“A fear of democracy runs throughout liberalism” Discuss

Democracy is the rule of the people because authority ‘rises from below’. This means that through participation, the public give their consent for example, through elections which upholds a representative system. Liberals believe that democracy is the only legitimate form of political activity as it provides protection, personal development and stability. However, there is an existing fear of excessive democracy which runs throughout liberalism; this is the fear that democracy encourages conformism, minorities and a majoritarian system which hinders individual growth. Firstly, liberals believe democracy is beneficial because it provides protection of the twin pillars, these are freedom and individuality. The Lockean view of ‘protective democracy’ created the that there can be “no taxation without representation”, implying that the role of the government is to protect individuals within society. This happens through the law, creating a like liberty for all. Liberals advocate Locke’s view of “freedom under law” whereby the government can interfere to a certain extent if someones actions become harmful to another, this is what Mill identified as other regarding actions. Therefore, liberals see democracy as positive because it upholds the key pillars of liberalism. Furthermore, liberals advocate democracy because it is educational. The idea of ‘developmental democracy’ was adopted by Mill, who suggested that through participation, citizens develop and become more educated, which ultimately leads to societal growth. This is because participation allows for choice, which helps to promote rationality, allowing the individual to flourish. The utilitarian view of Bentham and James Mill is also present here because individuals are the best judges of themselves, meaning that the choices they make will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, proving that democracy is beneficial. Modern liberals place a particular emphasis on developmental democracy because they believe in self-mastery and a way of achieving this is through participation. In addition, liberals believe that democracy is positive because it promotes stability. This is due to diversity of opinions which encourages a more tolerant and pluralistic society. Liberals believe that pluralism encourages debate and negotiation which leads to peaceful resolutions rather than the use of violence. This links to Hobbes state of nature, which, without democracy, would result in a state of war and the result would be the concept of social Darwinism where the weakest people in society would not flourish and grow. Therefore, Hobbes suggests a social contract is needed in order to create a state which protects individuals, this proves that democracy maintains the stability in society. Modern liberals are particularly positive about this because of their optimistic view of human nature, suggesting that we have a social responsibility to care for the most vulnerable in society. However, it can be argued that liberals fear democracy because of the majoritarian system it creates. De Tocqueville’s idea of the “tyranny of the majority” scares liberals because it creates the risk of suppressing the minority. Democracy means that there are always going to be winners and losers within society, and it is the treatment of the losers which liberals fear. There is also a fear of majority opinion, as expressed by Mill, the majority are not infallible, and he fears that wisdom can be lost which would result in an ignorant society. Therefore, there is a fear of democracy within the ideology. Moreover, liberals fear that democracy causes a shift from individualism to collectivism. With democracy, there is a fear of conformity due to the majoritarian system which prevents individual growth. Mill explained this with the comparison to a “stagnant pond” whereby, conformity means societal stagnation due to the lack of atomistic individuals. Therefore, democracy poses a threat to individuality which is one of the key pillars of the ideology. Liberals, in particular classical liberals, also fear democracy because it creates the risk of intervention. If a government wants to maintain their popularity, they will favour intervention in order to keep public support. This goes against the liberal view of meritocracy because intervention makes society lazy. Classical liberals favour a minimal state which forces individuals to compete and work hard therefore, democracy discourages this form of strict meritocracy. Overall, it can be argued that there is always a fear of democracy throughout liberalism but, as Paine identified, government is a “necessary evil”. Liberals agree that there is no other alternative to democracy because it protects our natural rights and upholds the twin pillars, freedom and individuality. This means that democracy allows individuals to grow and develop which is the main goal. It should also be noted that liberals favour constitutionalism, meaning that democracy can be kept in check through a system of checks and balances, proving that the fear of democracy can be diminished. 

Answered by Alice B. Politics tutor


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