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August 06, 2011


Rob Marchant

Chris, here to answer your "comradely quibble" (surely you didn't think I'd let you get away with it!)

Well, in one sense I understand your point: the problem with giving people the power to decide their own destiny is that, sometimes, they decide to elect people we don't like. As the Labour Party has found out in Scotland, of course. A fair point.

The trouble is, of course, that those pseudo-democracies I mention are that for a reason: they tamper with either the electoral process itself (all of them, with possible exception of Russia), the constitution, (most of them) and having a free and fair media (all of them).

So, my point is, there are other factors in play apart from simply democracy producing leaders we in the West don't like. They are often leaders their own people don't like either, but the flawed process makes it hard to get rid of them.

In addition there are areas which usually coincide with such tampering (civil rights, oppression, discrimination against minorities), which, although they are by no means absent in what I term healthy democracies, are almost invariably much worse in these cases. But, without the checks and balances democracy, it's hard to protect against them.

More subtle distinctions such as these, sadly, are not that easy to work into a 1,000-word piece.

Yes, there can be a conflict of values, but I think you can get too philosophical about these things, when a fairly broad-brush approach works. In short, Britain is not remotely like Iran (thank God), no matter how many too many CCTV cameras we have.

One final thing: on your "economist's critique" of democracy, I would agree that democracy can certainly have unpleasant effects. However, the joy of democracy is that these effects are generally short-lived because, as long as the democracy continues to function as such, you can kick out the government who makes things unpleasant.

The problem comes with people like Chávez and Putin who tinker with the process, is that they thwart the electoral Darwinism that would otherwise do for them. Therefore, sadly, decreasing the overall "utility" experienced by the electorate.

In short: the process, though flawed, if properly done, is self-correcting.

Tim Worstall

Democracy conflicts not just with libertarianism of course.

It conflicts with just about any set of values, other than democracy itself of course.

Certainly democracy conflicts with civil liberty: the entire tension of the US Constitution (of most consitutions in fact) is built on just that.

Democracy, pure and simple, conflicts with justice: we have all those rules about courts, trials and evidence, just to make sure that the will of the people doesn't prevail.

Given that no one's ever actually voted in a system without at least some vestiges of free markets we could say that democracy conflicts with non-market socialism or communism.

I'm just not sure that there's anything new in stating that democracy conflicts with a set of political or moral rules: or that libertarianism is any different in this respect.

Dan | thesamovar

Chris, there is a way to make libertarianism not be in conflict with democracy, which is to require that the population, or at least the majority of the population, respect others' liberty. I would argue that this is indeed a requirement for a libertarian society to function. You can't have a system of government (or lack of) whose motivating ideals are deeply in contradiction with the ideals of the people in that society (except maybe for highly authoritarian societies, but even then it's probably unstable). Libertarians mostly don't like to talk about this, because firstly it seems illiberal (people must be like me!) and secondly it seems fanciful. But, actually, I don't think it's either. Pure liberalism without any requirements or restrictions on anything is just nonsense, and the requirement to be liberal is about a liberal a requirement as you could have. Nozick completely ties himself up in knots in the 'Utopia' section of the book by failing to acknowledge this, I reckon. And I don't think it's fanciful either, but I do think it's something that will take generations to change, so we won't see a democratic, liberal society any time soon. Incidentally, I'm coming at this from the left libertarian perspective rather than the right wing one, but I think some of the problems are the same.

More on this in my review of ASU if you're interested: http://thesamovar.net/node/41

Incidentally, not that I particularly want to defend him, but doesn't Chavez face a rather hostile right-wing press?


@Tim - I agree. Which just deepens the puzzle, of why so many people fail to acknowledge that democracy has its limits. Bills of rights etc institutionaize those limits, but many folk are wary of saying why they are necessary.
@ Dan - Agreed. But as your point generalizes. As I said recently (echoing Cohen), an egalitarian population would make an egalitarian society feasible.


An interesting discussion. It seems to me that there is a tension between libertarianism and democracy, but a healthy one if the contradictions are acknowledged and worked through.

