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  • Democracy and Liberty: the Cultural Connection
  • Russell Bova (bio)

A close association between democracy and liberty has long been taken for granted. At least a minimal package of human freedoms, including rights of association, opposition, and free speech and expression, is in fact required if democratic institutions such as elections are to be meaningful. Most definitions of the term “democracy” include reference to such freedoms. Moreover, democracy is presumed to foster basic human liberties and freedoms to a degree that is unmatched by authoritarian regimes. Democratic checks on rulers make it much more difficult for them to abuse their power or oppress their subjects, and they provide the opportunity for citizens to act to expand the range of rights to which they are entitled. It is, in fact, this connection between democracy, on the one hand, and human rights and liberties, on the other, that constitutes the most powerful argument in favor of democratic government.

It is against the backdrop of this conventional thinking that Adrian Karatnycky, in a recent edition of Freedom House’s annual global survey of political freedom, identified a paradox of the early 1990s. Specifically, he observed that while the number of democracies continued to grow, the state of freedom in the world was deteriorating. 1 His explanation for this troubling trend was that some democracies were facing acute economic, political, or social problems that were serving to undermine human rights and liberties. Such difficulties can certainly limit the quantity and quality of freedom that even a democratically constituted government can provide. Yet there is another possible explanation for the paradox: the close relationship observed between democracy and liberty may be contingent on culture. [End Page 112]

The definition of democracy adopted in this essay is a minimalist, procedural one rooted in the notion, originally put forth by Joseph Schumpeter, that democracy is a method or process of selecting rulers and, at least indirectly, policies. More specifically, to be considered democratic a political system must, at a minimum, meet two criteria: 1) the criterion of participation, which assumes that all adult members of the political community have the right to participate in the political process, most importantly in the process of electing public officials; and 2) the criterion of contestation, which assumes that significant political decision makers are elected via competition among multiple candidates and parties that allows for some meaningful degree of voter choice. To the extent that part of the adult population is excluded from participation or that individuals or parties are prevented from competing fairly for public support, the quality of democracy may be said to suffer.

While democracy has to do with the selection of rulers or policies, liberty refers to the freedom to engage in certain behaviors or to hold and express views without governmental interference. For example, the freedom to travel, to practice one’s religious faith, to look at pornography, and to buy and own property are measures of liberty rather than democracy. The bulk of what are commonly referred to as human rights involve precisely such questions of liberty. To some extent, of course, all governments limit individual liberties. They differ, however, in the amount of residual space left open for individuals to occupy free from governmental constraint.

A Complex Relationship

Both in theory and in practice, the relationship between democracy and liberty is a complex one that has spawned a certain degree of confusion among scholars. On the one hand, liberty is sometimes treated as a consequence of democracy; democratic governments, though varying among themselves in level of respect for human rights, are assumed to do a better job of protecting those rights than do their authoritarian counterparts. 2 On the other hand, liberty is frequently treated as a precondition of democracy, to the point that most scholars include civil and political liberties as a third element (beyond participation and contestation) of the definition of democracy itself.

To some extent, expanding the definition of democracy in this fashion seems reasonable. Absent at least a minimal package of civil liberties involving various freedoms of association and expression, what Larry Diamond has labeled “electoral democracy” may, in fact, prove to be quite hollow. 3 Yet an overly demanding definition...

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pp. 112-126
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