A primer on liberal democracy

There was, in April and May 2012, something of the character of a soft revolution in some of the Google Plus threads, with ‘running street battles’ about politics and idealism. It was a crazy time in which I spent many more hours at the keyboard than anyone really should to feed a social network.


In that time I found myself forced to repeatedly re-state some fundamental principles underpinning Western liberal democracy; it seemed that particularly, but not only, American commentators were hazy about the details of their political heritage and the origin of ideas we take for granted today. It was in that environment in which I wrote the following primer, to serve as a ‘refresher’ about who we are and where we came from.

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 Hobbes proposed that men cannot be trusted to live peacefully left to their own devices, so they need to surrender to the state (the Leviathan) their rights to harm each other in return for protection of ‘life, limb and property’.

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


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

Locke and consent in social contract

A rough contemporary of Hobbes, Locke’s conception of individuality and ego may have prompted his theory that state power rests on the informed and representative consent of state subjects. These ideas enormously influenced the American revolutionists, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Another important idea he championed was the separation of powers, whereby the executive (the King, now the PM and cabinet, or President and cabinet) should be restrained from controlling the legislature, and both from controlling the judiciary that interprets and enforces law.
Locke did not advocate specific rights, but implied strongly that the state should limit its coercive powers to preventing social disharmony or upheaval, not to directing people’s industry or intellect.

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, aesthetic 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.


His ethical categorical imperative about eschewing all actions not capable of being universal laws, which 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, sets a persistent and pervasive foundation for what we know today as civil rights and equal opportunity.

It also underpins some contemporary thinking about self-direction, finding its most extreme expression in strands of anarchism and libertarianism. These theories appear to assume the benefits of structured society without the existence of structure and might therefore be seen as not central to liberal democratic thought so much as influences in defining boundary conditions.

Kant’s purely political thinking anticipated a modern internationalist conception of republics or federations bound by trans-national laws. That conception might be seen as having directly influenced the establishment of the UN, WTO, and even the USA and EU themselves.

Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and modern capitalism

The Wealth of Nations is an often quoted, but even more often misunderstood work (a bit like the Bible or any other work used for doctrinal purposes). For the sake of this post, my focus here is on Smith’s conception 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.

What is missing from Smith’s work that modern reactionaries seem not to understand is a conception of corporations, monopolies and intricate, Byzantine strands of rent seeking and consumer regulations that make all things not even, and corrode any natural tendency towards fairness.


However, Smith should also be understood as a champion of the liberty being proposed by Hobbes and Locke, albeit extended to the Protestant work ethic and market-based capitalism. His conception was that men not born to royal 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.

In this context stripped of his high significance to America, 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, centralised 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 (see below), but might be seen as less inimical to the mercantilist capitalism of his day than was the acutely class-conscious Paine.

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 standard for Western liberal democracy.
Adams might be seen as a hard-nosed implementer of remedies for Paine’s concerns about economic class divisions.

Edmund Burke and Thomas 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 a pragmatist British parliamentarian, he was torn between support for his political patrons, and his intellectual support for the cause 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 targeted features. It should be remembered that the French Revolution did indeed dismantle everything of the pre-existing state and sought to make the world anew in an Enlightenment image, including even changing the calendar. It should not be forgotten that for some period the Terror reigned in which no one was safe, and in which the country tore itself apart. 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 revolutionary as the changes that did actually occur. He urged cautious changes made within pre-existing liberal frameworks to protect people from occurrences like the Terror, as much as make popularly mandated change possible in the first place.

Burke’s other notable contributions to British liberalism were reflections on the inextricable link and legitimacy of concepts defining liberty and justice, the refrain about evil succeeding when good men do nothing, a conception of consent by people to a social contract, and the inherent tyranny of an overly-zealous majority.

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, 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.

