On The “Liberal” Of Liberal Democracy

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[First published on October 3, 2005.] In the field of political science, there are terms that confuse and mislead people because their denotations conflict with their connotations outside the field. One such word is democracy, which for political scientists now refers to any government that is voted into office through regular, competitive, and fair elections, with a secret ballot and almost all adults free to vote. It includes the idea of a republic and government by elected representatives, as well as constitutions that limit the power of majorities, as by such stated rights as freedom of speech and of religion, which cannot be trampled by majorities.

However, outside of political science it is widely felt that democracy is majority rule — that it is like a town meeting writ large, where votes a taken and the majority wins. However, in national politics, not even in electing the president, may a majority rule, as in Gore in 2000 getting more popular votes that Bush, but still losing in the electoral college. And some who see this write me emails informing me that, “The United States is not a democracy, it is a republic.”

All this is to introduce another confusing term, which is “liberal.” The liberal of the 18th Century believed in civil and political rights, and freeing people from the regulations and controls of government. In this, the meaning of liberal was then close to the conservative philosophy today. However, over the last century, the term has evolved to mean almost its opposite — government intervention and regulation, or in the United States, what might be termed soft socialism. So when I write “liberal” democracy, which is perfectly understood in political science to mean a democracy that goes beyond fair and open electoral procedures to ensure political rights and civil liberties, to many outside the field it seems to connote a regulatory democracy, or a democratic socialist one, and maybe Sweden comes to mind. Thus, a conservative recently berated me over my support for a liberal democracy.

The aim of political conceptualization is to point to and clarify some aspect of the real world, not as political scientists desire it to be, but as most people see and understand it. Thus, the term liberal democracy should never have been used, but it has and is well understood by those doing research on democracy, by those critical of it, or those providing lists or measurements of democracy. In first publishing my research over two decades ago, I tried to avoid this problem by using the term “libertarian” for liberal, as in my paper, “Libertarianism and International Violence” (see here), but this only confused. So, I came around to use “liberal democracy.”

To help avoid misunderstanding of “liberal democracy,” from now on I will further qualify what this democracy is by saying something like, a “democracy of free people (liberal democracy)” or a “free country (liberal democracy),” or something similar.

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think….
—-Lord Byron

2 Responses to On The “Liberal” Of Liberal Democracy

  1. Coyne says:

    is this an official wordpress theme? your blog looks great!

  2. rudyrummel says:

    Not an official wordpress theme. Just a blog of a private individual.

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