While doing a bit of a clear out of old stuff today I came across an old essay I wrote which seems a little relevant to the discussion. In it I argued that while the principle function of most modern day constitutions is to protect fundamental rights, the principle function of the UK constitution has been, and continues to be, parliamentary sovereignty. In essence, while other constitutions safeguard the rights of individuals and establish a separation of powers, the UK constitution puts a great deal of faith in democracy.

In a lecture on the subject, J.A.G. Griffith defended this by arguing that 'It is not by attempting to restrict the legal powers of government that we defeat authoritarianism. It is by insisting on open government.' The implication of this to me is that through a well functioning democracy we can work through the contradictions between democracy and libertarianism. But I think if this is to be achieved we cannot rely on representative or direct democracy, we also need strong deliberative democracy.

Not sure if any of this makes much sense, I'm still trying to work it through in my own head. Thanks for stimulating the thoughts though.

Niklas Smith

A very interesting couple of posts (as was the one by Rob Marchant you linked to). Personally I do believe liberalism and democracy go together, but the argument is a bit too long for a comment so I've posted it on my blog: http://niklassmith.wordpress.com/2011/08/06/liberty-meets-democracy-a-car-crash-or-creative-tension/

Charles Wheeler

"Voting is cheap, and thus over-supplied. And people who vote for bad governments or policies do not pay the price of doing so; the cost of bad government falls upon all citizens, not merely (and often not mainly) upon its supporters."

This seems to presuppose that voting converts into political power. This is obviously fanciful.

The real problem for libertarians is explaining whose liberty should prevail when they are in conflict. There are actually very few instances when the exercise of one person's liberty doesn't impinge - cause 'harm' - to another. In the real world economic power prevails.

Hence the development of 'liberal democracy' - restricting simple majoritarianism with certain inalienable rights. A messy compromise for living in a messy world rather than a utopia.


More or less completely agree. Couple of qualifications:

a) While I share your bemusement at people failing to accept that the values of liberty and democracy can collide, nevertheless it remains the case that democracy and the enjoyment of human rights are very strongly correlated. And...

b) it seems reasonable to assume that there is a causal relationship. Choosing your government in elections is, after all, an individual right and regimes that respect this are also more likely to recognise other rights too.

The examples you mention might serve to reinforce the point: the right to participate in free and competitive elections is somewhat circumscribed in Iran, Palestine, Russia and Venezuela - as are quite a few other rights too but not as much as in states that don't even *pretend* to believe in competitive elections. On the other hand, while the case of Switzerland does indeed illustrate the point that democracies can be illiberal, surely no reasonable person thinks this is a state that circumvents freedom in the way that the Iranian one does?

Jenise DePinto

I think that the way Democracy is used to refer to a specific system, namely western political arrangements and institutions, is highly problematic. Democracy is a contested term which many different countries with radically different systems lay claim to, evident in names such as Democratic Republic of Congo and the old GDR.

Westerners use it uncritically as an objective system (upon which they have a monopoly) marked by rule of law, balance of powers, some constitutional form, legal and political equality (at least on paper), a capitalist economy and universal suffrage. Socialists contrarily claim that social and economic equality is the only true form of democracy.

I see democracy, like communism, as an ideal rather than a system. Systems can have more or less Democratic features, so it can be used as a qualifying term in that way, but all self-professed democracies also intentionally have institutions and mechanisms built into their political and socio-economic structures that preclude the possibility of democracy.

I think there are various visions of democracy and democratic projects, but as an objective term that defines Britain, France, US, et al, it is not very accurate. What these countries have are liberal, representative political systems and free market economies that can both produce and hinder democracy in different situations. It is the same with those who claim to have a communist system when they in fact have a socialist one, usually state socialism with a strong authoritarian political structure it what people mean when they say communism, social democracies being a combination of liberal representative political system and mixed economic arrangements.

So I think that some of the contradictions pointed out above about democracy flow from misuse of the concept as system.



The word 'democracy' is often used as short-hand for 'liberal democracy', which is the kind prevalent in Western countries. Liberal democracy conflicts relatively little with libertarianism, because liberal democracy has a built-in notion that there are limits to state power. This avoids the situation where the majority vote to violate the rights of the minority in some way.

