TCS Daily

Liberal, Not Democratic

By Dale Franks - September 6, 2002 12:00 AM

In the West, the concept of democracy is fetishized to an unreasonable extent. We have a tendency to elevate democracy into the sine qua non of political respectability; assuming that holding relatively free and fair elections not only assures the legitimacy of governments, but also assures that those governments will act in a responsible manner.

To hold such a belief, however, is to forget that the Western practice of modern democracy is not a first principle from which constitutional governance was derived. Indeed, the truth is quite the reverse. The ideal of constitutional governance through the limitation of government power was developed in the West during a time when Western governments were uniformly authoritarian. Democracy was the result of this philosophical movement, rather than the cause of it.

The original idea of personal liberty and democracy comes to us from the Greek city-states of the 8th-5th centuries BC. The Greek concept of freedom (eleutheria) seems to have existed nowhere else in the world at the time, and indeed, not even in Greece prior to the 8th century BC. It encompassed the freedom of speech, and the freedom to own property. It posited that each individual was a moral actor responsible to his own conscience.

The advent of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great ended the Greek experiment in freedom in the 4th century BC. But the key idea contained in the Greek concepts of freedom, democracy, and consensual government had already spread to Rome.

These concepts were often eclipsed in practice during the reigns of the Caesars. Even then, however, the idea remained that a Roman citizen, like the citizen of the Greek polis before him, was due rights and privileges that could not arbitrarily be taken away. The idea of constitutional government, with its limits to arbitrary state power, would never entirely go away in the West.

The spread of Christianity in Europe provided other important ideals to the development of Western political thought. Originally, these ideas were religious, rather than secular concepts.

First was the idea of the separation of church and state.

The New Testament makes it clear that the Christian Kingdom is not an earthly one, and separates the individual's religious responsibilities from his temporal ones, and making it clear that, except in cases where temporal and religious duties conflicted, the individual should fulfill both in good faith.

This idea was often more honored in the breach than the observance, especially after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and recognized the Pope as the chief religious authority in the empire. But even this was a departure from the historical mode of church/state relations. In ancient societies, the King was also the supreme religious authority, being either divine, or at the very least, being the personal representative of the gods. But supreme religious and political authority would never again, in the West, be contained in the same person.

Even the Renaissance popes, who were constantly meddling in the struggles of European political succession, paid lip service to the idea of separation between the political and the religious spheres. To be sure, there was much hypocrisy practiced. But the concept of church/state separation was maintained intact throughout what was then known as "Christendom."

By the 18th century, separation of church and state came to mean more than simply dividing religious and political authority into separate institutions, but rather removing entirely the interference of religion into matters of state, and vice versa. Constitutional devices that separated the governance of the people from the governance of the Church were created in states that, like Great Britain, still maintained state churches.

Next, Christianity contained the concept of individual equality before God, and the freedom of conscience to do what one understood to be right. The New Testament is replete with exhortations for each person to work out his own salvation through a personal relationship with an accessible God. This was a truly revolutionary idea as well.

Previously, access to God was strictly circumscribed. One had to go through a priestly representative, instead of having direct access to God. But with Christianity came the idea that all persons, irrespective of their station, would be judged on an individual basis, by a generally known and common standard.

This idea was quiescent throughout much of Church history, mainly by design of the Church's leadership. But, When Martin Luther used it as a central point in his arguments against papal abuses, this idea sparked the Protestant Reformation. After all, if one could have direct access to God, then why was a church hierarchy needed?

Individual equality before God became equality before the law. If men are equal before God, then, as James Madison puts it, "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." Equality before the law, therefore, was the logical consequence.

During the Enlightenment, the ideas mentioned above were crafted into the basis for the Western concept of limited constitutional governance. Individual liberty logically led to constitutional, limited government, since, if all men are free, the government must refrain from interfering with their lives, thoughts, or speech, except insofar as it is necessary to protect the freedoms of their fellow citizens. Individual equality required that government must be consensual. If there are no solons from whom the citizenry is obliged to receive guidance, then the citizens themselves must decide upon the rule of their polity. Separation of church and state implied freedom of conscience, and the existence of a polity that refrains from exercising coercion in private moral matters.

The first principle of government, therefore, was not that it was consensual, but rather that it was limited and constitutional, and that it secured the rights and liberties of its citizens in a uniform and impartial manner. Once that was agreed upon, the development of democracy followed logically. The best form of limited constitutional government is a consensual one, and the best guarantee of constitutional limits to government power are the government's regular submission to civilian audit.

Western democracy, therefore, has a long intellectual heritage of important concepts that extend far beyond the simple proposition that people should be allowed to select their own government. It is this two millennia of philosophical inquiry into the nature of personal freedom, individual rights, and limited government that makes Western liberal democracy unique. Democracy is the culmination of that heritage, not the cause of it. Indeed, the first modern democracy was created only after these ideas had begun to reach full expression in the political and philosophical climate of Enlightenment thought.

While there may be many "democracies" in the sense that their governments were selected in relatively fair, open elections, there are still very few liberal democracies today. Democracy is, after all, merely a system of government. It was chosen in the West because it best fits the philosophical framework of limited, constitutional government. But it does not, in and of itself, produce such government merely by its use.

In the West, we often make a grave mistake in assuming that, because a government decides to hold elections, it is somehow legitimized. As a result, modern authoritarian governments now clothe themselves regularly in the trappings of democratic elections. They do not, however, implement the principles of impartial, limited, constitutional government that make democracy work as it does in the West.

By limiting the freedom of the press, they prevent the public from hearing news that may reveal unpleasant facts about their government's policies. By arbitrarily locking up their opponents, they prevent the creation of a credible opposition, and send a message to the populace that opposing the government may be a dangerous course of action. In such an atmosphere, how reliable are open elections in gauging the actual wishes of the people? And why are we surprised when the election results tend conform fairly closely to the government's wishes? Indeed, in an atmosphere of restricted information and political repression, how can the citizenry even make choices that reflect their best interests?

Democracy is only one piece of the puzzle, and hardly the most important one at that. The true key to liberalizing a society is a shared commitment to limited, constitutional, and consensual government that recognizes and protects the principles of individual liberty and equality. Democracy may be an important part of such a commitment, but it is certainly not a substitute for it. Indeed, without such a commitment, democracy is all to often merely a hollow sham.



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