A primer on liberal democracy

A claimed ‘democratization’ of public debate on social media platforms has in fact been a corrosive influence, giving an impression that conspiracy theories, disinformation, and complete nonsense are somehow equivalent to facts, evidence, and reasoned argument.

In that sense social media platforms have worked to undermine liberal democracy, working to promote mob rule, the law of the jungle, and the rise of neo-fascism in the West.

Not even our politicians seem to understand, anymore, what ‘liberal democracy’ actually means.  It has never meant unrestricted rights (anarcho-libertarianism), completely unregulated private enterprise (plutocracy), or ideological subversions of individual liberties, including free speech (tyranny, theocracy).

Nor did liberal democracy spring into existence fully-formed.  It is part of a Western tradition in political letters and thought, seeking to resolve the tensions inherent in pre- and post-Enlightenment societies freeing themselves from the tyrannies of divine-right monarchies, Christian superstitions and intolerance, ideological extremism, and plutocrat attempts to secure themselves as a new aristocracy, unrestrained by law.

This primer begins with thinkers in 17th century Europe, not with classical antiquity, though ancient political thinking is reflected in the ideas of all the thinkers mentioned here.

Hobbes’ Leviathan and social contract

The 17th century treatise Leviathan was a courageous book, written in the midst of a bloody and protracted sectarian struggle between English Catholics and Protestants. In it, Thomas Hobbes proposed that men cannot be trusted to live peacefully if left to their own devices, so they need to surrender to the state (the Leviathan) their rights to act without restraint in return for protection of ‘life, limb and property’.

Thomas Hobbes painting.
The Frontispiece of Leviathan, and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Hobbes proposed a proto-secular state, not as a recognition of atheism, but as protection of all religions from each other’s extremist, predatory, and mercenary instincts. His conception was of a Christian nation, but with not one Christian sect as mandated superior to all others.

The ‘social contract’ he envisioned was of curtailed rights to steal, kill, injure, and persecute in return for state protection from the same. The state, for Hobbes, was the constitutional monarchy that Britain pioneered.

Locke and consent in social contract

A rough contemporary of Hobbes, John Locke’s conception of individuality and egotism may have prompted his theory that state power rests on the informed consent of state subjects to the various exercises of that power through elected representatives. These ideas enormously influenced the American revolutionists, their Declaration of Independence, their eventual Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Another important idea Locke championed was the separation of powers, whereby the executive (the King, now the prime minister and cabinet, or president and cabinet) should be restrained from controlling the legislature, and both from controlling the judiciary that interprets and enforces law.

John Locke painting.
John Locke (1632-1704), and the frontispiece of his two treatises on government.

Locke did not advocate specific rights, but implied strongly that the state should limit its coercive powers to preventing social disharmony or upheaval.  It is an explicit demand that the state must not command and direct people’s own chosen purposes, industry, or their intellects.

Kant and post-Enlightenment ethics

Standing outside any clear liberal democratic strand of political philosophy, but enormously influential on almost all post- Enlightenment thinkers, is moral, cognitive, æsthetic, and political German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who rejected the legitimacy of regarding human beings as instruments of a higher purpose rather than being ends in and for themselves.

Immanuel Kant painting.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

His ethical ‘categorical imperative’, about refraining from all actions not capable of being consecrated as universal laws, might be translated today as ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.  In combination with his conception of the primacy of the human for its own sake, hist principles set a persistent foundation for what we know today as egalitarianism, civil rights, and even equal opportunity.

It also underpins some contemporary misinterpretations about self-direction, finding its most extreme expression in strands of anarchism and libertarianism, which often assume that all the benefits of structured society are available after the anarchists and libertarians have dismantled all the social and political institutions that make them possible in the first place.  That tension has re-emerged as a principal threat to liberal democracy today.

Kant’s purely political thinking anticipated a modern internationalist conception of peaceful republics or federations, bound by trans-national laws, which can be seen as directly influencing the establishment of the League of Nations, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and even the federated structure of the USA and the EU.

Smith, Jefferson, Adams, and industrial capitalism

The Wealth of Nations (1776) is an often quoted, but even more often misunderstood work by the proto economist Adam Smith. Put very simply, Smith argued that if all other things are equal, a free and open market tends towards self-adjusting fairness and mutual profit for all who engage with it.

Smith assumed a law-abiding citizenry, including a market not subject to corruption and manipulation, and enterprising individuals as not motivated by criminal intents or excessive greed.

Smith had no conception of, and therefore no sympathy for, contemporary trans-national corporations, monopolies, or plutocrat economic rents, the way that some contemporary plutocrats maintain he does.  What he did argue was that his conception of the division of labour would lead to better pay and conditions for workers as well as profits for capitalists.

His conception was that men not born to aristocratic lines had a right to the benefits to be had from commercial exchanges and individual economic prowess. A pretty novel idea at the time, when absentee aristocrat landlords still held the biggest proportion of wealth by dint of extortionate rents charged to peasant farmers and artisans.

Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams paintings.
Adam Smith (1723-1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and John Adams (1735-1826).

