Liberalism versus Democracy

The trope that liberalism and democracy are one and the same thing often finds its way into introductory texts in political science and is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. For obvious reasons, Marxists have been rejecting this association from day one. But if we seriously look at the history of liberal political thought, we’ll see that a good number of liberals – perhaps even a majority prior to World War II – also rejected this association. For better or worse, some of the most influential liberal thinkers of the twentieth century clearly sought to disentangle liberalism as a doctrine espousing limits on political authority from democracy as a form of popular sovereignty or majority rule. Here are just a few – and I include the libertarian politician Ron Paul in this list to demonstrate how unexceptional were his comments about the American preference for liberty over democracy.

Ortega y Gasset, Spanish liberal philosopher and author of The Revolt of the Masses (1932) and Invertebrate Spain (1937):

‘Liberalism and Democracy happen to be two things which begin by having nothing to do with each other, and end by having, so far as tendencies are concerned, meanings that are mutually antagonistic. Democracy and Liberalism are two answers to two completely different questions.’

Gaetano Mosca, Italian political sociologist and author of The Ruling Class (1939):

‘The first current we shall call the liberal current. It was based on the doctrines of Montesquieu. It sought to set up a barrier against bureaucratic absolutism by means of a separation of powers.’
‘The second current is the democratic current. Its intellectual parent was Rousseau. According to this theory, the legal basis of any sort of political power must be popular sovereignty – the mandate which those who rule receive from the majority of citizens. Not only the legitimacy of governors but their worth – their ability to satisfy the interests and ideals of the masses and to lead them toward economic, intellectual and moral betternment – depends upon their genuinely applying the premise of popular sovereignty.’
Friedrich von Hayek, Austrian economist and author of The Road to Serfdom (1944), The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and Law, Legislation and Liberty: Three Volumes (1973, 1976, 1979):
‘Liberalism … is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government, whether democratic or not, whereas the dogmatic democrat knows only one limit to government – current majority opinion. The difference between the two ideals stands out most clearly if we name their opposites: for democracy it is authoritarian government; for liberalism it is totalitarianism. Neither of the two systems necessarily excludes the opposite of the other:  a democracy may well wield totalitarian powers, and it is conceivable that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles.’
Isaiah Berlin, British political philosopher and author of Two Concepts of Liberty (1958):
‘The third characteristic of this notion of liberty is of greater importance. It is that liberty in this sense is not incompatible with some kinds of autocracy, or at any rate with the absence of self-government. LIberty in this sense is principally concerned with the area of control, not with its source. Just as a democracy may, in fact, deprive the individual citizen of a great many liberties which he might have in some other form of society, so it is perfectly conceivable that a liberal minded despot would allow his subjects a large measure of personal freedom.’
‘Freedom in this sense is not, at any rate logically, connected with democracy or self-government.’
Ron Paul, United States Senator and libertarian:
‘Our nation’s founders cherished liberty, not democracy.’
What would be interesting is to try to identify when liberalism became identified with democracy in the twentieth century. I suspect it occurred after WWII as a result of developments in ’empirical’ democratic theory being pioneered by American political scientists. But that is just my guess.
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