Thursday, May 10, 2007

Liberals vs democracy?

Here's another of those contradictions spawned by autonomy theory.

Liberalism states that we must be self-determining to be fully human (hence "autonomous"). Therefore, the first phase of political modernism was devoted to abolishing non-contractual forms of political power. The power of kings and priests was held to be illegitimate because it did not involve an act of consent from the governed.

And so we ended up with "liberal democracy". However, there's a problem. Democracy might seem to fit in with autonomy theory as it involves a formal act of consent. But what if a democratic majority chooses goods other than the maximisation of liberal autonomy? What are liberals to do then? Do they continue to support democracy, as a political form based on consent? Or do they oppose it as bringing about outcomes which conflict with liberal first principles?

Geoff Robinson, an Australian labour historian, has discussed this quandary for liberals like himself in a recent blog post Democracy vs liberalism? He recognises that majority opinion often runs against liberal political aims. He mentions the Tampa incident of 2001 when 77% supported turning back the Tampa, a ship carrying illegal immigrants to Australia; Lipset's theory of "working-class authoritarianism" in the US; and the "populist conservatism" which has "challenged the American left in its heartlands".

So how does Robinson seek a way out of the contradiction? Does he support democracy even if this leads to non-liberal majorities? Or does he seek to preserve liberal first principles against democracy?

He takes the latter option. He reminds us that the first principle he holds to is that of autonomy (fulfilling our potential through self-government). He then writes that:

We are not obliged to support capitalist democracy when it reduces the ability of humans to fulfil their full potential. Democracy, as James Bryce noted long ago, has won support as a means to an end ... We cannot be 'all for' democracy as currently constituted.

This, though, isn't really a solution to the contradiction. It is merely an assertion of which contradictory option he prefers. After all, preserving "autonomy" from non-liberal democratic majorities means abandoning "autonomy" in terms of democratic consent as a basis for political power.


  1. I have my own doubts about the merits of democracy myself to be honest from a conservative point of view; elections become auctions rather then an expression of the national opinion.

    I guess that is dependent on the quality of the citizenry as well as the quality of the political classes. It's hard to imagine modern-day Australia being willing to make the sort of hard calls that previous generations did in two World Wars. I hope i) that I'm wrong and ii) we never have to find out.

  2. You can certainly point out the defects of democracy. The fate of Socrates is the ultimate case (although Thucydides seemed to see the attack on Syracuse as another). More recently there was the Fulham by-election, generally forgotten now, which helped to scare Stanley Baldwin off rearmament, and with it a more solid stand in foreign policy. It's Chamberlin that gets most of the blame today.

    However we are talking about people who continually complain about things as being "anti-democratic" as if this alone is enough to make them automatically invalid. This is surely an undermining counter point to their argument. It should at least give them some pause. The other problem I personally have with this is the fact that many organisations are increasingly run by the intelligentsia which is quietly (sometimes not so quiet) about the people they're supposed to represent. I've heard "Young Labor" people at University moan about "how racist some of this working class people are". Clearly they don't really identify with this demographic themselves. As with Rousseau, they identify a "popular will", but it is one that they identify with their own views.

    Democracy is therefore only legitimate when it produces the outcomes they want - it is illegitimate when it supports outcomes they don't. So a pro-republican opinion poll in the late '90's "proved" that monarchists had to fall into line, but a poll on the Tampa incident proved that democracy was only a "means to an end" and can't be the last word.

  3. I voted 'no' in the Republican Referendum.

    But we live in such a free and democratic society, that somehow I feel safer being anonymous when saying it.

    Go figure.

  4. this discussion is more than a little divorced from reality by the apparent inability to distinguish between parliamentary rule and democracy.