Liberalism and Democracy have a symbiotic relationship where it becomes difficult to fully understand where one ends and the other begins. A common misinterpretation of liberal democracy describes it as a representative form of government based on free and fair elections with constitutional protections for human rights. This is close to the definition Francis Fukuyama provides in writings like The End of History or Robert Dahl’s conception of polyarchy. The reason Fukuyama believed a historical end was possible was the fundamental lack of contradictions within the notion of liberal democracy.
Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s account of liberal democracy exposes an obvious contradiction. The basis of democracy is unlimited self-determination while liberalism establishes boundaries for governance. Indeed, liberalism is stretched far beyond basic human rights to include market reforms, an independent judiciary and social welfare policies. Liberalism negates the necessity for self-governance because the solution is predetermined.
But this account of liberalism fails to recognize its fundamental principle. The origins of the state according to Locke, Hobbes and even Rousseau begins with the creation of law. Natural rights, according to Locke, are established through a natural law that predates the social contract. Fukuyama (and many others) misread the social contract as a defense of human rights. On the contrary, it establishes the supremacy of law. The emphasis on law led Hobbes to absolutism. This is a natural conclusion because the ability of the Monarch to make law allows them to do as they please. For Hobbes absolutism was the necessary price for a consistent rule of law.
But Locke saw absolutism differently. Natural law established an equality under the law. For Locke positive law was supposed to reflect this fundamental equality as well. Absolutism erased this equality because the King was outside the law. Because absolutism centralized the power to create and enforce the law in a single person, the rule of law became an impossibility. The supremacy of the law depends on the subjugation of all persons and institutions to a consistent standard. This interpretation redefines liberalism as a belief in the supremacy of the law.
Democracy develops in tandem with liberalism. Sheri Berman wrote a great article where she explains how the advance of liberalism depends on greater democratization. They did not develop in isolation but were two sides of the same phenomenon. Unfortunately, the notion of self-governance is too often misinterpreted as majoritarian. It is true elections are fundamental to the modern identity of democracy. Apologies to David Van Reybrouck. But Democracy depends on a lot more than elections. Indeed, elections can marginalize the losers and centralize policy decisions into the winners of the election. The centralization of political power into elected institutions poses the same risks as Absolutism.
The rise of illiberal democracy in Hungary has shown how an elected institution like Parliament can disregard the law when they have the power to rewrite it. Self-governance does not marginalize political minorities. On the contrary, it implies the incorporation of all perspectives into the political process. Unfortunately, the resolution of the contradiction of liberal democracy leads the theorist to a paradox. The people must choose democracy. Their unbounded self-determination allows them to reject democracy as a political system. But it is not possible to choose democracy without liberalism. The absence of liberalism leads to an imbalance in institutional power. An imbalance that leads to the marginalization and isolation of some so others may increase their power and authority.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com