Liberal Democracy

Government by consent

Following on from its rejection of ‘the divine right of kings’, liberalism insists that the state is legitimate only if those under its jurisdiction have effectively volunteered to be under its jurisdiction: in other words, governments must have the consent of the governed. This doctrine has a profound effect upon the relationship between politicians and people. Far from being the ‘subjects’ of the government — as the traditional state had asserted — the people in the state would now have ultimate control over it. As Locke maintained, ‘government should always be the servant, not master, of the people’.

Since the 19th century most liberals have supported the concept of liberal democracy. This involves:

  • · free elections to give expression to the will of the people

  • · limitations on the power of the state, which should act as a neutral arbiter between different interests in society

  • · respect for civil liberties and toleration of different viewpoints.

The idea that government should be based on the consent of the people is central to liberalism and long pre-dates modern notions of democracy. Liberals argue that, without this foundation, government lacks legitimacy. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his book Leviathan (1651) argued that the people should come together to erect a great power over them to guarantee peace and security.

The idea of a social contract between the people and their rulers was explained by John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). He argued that the people must freely give, and renew, their consent to be governed. They have a right of rebellion if the government breaks the contract.

Liberals support democracy on the grounds that it enables citizens to hold government to account. It also extends popular participation and performs an educational function in society — the concept of developmental democracy, promoting the personal development of individuals. Democracy also gives a political voice to different groups and interests. In this way it promotes consensus and underpins political stability, giving equilibrium or balance to the political system.

On the other hand, liberals have feared excessive democracy on the grounds that it may lead to the 'tyranny of the majority', suppressing minority rights or individual freedom, or it may create a culture of dull conformism. Mill proposed to allocate more votes to the educated (plural voting) as a way of curbing the influence of the uneducated masses. Modern liberals would not support this idea because it gives undue weight to the views of an elite. They have been generally supportive of democracy, as long as it is limited by a constitutional framework, and individual and group rights are protected. The electoral college system used in the USA was devised partly as a buffer against the manipulation of the masses by an unscrupulous campaigner for the post. The people do not directly choose the president; instead this is done by electors corresponding to the number of representatives each state has in Congress.