Monday, September 17, 2012

A Defense Of Liberal Democracy

Politics of the Individual

John Locke [1632-1704]: Locke, considered the Father of Classical Liberalism, writes in Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1689): "New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common."
Credit: Painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723); Painted in 1697.
Currently a
t the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Source: Wikipedia

It is a sad commentary of the state of political awareness that liberal democracy, whose ideas of government emanate from the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, need a defense, let alone an explanation, here in the West. Yet, it does. For one, liberal democracy is not the same as the Liberal Party, although the latter assuredly uses ideas drawn from the former. The words liberal, liberalism (from the Latin liberalis) and liberty all come from the Latin root liber; to be free. To be liberal means to be an individual free from restraint, chiefly from the state in its imposition of laws and religious edicts that restrict the individual from free expression, free association and free movement; for some regimes that is a bad thing, leading to chaos, civil disorder and public immorality. Such are some of the arguments put forth by opponents to liberal democracy and they need be examined. 

While various groups within the western tradition tend to argue about how much freedom is necessary— when does free speech cross the line and become hate speech?— no one would argue against the idea of liberty. The idea of liberty and liberalism is a fundamental belief of all western democracies. An important clarification is in order. There is a mistaken belief in the mass culture that individualism belongs solely to conservative or libertarian thinkers, and that calling someone "liberal" is an invective in that such individuals subscribe to statism; such is not necessarily true. For example, in many areas I am a liberal, in others conservative, and yet I agree wholeheartedly to the ideas and ideals of liberal democracy in the classical sense, which holds views contrary to the Divine Right of Kings, to the establishment of state religion and to economic protectionism.

The centrality of the individual informs much of the writings of liberalism; in fact, a great part of the European Enlightenment was centred on the need to free humans and grant them with individual rights and responsibilities, which until then was granted by "divine decree" only to monarchs. It took hundreds of years to arrive at the point we are at today where civil rights and human rights take centre stage; there is a lot of discussion on human rights and civil rights, but little real desire lately by western states to encourage its adoption by the many non-western nations. That point is worth noting; it and the reasons why this is so will be taken up in another essay.

Generally speaking, governments subscribe to either universalism or individualism. A great part of the European Enlightenment was based on the idea that free individuals who would think on their own, by using reason and their intellectual powers, would become active participants in civil society and in the political process, having distinct rights and responsibilities. Society would greatly benefit by harnessing the collective powers of individuals acting thoughtfully and morally as mature individuals, unshackled from superstition, myth and unmerited authority. (In Maslow's level of  psychological development, such an individual has reached a level of self-actualization.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent explanation, beginning with the fundamental thinking of Immanuel Kant:
Kant defines “enlightenment” as humankind's release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.” Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one's own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity's intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one's intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one's intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.
Thinking for oneself and awakening the intellectual powers can and does lead to a more fulfilled human existence. So, for the last hundred years, the centrality of the individual has defined modern society, which has led to the great and wide-ranging innovation and discovery evident in western societies. All that we now take for granted is due to a large degree to the influences of western liberal democracy. That point cannot be overemphasized; and freedom is the hallmark of the modern age. The modern man is free from any collective responsibility, apart from the associations that he willingly chooses to form. The modern man has a right to reject associations, including religious ones. Likewise, the individual has a right to join ones voluntarily and without compulsion in any way, whether explicit or implicit.

In this reasoning, the needs of the individual are placed above those of the collective, and such explains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In short, the centrality of the individual is sacred in modern thought. It also explains why so many modern novels have as their central thesis "the search for meaning."

In nations which have not undergone the European Enlightenment, which are the majority of the world's nation-states, the individual is not considered as central as the state, or collective, to the needs of civil society. In simple terms, the individual serves the needs of the state. Such describes Second Temple Judaism, feudal Christianity and the many Islamic states operating today; it also describes Marxism and Socialism. All of these systems of thought, although differing in their approaches to governing, share a common and overarching belief in the need for a central authority to govern the people.

Thus, in such societies, the role of the individual is in service of the state and to benefit its overarching ideology or religion; there is no decision on the part of the individual on whether or not he "believes" in the tenets of the faith. He has no choice about it, at least outwardly and publicly. And in return the state promises to take care of all his needs—both material and spiritual—in a "cradle to grave" way of life. For those of us born, raised and educated in the West, with its traditions of individual rights and responsibilities, with its use of reason and intellect, with its rational approaches to problem solving, such pre-modern thinking seems reactionary, if not circumscribed, restricted and authoritarian.

Yet, for many of  the persons raised in a collectivist society, the centrality of the individual is a foreign, unknown and unwanted idea; it seems "selfish" and "heretical." Yet, the need for liberty is strong and some individuals in collectivist societies, notably intellectuals with access to other ideas, want to live the liberal life; once they get a taste of individual liberty, they enjoy it. If they can, they leave the restrictions imposed by their societies, never to return. Individual liberty is that intoxicating, that freeing.

Now, I am a firm "believer" that the ideas and ideals of western liberal democracy are the best for humanity, that these represent an evolution of ideas over thousands of years. Again, what we see in nations like Canada, the United States, England, France, Israel and Germany is the incorporation of European Enlightenment thinking into the political, social and economic norms of their societies. States that have not undergone the transition to modern nation-states will find these ideas suspect and troubling. Such explains why in economic-rich nations like Russia and China, which have successfully incorporated capitalism as their economic system, there is resistance to grant more political autonomy to its citizens; it will take some time for such nations to consider the necessary reforms to their political systems to make them more open, more transparent.

In other nations like North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia, foreign ideas are considered "foreign" and likely dangerous to the rights and well-being of the ruling class; these regimes are considered authoritarian. This is not to say that such nations like Iran cannot ever become liberal democracies; they can—eventually. For example, there is a tradition of liberalism in Iran, but its citizens will need help from NGOs to draw attention to the human-rights abuses in Iran. As Shirin Ebadi, Nobel laureate (2003) and human-rights lawyer, says:
All defenders of human rights are members of a single family. When we help one another we’re stronger. It is important to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries.
Although I disagree with her on many other political matters, I agree with Ebadi on the above. Nothing more can be said other than such measures often strengthen liberal democracy everywhere. That is a good thing.


  1. I agree with most of what you say. However, Socialism is not the same thing as Marxism. John Stuart Mill was one of the people who advocated a socialist economy functioning within a free state. Israel's kibbutzim are simultaneously socialist and democratic.

    1. Your point is technically correct, but allow me a clarification. Israel's kibbutzim model came directly from socialist and Zionist thinkers; its success as an economic model, however, is questionable. As for Russia, it considered itself a part of a socialist state after the 1917 Revolution, calling itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. In Marxist economic thought, socialism is the first stage toward communism, which the leaders of the USSR admitted was never achieved.


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