in Political Philosophy

Limited Government and Liberalism

Julian Sanchez has a knack for saying things that I wish I’d thought to say first. To wit:

A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

I’d actually go a bit further here and suggest that this is the distinction between democracy and liberal democracy. A democracy can be (and sometimes is) full of majorities who do fairly unpleasant things to minorities. In (relatively) progressive democracies, those unpleasant things include prohibiting some minorities from getting married or from smoking in bars. In other places, majorities sometimes prefer to throw rocks at women who have the audacity to survive being gang raped.

Liberal democracy is about setting certain kinds of constraints on what a polity can and cannot do. It rules out certain classes of actions, even (or perhaps especially) when those actions are wildly popular.

It’s also the distinction that should make us wary of undertaking regime change. Establishing democracy isn’t particularly difficult to do. Kill off some dictators, hold some elections, and you’re good to go. Establishing liberal democracy — one where people agree in advance to some first principles that rule out some of the things that majorities might otherwise impose on minorities? That is considerably harder.

Write a Comment