What is Liberal Democracy?

Athenian Demo
A depiction of Athenian Democracy.

The term democracy comes from the Greek demokratia, literally meaning “rule by people”. The origins of democracy can be traced back to Ancient Athens. Athenian Democracy was direct in its nature. It had two key features that defined its fundamental operation:

  1. Officials were randomly selected from among the citizens.
  2. A legislature that was made up of all citizens.

This meant that ‘rule by the people’ was really quite literal. All eligible citizens (women were not included) could speak, debate and vote on the laws which governed them. This means that the democracy practiced in Ancient Athens would be largely unrecognisable in western democracies today.

Of Leviathan and lockdowns – POLITICO
Hobbes highlighted the positive benefits of a Leviathan.

However, democracy in its Athenian form did not spread across the known world. Indeed, by 300BC democracy had died in Athens itself. In Western Europe, democracy did not exist in any form before the 18th century. Instead, Europe was ruled by the nobility, with Kings and Emperors usually chosen through a system of primogeniture. Some philosophers argued that this was the only reasonable way that society could be run. The most famous of these is Thomas Hobbes who in 1651 published the book Leviathan. Hobbes believed that the fundamental state of nature was one of anarchy in which the dominant force would be that of violence. In this Hobbesian state, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Therefore, Hobbes argued that there had to be a strong leader (a Leviathan) in order to bring stability. For Hobbes, this leviathan required the submission of their subjects because if it weren’t for their position and power, their subjects would be living pitiful lives in an anarchical world.

John Locke - Biography, Beliefs & Philosophy - HISTORY
John Locke was a key Liberal thinker.

This view began to be challenged with the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Enlightenment philosophers challenged the hierarchical structure of western societies and argued that all humans were capable of rational thought and that the Hobbesian state was not the natural state of society. Key proponents of Liberalism included John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They sought to combat the entrenched hierarchy in society that protected hereditary privileges of the few at the expense of the majority. Liberals, like Locke, argued that the legitimacy of any government came from the consent of those that they governed. This notion found its way into the founding documents of western states:

” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”

The US Declaration of Independence – 4th July 1776

“Neither nobility, nor peerage, nor hereditary distinctions, nor distinctions of orders, nor feudal regime, nor patrimonial courts, nor any titles, denominations, or prerogatives derived therefrom, nor any order of knighthood, nor any corporations or decorations requiring proofs of nobility or implying distinctions of birth, nor any superiority other than that of public functionaries in the performance of their duties any longer exists.”

From the French Constitution – 3rd September 1791

Over time, and certainly by the late 19th century, this conception of ‘consent of the governed’ had evolved into that of elected representation – which is now the hallmark of all liberal democracies.

Edmund Burke - Wikipedia
The Trustee Model is also named the ‘Burkean Model’ after Edmund Burke.

Liberal Democracy is representative, rather than direct, in its nature. Representatives are chosen via elections to represent constituencies of citizens. This representation usually takes place under a ‘trustee model’. This means that constituents entrust their representatives to act on behalf of the constituency. As such, a representative will not always vote in the way that each individual in their constituency might want – but hopefully will act in a way that the majority, or plurality, of voters might hope. The Trustee Model was most famously summed up by Edmund Burke in 1774 when he spoke to his constituents in Bristol:  

“[an MP] owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Despite the common meaning of democracy, liberal democracy is much more than simply allowing citizens to vote. There are number of other features that are central to the idea of liberal democracy:

Constitution of the United States - Wikipedia
The US Constitution is codified.
  • The existence of a constitution in some form

A constitution is a set of rules that outlines how a system of government runs. Most constitutions are codified, meaning they are largely written down in a single document. However, others, like Britain’s, are uncodified and made up from a number of different sources.

  • The importance of the Rule of Law

The Rule of Law is a complex idea, but at its most basic level it means a society in which everyone is treated equally and is subject to the established rules of the state. The British constitutional scholar AV Dicey said there were three elements to the Rule of Law:

  1. The government is limited by established laws.
  2. Everyone is equal under the law.
  3. The law must be administered by an independent judiciary (courts system).
  • The existence of political parties and acceptance of plurality

Political parties did not emerge by design in most liberal democracies. For example, the US Constitution of 1787 does not mention political parties at all. However, political parties have emerged as a way to represent the variety of groups and issues that can be found in a state. The acceptance of a variety of views is known as plurality.

  • The expectation of the protection of rights
Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Wikipedia
The UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) founded the modern notion of universal and inalienable human rights.

All liberal democracies place a value on civil liberties and the rights of citizens. Some of these ideas had long pre-dated democracy. Most famously, the Magna Carta (1215) established the right of Habeas Corpus – the right not to be detained without a lawful reason. Over time, civil liberties developed into a conception of universal human rights that need to be protected universally. In 1998 the Human Rights Act codified human rights into British law.

  • Universal or comprehensive suffrage and free and fair elections

Universal suffrage was achieved in Britain in 1928 with the Representation of the Peoples Act. The concept of universal suffrage (that every adult can vote) is now central to liberal democracy. The notion that elections should be free and fair are essential to liberal democracy.

  • Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression is central to Liberal Democracies. The US Bill of Rights of 1792 places freedom of expression as its very first protected right. This right applies to criticism of the government and is a key difference between liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes.

  • Limited Government
The French thinker De Montesquieu codified the importance of ‘separation of powers’.

The notion that the government should be limited is central to liberal democracy. This is achieved in many ways, for instance through the imposition of separation of powers and checks and balances. In Britain, it is fundamentally achieved by the fact that the government only retains its position with the support of Parliament and can be removed at any time through a ‘motion of no confidence’.

A good way to consider the nature of liberal democracy is to consider those countries that call themselves democracies, but lack many of the prerequisites of being a liberal democracy. The most obvious of these is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). This is a state which:

  • The Supreme Leader has complete power.
  • Private Ownership is heavily restricted.
  • The media is heavily censored.
  • Dissidents are imprisoned or killed.

However, it is not just dictatorships that can be classed as illiberal. Another good example currently is Hungary – a member of the European Union (that only allows democracy to join). Under the current President Victor Orban there are significant question marks about issues like LGBT+ rights, press freedoms and has increased his power as President. Amendments to the constitution have included limits placed on the constitutional court. The Freedom House, an organisation that audits liberal democracy around the world, have given the following score to Hungary:

The Freedom House 2021

The Full Hungary Freedom House report can be found here. It shows that Liberal Democracy is not guaranteed, it can be chipped away at, and those who hold there values dear need to be vigilant about them.

Key Terms

Liberal Democracy – The type of democracy practiced in the western world which prioritises social and political rights for all citizens.

Illiberal – A state which is opposed to liberal values.

Athenian Democracy – A form of direct democracy practiced in the city state of Athens that developed around the 5th Century BCE.

Trustee/Burkean Model – A model of representative democracy whereby an MP votes according to his beliefs or conscience.

Pluralism – The acceptance of range of views within society.

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