In this context, Thomas Jefferson provided a critical counterweight to Smith’s all too optimistic conception of laissez-faire mercantilism (industrial capitalism was still at some historic remove) by cautioning about monopolies, centralized banking, and the potential for these to subvert what he considered were universal human rights. Jefferson’s vigorous stance on the legitimacy of dissent and rebellion has much in common with Thomas Paine, but might be seen as less hostile to the mercantilist capitalism of his day.

Friend, enemy, and then friend again of Jefferson, was John Adams, whose insistence on bicameral legislatures, and prescient prediction that, revolution or not, all society has classes based on wealth, has probably done much to reinforce the separation of powers already in train in Britain as a standard for Western liberal democracy.

Adams might be seen as a pragmatic champion for an economic egalitarianism.

Burke and Paine on revolutionary change

Often referred to rather inanely as ‘the father of conservatism’, Burke is as misquoted and misunderstood as Smith. First and foremost, he was a pragmatic British parliamentarian, torn between loyalty to his political patrons, and his intellectual support for the causes of the Irish and the American colonists.

His Reflections on the Revolution in France, thought by many people to this day to be an injunction against all change, was in fact no more than a caution about change so radical that it tears society apart rather than reforming its ugliest features. It should be remembered that the French Revolution did indeed seek to dismantle everything, including even changing the calendar. It should not be forgotten that for some period the Terror reigned in which no one was safe from denunciation and the guillotine. Burke’s viewpoint might be summarised today as the caution about not ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’.

Burke’s response to the French Revolution was that change might have been necessary, but never as the anarchic annihilation of all traditions and institutions. He urged cautious changes made within pre-existing liberal frameworks.  Burkean conservatism is not stasis or reaction.  He clearly wanted reforms along liberal lines, which he thought would have prevented the American revolution and the continuing colonial repression of the Irish.

Perhaps Burke’s least understood proposition about British liberal democracy was that parliamentarians were obliged by the privilege of serving to do what’s best for the whole nation (noblesse oblige), not just what is demanded of them by vocal or influential lobbyists. He would have been appalled by the notion of populist, demagogue politicians as we know them today.

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine paintings.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Thomas Paine (1737-1809).

Paine, a contemporary of Burke’s who certainly knew him, was originally a corset maker and English provincial official who came to America with the conviction that established order can and should be legitimately challenged when it does not serve the interests of the many, even if that requires radical or revolutionary action.

His political writings might have remained obscure if they had not coincided with the American revolutionary war, during which his propositions about common-sense rights perfectly aligned with the revolutionary public mood.

Paine is the counterweight to Burkean concerns about radical reforms, giving a rational account of when and how such a doctrine might fail and radical action is justified.

Bonaparte, Bismarck, and civil society

All else about Napoleon Bonaparte aside, a significant achievement often overlooked is his creation of the ‘Code civil des Français’ or Napoleonic Code, which not only removed civil employment privileges based on class, but also became a model for civil laws throughout continental Europe, and therefore a valuable counterweight to the British conception of ‘Common Law’, which relied on interpretations of custom and practice rather than black letter law.  The significance is a greater predictability about how laws might be applied before the fact.  Common law rulings are often quite unpredictable.

Napoleon Bonaparte painting, Otto von Bismarck photograph.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898).

Another continental European figure better known for power politics and military exploits, Otto von Bismarck, left another lasting legacy: the welfare state.  That is, the state as provider for the needy, replacing the informal and often corrupted network of Church charity, state punishment for poverty, and the extinguishment of liberty for those without means.

Bismarck introduced health, accident, disability, unemployment and old age pension insurance schemes that remain a prominent feature of liberal democracy, albeit that right-wing extremists in Western nations continue to question welfare-oriented wealth re-distribution, favouring instead a welfare system for the already rich through subsidies and tax concessions.

Bismarck’s ‘Kulturkampf’ (culture war) against the power of the Catholic Church might today also be seen as a concrete example of promoting a secular state to remove privilege based on religious sectarianism. That certainly applied to Bismarck’s system of selecting public servants on merit, not status or religion.

Between them, these achievements can be seen as cementing an expectation of European democracy as possessed of equitable, transparent laws and an institutionalized social conscience, which are anchor points for any notion of liberal democracy.

Mill and the tyranny of the majority

John Stuart Mill photo.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

John Stuart Mill gave us definitive statements about the tyranny of the majority as a phenomenon to be prevented in liberal democracy; this ought to be seen in the lineage of religious tolerance as much as opposition to simplistic thinking about democracy being merely majority mob rule. The concept ties in with the noblesse oblige ideas of Burke about parliamentarians having a duty to act for the good of the entire country above all else.

Mill expanded on the notion of individual liberty as a public good in itself, to be restrained only insofar as that was necessary to prevent physical or material harm to others. In addition, Mill was an early advocate of rights for women, and an opponent of slavery. Later thinkers can derive from his ideas the notion that all citizens have valuable contributions to make to their societies, if only they are permitted to do so.

Disraeli, Lincoln, and the nation state

Disraeli is mentioned because of his advocacy for protecting national economic interest against foreign competition, and of empire building as a means of not only profit and political domination, but as an idea of spreading ‘British civilization’. Coarse and prejudiced as it sounds today, it precisely correlates with post-war American foreign policy doctrine.

Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln photos.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).

Lincoln is mentioned for his steadfast view that nothing is quite so important as holding a state, a nation, or a society together against internal tensions. He emerges from history, rightly or wrongly, as an outstanding example of integrity and principle holding against self-interest and expediency.

Taken together, Disraeli and Lincoln have left an indelible imprint on Western political conceptions of the nation state and its interests articulated in economic, social, and foreign policy.

Marx, Lenin, and dissidence in democracy

The British political tradition has a great diversity of socialist and syndicalist schools, but Marx and Lenin can be seen as more nearly universal icons of the most vociferous opposition to laissez-faire or free market capitalism.

In proposing his theory of surplus value, Marx gave expression to a structured opposition to the harsh exploitation of workers under industrial capitalist models, and Lenin ran with those ideas to demonstrate to the world what could happen if such exploitation did not cease. As it turned out, Lenin’s object lesson was less to do with industrial capitalism than the last, extreme remnants of aristocratic privilege, and could be regarded as replacing bad with worse.  The counterargument has some appeal also: without the example of the USSR, mercenary robber baron capitalism elsewhere might have been far worse than it has been until now.

Karl Marx, Lenin photos.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin (1870-1924).

Between Marx and Lenin, they imprinted on liberal democratic thinking not only an ideal of social conscience, social justice, and a degree of social welfare, but also the warning that when ordinary working people are treated too shabbily in civil and economic society, the consequences can be disastrous for all concerned. Bloody revolutions do not help capitalists nearly as much as some conspiracy theorists would have us believe. Particularly not when most of the capitalists are murdered in the process, and their assets stolen.

The influence of Marx and Lenin is also still felt very directly and importantly in the liberal democratic capacity to incorporate and internalise dissenting strands of thought via the method of dialectical materialist synthesis.  That is: ‘Here is our orthodoxy, and there is the opposition to it.  Now, what do we get if we combine the best of both?’

Hayek and the liberal ideal

Mentioning Friedrich von Hayek creates the problem that his work has been misappropriated by Tory toffs, Republican buccaneers, and their analogues elsewhere in the world, to stand for an absence of civil society, abolition of the social, and for a politics stripped of all functions beyond administrative services for the accumulation of wealth.

Like Adam Smith, however, Hayek’s championship of free market capitalism was predicated on the naïve assumption that private enterprise stood aloof from criminal conspiracies, deliberate manipulations of the market by capitalists, but for equitable distribution of salary and wages somehow independent of legal compulsion to do so.  It does not.  And never will, hence the need for market regulation.

Friedrich Hayek photo.
Friedrich August von Hayek (1899-1992).

The naïve and dishonest distortion of Hayek’s neoclassical economics has become what is now known as neoliberal ideology, quite possibly because Hayek was also a political theorist, seeking to defend liberal democratic ideas from the excesses of the fascist and communist tyrannies that he witnessed in his lifetime.

Important but difficult to understand without close engagement with Hayek’s writings is a conception of social contract and individual liberty based on the free spaces in between state regulation of society and economics. Hayek suggested there exists, in those unregulated free spaces, a natural propensity for cooperative, interest-based ‘kinship’ that was profoundly resistant to manipulation and even tyrannical oppression.  Whether that’s true remains hotly debated. The evidence for the proposition is weak.

Hayek argued that spreading this central idea about liberal democratic principles, by ongoing advocacy, and by re-invigorating it where it had been extinguished, was important work for serious liberals.

The idea that believing in such principles was pointless without the will to protect, defend, and export them too is an important adjunct to Locke, Burke, Mill, Disraeli and Lincoln.

Some conclusions

There are scores of other thinkers who could be added to this primer, and the project of defining and re-defining liberal democracy has not ended.

A problem for recognizing lasting value in new ideas is that it becomes contentious the closer we are in history to the ideas being put forward, because the ideas are still being refined, discussed, and applied (or not).

Nor should we ignore that almost without exception, the ideas mentioned have relegated all people but Caucasian men to some less-than-human status, despite rhetoric to the contrary from some theorists.  Such bigotry is an inherently dangerous weakness for excluding from liberal democratic backbones all the intellects, commitments, and strengths of people who are not white men.

That said, it should be stressed this is a primer, not a thesis or argument.  Its purpose is to illustrate a lineage of thought underpinning liberal democracy, mainly to dispel the facile notion that it can mean anything anyone wants it to mean.

It should lead readers to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.


This primer was first written in 2012 to counter the deluge of social-media-transmitted political claptrap.  But most of all, to counter the astonishing ignorance of an emerging generation about their own cultural histories when making incomprehensibly stupid assertions about how their baseless assertions should be accorded equal weight with facts, evidence, and rational argument.

It is resurrected here, in edited form, because the corruptions of political process by politicians in Australia, Britain, and the USA, solely lacking integrity and ethics, have reached even greater heights than the wildest speculations had us contemplate just ten years ago. I welcome any constructive comments to broaden and improve the primer.

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