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Are liberalism and democracy compatible?

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 4 (940 words)
Categories: Democracy
Downloads: 46
Views: 1


The individual, its rights and freedom are the essence of liberalism. John Stuart Mill once wrote “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Liberalism is the belief that we are free to make our own mistakes, decide our own lifestyle, choose our own way of living, pursue our own thoughts and philosophies, provided we don’t infringe on other people’s freedom. It tolerates and respects differing views, and appreciates diversity as essential to social and political improvement.

Individual liberty rests on a presumption of human beings as national individuals, with the ability to promote their own interest. It tries to foster this by guaranteeing equality of opportunity within a tolerant society. Its focus is on private life rather than public life. The opening quote of this essay shows one view that liberalism and democracy are not compatible. True liberals, with their strong view of individualism, are simply incapable of electing someone to represent them, Rousseau also agreed that one person cannot represent another.

Goodwin additionally stipulated that the first incompatibility “Is that of representation”

(Goodwin, 1997:292). The incompatibilities do not rest there. “throughout most of its history, in fact, liberalism has been more concerned with protecting people from their rulers than with establishing rule by the people” (Ball and Dagger, 1995:89). Liberalism feels threatened by democracy as it sees democracy as an obstacle to freedom of the individual. Democracy, the ‘public life’, is seen to infringe on the liberals valued ‘private life’. A government capable of promoting individual freedom is also capable of oppressing individuals, a key contradiction to the ideology of liberalism.

What is also threatened is the ‘equality of opportunity’. To a certain extent democracy creates a certain amount of equality through the voting process. However this generates inequalities for those outside the political sphere, and in minority groups. Indeed some of the minority groups can vote but against the majority their ideas are not equally heard. However for a long time liberalism has displayed democratic tendencies, on the basis of basic equality among people. If the government is based on the consent of people and people are treated with equal respect then there is a basic affinity between the two ideals.

It wasn’t until the 1800s that the compatibility between the two ideologies became clear, “when Bentham and the Utilitarians began to argue that democracy gave every citizen the chance to protect his – and later her- interests” (Ball and Dagger, 1995:90). The process of the vote allows every person to say what is good for him/her, an equal chance to promote his or her interests. As a result the elected government can then promote the good of the majority. Another compatibility is the ability for liberals to hold a government accountable and consequently protecting the individuals interest.

John Stuart Mill argued that democracy encouraged widespread political participation, allowing individuals to develop their ‘intellectual and moral capacities’. Historically these two ideals have been compatible, they both oppose “autocratic forms of rule and claim to destroy old social hierarchies” (Goodwin, 1997:295) and similarly promote tolerance. Peace is an essential part of the liberal view, as they value life above everything else, presently “democracy is clearly the most promising device for peaceful conflict solution” (Goodwin, 1997:295). It is due to these similarities and compatibility that we arrive at the conception that is

liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is characterised by the rights and liberty of the individual, it is rule by the people but also protects the individual. It is rule by the majority, so far that the majority do not deprive individuals of basic civil rights. It is this liberal conception of democracy that governs much of the developed world, particularly Europe (although social democracy is also very prominent). Often when people refer to democracy, this is what they are talking about. The simple fact that liberal democracies exist is evidence in itself that the two ideals, liberalism and

democracy, are compatible. Both democracy and liberalism are very old ideas, that have remained important and practiced philosophies to the present day. Democracy is a popular idea and people of all persuasions try to identify and associate with. Liberalism too is popular and prominent in the global political scene with active liberals in most developed countries and certainly in the northern hemisphere. I have shown how the two ideas clash. The incompatibilities between the two of representation, individual freedom and equality of opportunity. And how the two threaten and undermine each others principles.

Contrary to this I have also displayed the compatibility of the two. How democracy can indeed create equality, promote the interest and good of the individual and the sharing tolerance of the two ideals. To support this I have also briefly explained how liberalism did in fact tend towards democracy at an early stage and how today the two have formed liberal democracy, where they clearly are compatible. It is my belief that liberalism and democracy are compatible, or we simply would not have successful liberal democracy. Indeed they do impinge on one another but with compromise the two compliment one another very well.In conclusion then, liberalism and democracy, despite their differences, are compatible.

Bibliography  Liberalism, John Gray, 1986, Open University Press, Milton Keynes A J P Taylor, English History 1914-1945, 1965, Oxford University Press, Oxford  Using Political Ideas, Fourth Edition, Barbara Goodwin, 1997, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, London olitical Ideologies and the democratis ideal, Terrance Ball and Richard Dagger, 1995, Harper Collins College Publishers, New York Politics and Human Nature, Ian Forbes and Steve Smith, 1983, Frances Printer Ltd, London  Modern Political Thought, Raymond Plant, 1991, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford.

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Are liberalism and democracy compatible?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/liberalism-democracy-compatible-11443-new-essay

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