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 been obscure if not timed almost perfectly to coincide with the American revolutionary war, when his propositions about common sense rights perfectly chimed with 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.
Napoleon, Bismarck, and civil society
All else about Napoleon aside, a significant achievement often overlooked is his creation of the Code civil des français or Napoleonic Code, which not only restricted 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.

Another continental European figure better known for power politics and military exploits, Otto von Bismarck, whose decisiveness forged the German Empire from disparate principalities, left a much longer lasting legacy: the welfare state.

Bismarck introduced health, accident, disability, unemployment and old age pension insurance schemes that remain a feature of all but the American realisation of liberal democracy, albeit that the US is now engaged in a fierce debate precisely about those issues.

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

John Stuart Mill, and the tyranny of the majority

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 the good of the country above all else.

He also 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 after the question had been settled in Britain, but not before the American Civil War.

Disraeli, Lincoln, and the nation state

These are the odd men out in my exposition. Disraeli is mentioned because of his espousal of 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, which was mostly spectacularly successful until the collapse of the USSR.


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. Personally I also think he stands as an outstanding example of integrity and principle holding against self-interest and expediency.

Both these men, taken together, have left an indelible imprint on Western political conceptions of the nation state and its interests reflected in economic, social, and foreign policy characteristics.

Marx, Lenin, and dissidence in democracy

The British tradition has a great diversity of socialist and syndicalist schools, but I have chosen to focus on Marx and Lenin as more nearly universal symbols of the most effective opposition to the tyranny of capital.

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 would happen if such exploitation did not cease. As it turned out, Lenin’s object lesson might have been worse than what it sought to oppose, but the counterargument has some appeal also: without the example of the USSR, mercenary robber baron capitalism might have been far worse than it has been until now.


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.

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.

Hayek and the liberal ideal

Mention of Friedrich von Hayek is personal idiosyncrasy, and must be understood as very selectively focused. I mention him not so much as a proponent of the neo-classical economics of the Austrian School, but as a political thinker seeking to defend liberal democratic ideas from the excesses of the fascist and communist tyrannies that he actually witnessed as a contemporary.

In his political thought Hayek was a strong proponent of spreading liberal democratic principles by advocacy, and re-invigorating it where it had been extinguished. 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.

Equally 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 between state regulation of society and economics. It is my contention that Hayek sought to locate a natural propensity for cooperative, interest-based ‘kinship’ in those unregulated spaces that was profoundly resistant to manipulation and even tyrannical oppression.

This concept has a major bearing on my conception of contemporary liberal democracy, and of my interactions in this forum. I see both as revolving around my readiness to act to help, affirm, and protect the interests of my unknown friends in a mutual, optimistic, and positive manner.

Some conclusions

First and foremost, I conclude from my understanding of these topics that there is neither a need for, nor a great benefit arising from, a fundamental re-design of Western liberal democratic political traditions. In fact, I think ignorance of them, or deliberate subversion of their main principles, is the biggest threat to us today. Nowhere more so than in the US.


In other words, a re-affirmation of what we already know to be wisdom is probably the most indicated course of action to address the OWS concerns, the rise of working class poverty, the brutish and loud prominence of ignorant reactionaries, including Islamists, and the perilous international military adventurism of recent decades.

Perhaps most appropriate to this forum, the model for liberal democratic social and political solidarity between citizens of nation states appears to me to be entirely workable as a model driven by the users of social networks (as opposed to the technical creators or owners of the capital).

In that conception I don’t see Google or Facebook as equivalent to the state, but rather as a reluctant and fragile aristocracy that may yet need to be taught that consent is a necessary and vital feature to any social contract between them and social networkers. For our mutual benefit – not for an exclusive one.

As for us, the social networkers, I see that by advancing our separate interests and projects, we will find each other and ‘congregate’ as progressively larger groups of ‘unknown’ friends with common aspirations, hopes, dreams, conceits, weaknesses, strengths, determination, and ambitions for ourselves individually, and collectively as a civil and global online community with the potential to transcend the current restrictions on individual liberty individual states.

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