When liberal democracy becomes the problem


Much has been written in the last decade or so about the shortcomings of democracy. One particularly striking comment is the argument that Ryszard Legutko in his The demon in democracy argues when he concludes that liberal democracy ultimately leads to socialism.

Legutko, who initially lived under communism and later liberal democracy in Poland, notes that these two systems share similar presuppositions about history, society, politics, culture and human nature. By this he means the rejection of the ideas that formed the foundation of Western civilization over millennia, as well as a conclusion that old ideas – which stem from Jerusalem, Athens and Rome in particular – must be replaced with modern ideas.

These modern ideas are then enforced by a powerful state (the leviathan, as Thomas Hobbes expresses it) to achieve “progress”. The power of the state is essential because these ideas about progress (whether liberal or socialist) are contrary to human nature and cannot be achieved if communities are left to organize themselves according to their own customs and traditions.

Liberal think tanks such as Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit have expressed concern about the continuing global shift away from freedom and toward authoritarianism over the past two decades. Although they do not usually say so explicitly, these think tanks tend to define freedom as freedom for the disconnected (English: disengaged) individual.

I use this term (it is also used by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor) because it does not consider the individual as part of a larger community with responsibilities and obligations, but rather as a being who can very easily detach himself from these things. In fact, speaking to the larger community about responsibilities and obligations is usually seen as an affront to freedom and an expression of authoritarianism, because obligation is the antithesis of choosing for yourself.

When these think tanks express their concern about this decline in freedom, they usually mean a move away from individualism – as summed up by modern liberal democracy – and closer to other political ideas and other forms of government. A pertinent case is the comments by the Hungarian prime minister, Victor Orban, that he is non-liberal (English: illiberal) want to promote democracy in Hungary.

This was generally accepted as an indication of anti-democratic, authoritarian tendencies. Orban has made it very clear that he is not in favor of a type of democracy that separates the individual from the community. The Hungarian approach is to make God, the nation and the family central to the Hungarian identity, as opposed to the individual. Being in favor of this kind of democracy is presented in the mainstream as a move closer to authoritarianism and away from freedom.

Therein lie two problems. The first is that any form of democracy that does not particularly conform to the criteria for liberal democracy is dismissed as “undemocratic”. The second is that the concept of freedom has been chessed by individualists to such an extent that the rejection of even the most destructive doctrine of modern individualism is characterized as a rejection of freedom.

According to this logic, the inventors of democracy – the Greeks – were by no means democrats, because they did not structure their society on individual rights. Likewise, arguably the most famous book ever written on democracy, namely Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, could not be considered a discussion of democracy. The democracy that De Tocqueville observed and came to appreciate in the America of the 1830s is one with a federal political order underpinned by a strong sense of community and an enthusiastic participation by citizens in the pursuit of the common good (as opposed to what he describe selfish individualism).

More importantly, however (to return again to Legutko’s comment): The strange conclusion that individual freedom is the only measure of freedom is a vehement rejection of the foundation on which the West was built. It is certainly a rejection of the ideas that originated in Jerusalem, Athens and Rome.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul very clearly links the concept of freedom to responsibility and sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice. To be free is not to give rise to the flesh (Galatians 5:13), but rather to the fruit of the spirit; that is, to do good out of obedience to God and not to promote your own interests at the expense of others.

The same applies to the Athenian concept of freedom, which was so aptly described by Aristotle as the movement from potentiality to realization; that is, to do on earth what we are called to do. Likewise, the Roman concept of freedom is summed up in Marcus Cicero’s The officiis (African: about duties), which – as the title suggests – explains that we can only be truly free if we fulfill our duty to God, our communities, our descendants and even our ancestors.

According to Cicero, our duty to our ancestors is to preserve for our children the good we have inherited from them. He explains that it is glorious to do so, while it is highly dishonorable to fail in this.

However, to talk about this these days is often accepted as a form of anti-liberal heresy. Insofar as liberalism means that we must respect differences of opinion and that we do not wish to impose our will on others, this is indeed something that we must cherish and preserve. But to the extent that liberalism is ideological, disconnected individualism to the detriment of the bigger picture, and to the extent that it has become a rejection of the basic foundation of the West, it is something that must indeed be opposed.