When people complain that, say, Russia is not 'democratic', they're really saying that it's not 'liberal democratic'. This clearly leads to confusion about what's being said, hence the continuation of the debate beyond the fairly straightforward acknowledgement that Chris is right.


Is any place democratic? I say that as all states have legal or constitutional rules that are moot as to their democratic validity. The German Basic Law permits the prescription of parties judged to be totalitarian. Is banning a Nazi party democratic? It stops some people voting for the party of their choice. Is banning a change to the form of Government democratic? The basic Law does that too ( the federal, Parliamentary and Law Governed basis of the state may not be changed).
Is the two party system democratic? The existence of a secret service? How can any secret service be accountable to the public? Are Laws against Race hatred Democratic? They inhibit the expression of some peoples true opinions. The rulers of Iran or Gaza or Russia could no doubt make a case for any restrictions on democratic rights if they were bothered in the same terms. Rights are never absolute; they are limited everywhere. So how do you draw a distinction that is objective?

Luke Roelofs

What if we define a value like "people being able to determine results in proportion as they are affected by those results"?

For some plausible assumptions about who's affected by what, this can imply both that

1) on a set of 'individual issues', like religious belief, sexual relationships, travel or expression of ideas, etc. individuals should have inviolable rights;

and that

2) on a set of 'public issues', like energy production, distribution of resources, administration of the law, military war and peace, etc. the majority of people within a given nation/region/planet should always prevail.

That seems to get us democracy and libertarianism as two applications of a single principle. That doesn't mean the two will never conflict, but it might mean that when they do, there's some principled way to decide between them on their own terms.

Of course, it's unclear whether this is the principle that people have in mind when they talk about either 'democracy' or 'libertarianism'.

Tim Newman

Democracy is a means to an end, not an end to itself. The ends can vary, but their core could probably be agreed upon fairly quickly, i.e. right to liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc. But if a democracy ends up with the people voting to kill homosexuals, then democracy has failed. If a democracy ends up with people voting to ban women wearing veils in public, it has also failed IMO. Not completely failed, just partially.

Also, there is much to criticise about Putin's Russia, it not being democratic isn't one of them. True, the electoral process gets dicked with, but a 100% free and fair election would return almost identical results. There is simply no credible or popular opposition. The usual argument in Russia is why Putin and United Russia dick with the system when leaving it alone would return them to power with a landslide anyway, but nobody is kidding themselves that the result would be different. Putin and United Russia are popular, mainly due to "Better the Devil You Know" and dimwitted nationalism, but popular nonetheless.

Paul Sagar

"What worries me is that even intelligent people like Rob seem reluctant to acknowledge this."

The majority of professional political theorists and philosophers are reluctant to acknowledged this too. Hence why some of us want to spend most days smashing our heads into brick walls.

I don't really know why anybody bothers discussing garden variety idiot libertarianism (i.e. the species found on the internet). There might, perhaps, be something interesting about it when it's conducted as a proper philosophical programme (though actually, usually not). But as for the kind of libertarian you find in real life, Flying Rodent's assessment is entirely correct for the majority, and simply fails to cover those who are well intentioned but unbelievably naive to the point of wilful stupidity about how life actually works.

Paul Sagar

Luke: that's all very nice, except that you just beg the question in assuming those two sets of values/rights cover and that they can be kept separate, not just in theory (hard enough) but also in practice.

A cursory glance at the world of actual politics, however, informs us that a good deal of politics is taken up by people attempting to assert/deny such distinctions in the face of opposition from others. Trying to lay out the values a prior by fiat gets you precisely nowhere, and indeed there's a lesson there about thinking that the tools of the philosophy paper ("let us define X as...") are going to be of primary use in understanding a world that goes on largely without philosophers.

Torquil Macneil

"But as for the kind of libertarian you find in real life, Flying Rodent's assessment is entirely correct for the majority"

Paul, you are falling into the blogger's trap of confusing 'real life' with 'the internet'. Chris of this parish describes himself as a libertarian, by the way.

problems with sexual intimacy

its interesting and well judged analysis is reflecting in this writing.


The moral, only rule by a single tyrant can avoid internal conflicts between principals and results.

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