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Is liberal democracy liberal enough?

By J.K. Baltzersen
web posted February 15, 2021

In his essay Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama argues that the greatest threat against "democracy" is against the liberal component of liberal democracy. In a response, Ian Bassin says the real complaints are with the democracy component.

When Fukuyama admits to, on behalf of general public discourse, the shorthand of "democracy" really meaning liberal democracy, he addresses a problem. We should be talking about democracy (pure majority rule) and liberal democracy as two different things. Unfortunately, way too many people assume an implicit modifier liberal when referring to democracy. How are we going to know what we are talking about when we are so sloppy with terms?

On the one hand, we speak of democracy almost as if it is sacred. On the other hand, we are surprised that people with reference to head count want to ease the limits on democracy – or the liberal component of liberal democracy, if you will. It should come as no surprise at all. Double-speak has its perils.

In his description of why liberalism (in a sense more related to classical liberalism than the modern American meaning of the word, although not entirely the same as classical liberalism) is under threat from the left, Fukuyama spins the story of excessive liberalism since the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. While there may be some truth to that story, it is far from the whole truth.

Government has been expanding immensely in size and reach, in spending and regulation. Reagan and Thatcher did not stop that process. As Joseph E. Capizzi notes: "The modern state is so much more vast and comprehensive than the state of the late 18th and early 19th centuries[.]" And Shadi Hamid touches on the problem as well: "[L]iberalism, with the passing of time, tends to have trouble staying minimalist and “classical.”

It is fascinating that Fukuyama apparently cannot tell the Chicago school of economics and the Austrian school of economics apart. It is particularly remarkable when discussing the financial crisis now about a dozen years ago, where monetary economics is involved, monetary economics being a field where the two schools in particular tend to be in disagreement.

Fukuyama puts the blame on said financial crisis on deregulation. It may have some of the blame, but it is far from the whole story. The Austrian school tends to draw attention to too much government and central bank intervention. To say that the financial crisis was caused by classical liberalism is at best a half-truth.

Professor Fukuyama came to my hometown just before the pandemic. Yours truly asked him from the floor after a talk of his about F.A. von Hayek on democracy and limits. In his response, Fukuyama said there are no democracies without limits. That is true. One could say that every democracy to some degree is a liberal democracy. The question is to what extent the limits are.

Liberal democracy can be said to be a compromise between liberalism and democracy. Its relative success lies in part in the liberal traditions and elements that more or less arrived before mass democracy; in part, the success lies in taking conflicts into a process of relatively peaceful resolution. Through the riots of 2020 and early 2021 we have gotten a taste of what violent conflict resolution looks like, and it does not look good. I have myself experienced an attempted coup in the city in which I happened to live at the time.

In the comprise between liberalism/liberty and democracy, however, also lies the danger that liberty may be compromised. The fear or sighting that liberalism/liberty is not sufficient in that compromise is at the basis of all opposition to or skepticism of democracy from the liberty-minded, from the likes of Hans-Hermann Hoppe to those who merely want more limits on what the majority can do.

But there's also the other end of the picture. There's the expansion of rights. Not only are there more traditional positive rights, as opposed to negative rights. It goes further. If you are a political crusader, define your crusade as a crusade for a right. If this is accepted, anyone opposed to it risks being seen as opposed to liberal democracy itself.

While this form of challenge to (liberal) democracy (the view that democracy is a threat to liberty) may not be the most dominating, it exists. It may be tempting to blame the tragic event on Capitol Hill on January 6 generally on those who represent this view of democracy. To make January 6, 2021 a form of "Reichstag fire" against the critics of democracy, so to speak. However, peaceful criticism of society is legitimate. This also goes for criticism of democracy. Sweeping the problems democracy pose for liberty under the rug, as there has been tendencies to do for decades on end, will hardly do any good. Talking about them in a civilized manner may arguably even be part of the unification President Biden has been talking about. ESR

J.K. Baltzersen writes from the capital of the Oil Kingdom of Norway. He is the editor of the book Grunnlov og frihet: turtelduer eller erkefiender? (in Norwegian and Swedish; translated title: Constitution and Liberty: Lovebirds or Archenemies?), with Cato Institute’s Johan Norberg amongst the contributors. He has spoken at FreedomFest in Las Vegas on the problems of democracy.




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