This is an odd one: John Angliss quotes me here and finds my argument confusing. Why – I’m not sure.

I said:
"A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state."
He asks:
"So at which point does the state become authoritarian, if not at the point of the abolition of freedom of conscience etc. etc.? Is it not perfectly possible for a party to come into Westminster and decide to abolish elections, if they have a large enough majority and popular support?"
As John isn’t the only one that finds this puzzling (see the comments under my post), perhaps there is a widespread view among the chattering classes that any country that has elections is a liberal democracy?

There’s a clue in the word ‘liberal’ here. One of the founding principles of liberal democracy is that there are rules that transcend the outcome of the election. That the winners can’t oppress minorities, that they can’t make wholesale constitutional changes in a short period of time without a convincing show of seeking the consent from a significant majority of the population. Different countries do this in different ways of course – we are getting into the pros and cons of a written constitution here – but it is often ‘two thirds majority’.

These constitutional issues are – in turn – subject to international scrutiny. In the case of the UK, membership of the EU would be at stake if particular liberties were repealed. Other countries are subject to diplomatic pressure, and so on.

But – and this is the important bit – if a party can win an election and then abolish key liberties, then it isn’t a liberal democracy and won't be accepted as such.

I thought this was widely understood, but apparently this isn’t the case.


el Tom said...

"A state is not a democracy "

The absence of the liberal there is startling. I don't think John was trying to argue that authoritarian regimes, though elected, were liberal in character, or had respect for political 'rights'. He was just claiming that they could in some circumstances be democratic.

In doing so he implicitly argues that there is a tension between liberalism and democracy, which, while I don't subscribe 100% to it, I acknowledge as a defensible point.

I saw Shami Chakrabarti on the news the other day, saying that 'democracy is not simply the will of the majority'. Of course, this has been argued for centuries.

But one has to ask in response... well, why?

What if the rights of minorites impede 'the rule of the people' expressed as a majority? And if majority rule isn't the core principle of democracy, why not run everything on the basis of supposedly widely agreed 'rights', and abandon the measurement of majorities totally?

All questions worth considering.

Bob Piper said...

I don't want to join in the debate on hamy forms of democracy you can get on a pinhead, but Paulie, you really must try to be more inclusive and less condescending to those who happen to hold a different point of view. To say that someone who disagrees with is by implication a member of the chattering classes is simply patronising. Many people would argue that the Euston Manifesto Group were a classic example of the chattering classes... but I wouldn't dream of agreeing with them.

By the way, I see you also are speaking at the e-democracy event in November... if I hang around I'll listen with interest.

Paulie said...


OK - I wrote that post in a hurry - and I'd include myself in the definition 'chattering class' so it wasn't intended as an insult. It really wasn't intended to be a patronising post (though I now see that it reads like one).

I am, though, genuinely surprised at how often this comes up - the conflation of voting with democracy.

I could probably have gone into a bit more detail about liberties and constitutions, but I had ten minutes and a train to catch.

Yes - I'll see you at the e-democracy event in November.


I didn't think John *was* arguing that authoritarian regimes were liberal. I was just a bit surprised at how he (and others) don't see how a functioning democracy is - by definition - unable to go through massive constitutional changes following one election.

I don't think that democracy *is* simply the will of the majority, and I think that this is a good thing. It is the will of a smaller group of people elected by the largest minority bloc (or in places with PR, something slightly more conclusive).

The tension between liberties and the will of the people expressed through their representatives is indeed a tension - and when MPs are increasingly mandated (in the soft forms that they are these days - long manifestos, over-observance of polling data, focus groups, etc) then this tension is increased considerably.

My preference would be to assert the rights of the representatives rather than to fetishise individual liberties. Un-mandated representatives tend to defend liberties in a more meaningful and holistic way than most 'liberal' pressure groups do.

You say... "why not run everything on the basis of supposedly widely agreed 'rights', and abandon the measurement of majorities totally?"

There are some who argue that this is where the concept of 'Network Governance' leads us in many ways. Not only are we bound by long-standing 'liberties' but we are also bound by long-standing contracts.

As a federalist and a decentraliser, I'd still like to elect people who can then change the odd law. Call me old-fashioned....