4 min read

Liberalism and Democracy

Liberalism and Democracy
Photo by Fred Moon / Unsplash

Everyone is so worried about "our democracy," and any anti-democratic bent in a thinker's work is reason enough to reject them wholesale as some sort of Fascist. However, since this isn't a post on the debasement of language - a post that will come, but not today - today we're discussing a different issue: democracy and liberalism.

The left screeches regularly about popular figures, many of which are elected in "free and fair elections" and about how they are harming "democracy." One wonders - what does "democracy" in a sentence like that mean. But only those who are not tuned in to the meaning of the word "democracy" in the modern milieu wonder (again, the temptation to get into the debasement of language must be fought).

This is a case of "the woke are more correct than the right." Modern "democracy" means, specifically, liberal democracy. No version of "democracy" would be recognized as democracy in the modern world. It would be rejected as a form of oligarchy.

Democracy for the ancients was a dangerous form of government. Plato saw it as destabilizing the state and its norms, and he was obviously correct. In The Laws, Plato himself and later Aristotle and Polybius expressed a more nuanced analysis of various states. They broke up the possible regimes into three: rule by one, rule by the few and rule by the many.

They then broke that tripartite division into two: those regimes directed towards the common good and those directed towards the good of the rulers, as against the common good of the community. It's important to point out here that "common good" does not mean goods in common, necessary for the desires of each individual such as defence, roads and libraries. Common goods are goods that exist in a group as a group.

For instance, a family has common goods, leading into a larger common good. Enjoying a family dinner, the father working to support, mother cooking and taking care of the children, the children working towards their own growth and development and the sustaining of the family unit. On a broader level, the family unit is designed to create an environment that is good for all together to live in - mutual support and challenge, love and contribution.

This common good is also the good of each individual. By fulfilling his part each member of the family is a good member of the family. A good father supports his family economically and leads them emotionally and spiritually. A good mother supports her husband and educates her children. She makes her home beautiful and welcoming to her family and guests - a cornerstone of a larger community. A mother is a person, a father a person.

There is no conflict between the common good and the individual good. They are one. Man's life is made up of goods held in common with others. Literally almost no goal - even the most personal, can be private in its entirety. The final goal, communion with God and imitation of his ways, is also common in a sense, because it is the final goal of all existence: for all of us to be such, and the true zenith of existence and true imitation of God is he who leads others to that pure felicity. God himself leads others to Him, so he who emulates God must lead others to Him as well.

Back to democracy. The political unit is good only if it is directed towards the common good of the political unit in this sense, on each level of abstraction. From the local and concrete common goods to those broad and all-encompassing one. No political unit that is directed away from God can be good, because all other goods devolve into the palliation of the personal will of someone - oligarchy to the few, tyranny to the one and democracy to the many.

Oligarchy and tyranny in these senses are obviously exploitative oppression, but democracy becomes liberalism, as long as one condition is met: pure, unfettered, universal suffrage. Democracy today is defined as rule by all legitimate inhabitants of any given area (and the "legitimate" is continuously called into question). When all inhabitants of a given area strive to actualize their arbitrary desire, this is liberalism. This is its definition: the creation of a sphere in which as many individuals as possible can actualize as many desires as possible. The arbitrary desire is king.

Democracy in all other times did not mean that all individuals took part in the governing process. Athens limited this to a certain class of "citizens," and many US states began by limiting voting to landed white men. The reasons for this were not simple, unjustified discrimination, but the very clear and correct observation that only those who have truly internalized the values of a culture and truly want to support them and expand them should have a right to make decisions for it. The limits placed on voting were rules of thumb, in lieu of the ability to truly test participants.

This was an illiberal view because it understood, at least implicitly, a Good. A deeper understanding of the values of the culture. These may be truly good or false goods, and we must always discuss the measure of Good in any purported "good." Once voting becomes universal, i.e. once we reach what is currently called "democracy," the state is, by definition, liberal.

There can be no case for universal suffrage under any regime of values other than liberalism. Anyone who recognizes a good also recognizes that not all people are able to recognize this good equally simply as a fact of his existence. They, instinctively, will protect this good.

So to recapitulate: regimes can direct themselves to Good (the common good, always in discussion and open to revision) or they can direct themselves to the private good of the rulers. Under tyranny and oligarchy, the few exploit the many for their own ends, and under democracy, each citizen exploits all the others for his own private good.

Once control - or perceived control - in democracy includes all inhabitants of a given area, it is necessarily, definitionally liberal. It has become a regime directed to the private wants of each individual in the society as a whole, whether or not it can succeed at that goal. Good is thrown out the window with the decision to make voting and decision-making completely open.

Of course, this is an ideal picture, and reality is much murkier - mostly because deeply entrenched powers don't actually work through democratic processes of any definition, but that is a discussion for another day.