A Liberal Democracy

I see that the magazine 'Prospect' now has a ‘Philosopher at Large’, Sasha Mudd, who is a Senior Research Fellow at Southampton University. This month she has written an essay entitled ‘A philosophical defence of democracy’. As she says: “around the world, liberal democracy is in trouble. Opinion polls paint a grim picture: political dysfunction amid overlapping crises has left younger generations sceptical of the value of democracy and doubtful it can deliver for them. Those rightly worried by this call for urgent reform. But just what is it that needs reforming? What, exactly, is democracy, and why should we value it?”.

A former Lord Chief Justice, the aptly named Igor Judge, who, sadly, died last month, gave a lengthy lecture last year in which he reviewed the system of government in the UK. The wheels started to come off the monarchic system in 1609 with the arrival of the new King, James 1st, the successor to Elizabeth, lately imported from Scotland. As Lord Judge said: “He told Parliament that ‘the state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth’, modestly adding that all the attributes of God agreed in the person of a King.”

That 1609 Parliament included about 100 lawyers from the Inns of Court, many rather perturbed by the new King’s approach. As a consequence, in 1610, parliament delivered a 'Petition of Grievances'. The Petition was a complaint against rule by proclamations i.e direct rule by the king. Things went from bad to worse and of course, his son, Charles 1st, lost his head over his devotion to the divine right of kings. Instead, we had a parliament to govern us which, over the centuries, gradually became more representative of the people as a whole rather than just the big land-owners of the day.

But obviously the modern equivalents of the big land-owners are back in the form of the richest of the rich, such as Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch and many others who have far more influence with governments, and so power, than the rest of us.

We often take democracy to refer to a system of representative self-government, committed to majority rule through fair elections. Joe Biden, in decrying the dangers of Trumpism, stresses just this. Democracy, he says, “means rule of the people, not rule of the monarchy, not rule of money, not rule of the mighty. Regardless of party, that means free and fair elections, respecting the outcome, win or lose.”

But it goes rather further than that. We expect to live our lives based on liberal principles, freedoms, which give us substantial individual rights and basic political equality.

But why is it that we think of liberalism and democracy as going together? We know only too well that democracies, particularly those taken prisoner by populism can be illiberal. You might have democratically elected leaders trampling on the ‘rights’ of their citizens. And we don't even need to go back to Hitler’s Germany. As modern examples, we have Recep Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán of Hungary and, until the election in October, the Polish government.

Citizens of such countries can technically enjoy the right to vote but may still find themselves unable to participate meaningfully in the democratic process with a legal system bent to the will of the governing party. This happens when elites find creative ways to thwart the will of the majority in order to benefit themselves.

But, so what? If that’s what the people vote for, then surely so be it. Dr Mudd however tells us that we can better understand the connection between liberalism and democracy by going back to the moral conception of the person that, historically, has helped to justify both. She says that at the heart of the liberal political tradition - classically associated with Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill - is the radical claim that all human beings, just by virtue of being human, are of equal moral worth, no matter the circumstances of their birth or where they are situated in society. That basic moral equality is then used to ground equal social and political rights, including the right to vote.

It therefore opposes any political system - from autocracy to hereditary monarchy - that fails to show equal respect for persons by turning morally arbitrary social differences into sources of political hierarchy and oppression. She says: “People must not be dominated or treated as mere means to others’ ends, and by the same token people have a right to participate in shaping their own destiny, rather than having one imposed upon them. Importantly, this task of democratic self-rule is a collective one. It seeks to secure everyone’s equal rights and freedoms, by means of collective decision-making.”.

But I find this unconvincing.  It relies on an assertion that morality and moral equivalence actually exist, which is itself debatable. The existence of morality is certainly a widely held view, but what people mean by it and the resulting moral codes do seem to be very variable. And its use to assert that we are all equal and deserving of equal rights is a stretch. In fact we don’t actually apply the idea fully even in the UK. Neither non-British residents, the insane, prisoners or children can vote.
Instead, many would defend the value of democracy on pragmatic grounds, based on what it delivers, be it better laws and policies, stability or greater wealth for us as a country. Amartya Sen wrote: “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press.”.  I have a feeling, however, that it’s an assertion which will be tested quite severely in the near future.

For others, liberal democratic politics promote important social habits such as tolerance and fair-dealing. In other words we support democracy because of the benefits it gives us in our way of living and what we might be able to become given the chance.

Or we might go back to the Petition of Grievance and highlight the evils that liberal democratic government helps us avoid. The US Constitution for example tells us of the great importance of protecting its citizens from the exercise of arbitrary power, and that the liberal democracy it framed, despite its faults, was the best way of doing this.

And indeed some pragmatic combination of all of these is in my view far better as a justification for a liberal democracy than any presumed moral equivalence between citizens.

But the reality is that most moral codes are to a large extent based on fairness. If we accept this, then those who justify democracy based on morality and those who support it based on pragmatism can perhaps agree. There is much research which shows that the concept of fairness is deeply rooted not only in us, but in other animals. It is an evolutionary adaptation promoting societal living. This means in turn that to ride roughshod over it will be bad for society. 

So then in thinking about the sort of democratic renewal we need today, we need to be wary of extreme inequalities of status, wealth and power. The unfairness inherent in them breeds resentment and, ultimately, hatred as between different strata of society and so an unstable society – not good for any of us. They demonstrate a lack of concern for the individual person on which a liberal democracy depends.

As Doctor Mudd says: “One of the reasons we might think that extreme economic inequality and political polarisation are undermining liberal democracies today is because of the corrosive, dehumanising attitudes they generate. At its best, liberal democracy is a shared project that seeks to build a future for all, not just for some at the expense of others.”

Self-government in a plural society is a tricky business. Unlike in America and, increasingly, here, it requires that we acknowledge not just the legitimacy of other’s views, but also the need to keep our opponents on-side. The failure to do so has led to the fractured society in America and the Brexit fissure here in the UK. Repairing our relationships is a matter of democratic necessity.

Democracy is not just a system of rules enshrined on paper. It is also a fragile pact based on respect for, or at least tolerance of, other members of our society.

Paul Buckingham

11 November 2023

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