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  • From Liberalism to Liberal Democracy
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)

Today the most liberal regimes in the world, those of the advanced Western countries, are typically referred to either as liberal democracies or, more often, simply as democracies. This reflects one of the most striking ways in which twentieth-century liberalism differs from the older liberalism that emerged in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, wherever one finds liberalism (understood as constitutional and limited government, the rule of law, and the protection of individual rights), it is almost invariably coupled with democracy (understood as the selection of government officials by universal suffrage). The converse proposition, however, has in recent decades been becoming less and less true. With the downfall since 1975 of scores of authoritarian regimes and their replacement by more or less freely elected governments, there are now many regimes that can plausibly be called democratic but not liberal. As a result, the relationship between liberalism and democracy has once again become a subject of intense intellectual and policy debate.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Fareed Zakaria’s 1997 article in Foreign Affairs on “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.”1 Zakaria emphasizes a point that had already been made by other observers more sympathetic than he to the struggles of new would-be liberal democracies in the postcommunist and developing worlds: Even among those regimes that have succeeded in holding genuinely free elections, many have compiled a poor record in terms of such criteria [End Page 121] of liberalism as the rule of law and the protection of individual rights. The more sympathetic observers tend to stress the importance of “consolidating” these new democracies, preserving their electoral achievements while strengthening their liberal features. Zakaria, however, concludes that the liberal deficit of these regimes has emerged not in spite of, but in some measure because of, their adoption of the democratic mechanism of popular elections. He thus questions the wisdom of encouraging countries to elect their rulers before the foundations of liberalism are firmly in place.

Zakaria puts heavy emphasis on the distinction between liberalism and democracy. Making it clear that he views the former as more important than the latter, he argues for the superiority of liberal autocracy over illiberal democracy. This in turn has prompted discussion of the viability of liberal autocracy (or, more generically, nondemocratic liberalism) in the contemporary world, for the only explicit twentieth-century example of liberal autocracy that Zakaria provides is Hong Kong under British colonial rule. His primary example is the constitutional monarchies of nineteenth-century Europe, which certainly did have many of the elements of liberalism in place before they adopted universal manhood suffrage. But it is also noteworthy that all of these pre-twentieth-century liberal nondemocracies have now become democratic. This raises the question of why liberal regimes have all tended to evolve in a democratic direction. Is it due merely to adventitious circumstances or extraneous factors, or is it somehow related to the intrinsic principles of liberalism? That is the issue I wish to explore.

Liberalism and Equality

Liberalism is essentially a doctrine devoted to protecting the rights of the individual to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Government is needed to protect those rights, but it can threaten them as well, so it is also essential to guard against their infringement by government. Thus liberalism entails a government that is limited by a constitution and by the rule of law. At first sight, however, there does not seem to be any reason in principle why such a government must be chosen by the people. A constitutional government of one man or of a few could rule in such a way as to protect the rights of individuals. Indeed, there is reason to fear that a government responsive to popular majorities will be tempted to violate the rights of unpopular individuals or minorities. Accordingly, many liberals in past centuries opposed the extension of the suffrage, fearing precisely such an outcome. Yet everywhere efforts to forestall the extension of the suffrage failed, and liberalism turned into liberal democracy. And far from being destroyed by its democratization, liberalism on the whole has [End Page 122] flourished...

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