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Friday, November 26, 2010


Liberalism is an ideology and a social philosophy, which emerged in 17th and 18th century Europe. Its central claim is, that the form or structure of society should be be determined by the outcome of processes, which are interactive, and open (in principle) to all members of society. The free market, and multi-party liberal democracy, are the best known examples of liberal process. Liberalism, together with nationalism, can be considered as the foundational ideology of modern western states: liberal-democratic nation-states with a market economy. 'Liberal' refers not only to ideology and political parties, but to a historically unique form of society. On that ground alone, it can not be simply identified with 'freedom' - a form of society is not a freedom as such. The practice of political liberalism is often repressive anyway, but even in its theory liberalism is not an advocacy of absolute liberty, nor of individualist ethical egoism. Process, and the acceptance of its outcome, are the central ideals of liberalism. The claim to promote freedom is essentially propaganda, and it can not serve as a definition of liberalism.

The labour market best illustrates liberal process. It is nominally open and transparent, since vacancies are made public, and anyone can apply for any job. There is competition among applicants, and employers exercise a free and selective choice among them. Since the process is open and fair, say liberals, its outcome is just. They do not see personal disadvantage, or structural issues such as poverty, as ethically relevant. The labour market might 'allocate' an individual to a job which is unbearable, unsafe, and unhealthy, at starvation wages, and the individual might be desperate to escape from this condition but unable to do so - but liberals would still view that individual as 'free'. Even if that misery was the norm in a society, liberals would not see that society as 'unfree' or 'unjust' because of that.

Liberals are generally hostile to any 'interference with process'. They claim, for instance, that the distribution of wealth as a result of the market is just - and therefore reject the ideal of redistribution of wealth. In fact, liberalism rejects any design or plan for society - religious, utopian, or ethical. Liberals feel that society and state should not have structural goals, since the liberal processes should themselves determine their structure. This anti-utopianism became increasingly important in liberal philosophy, with the emergence of Communist states and their centrally planned economy.

The liberal hostility to any structural ideal (except liberalism itself) makes liberalism an inherently conservative social philosophy. Early liberalism was radical, since its principles were new at the time. Since the late 19th century, classic liberal political philosophy has been strongly conservative, and defensive of the existing social order in the western liberal states. It justifies that social order as the result of liberal process: consequently any innovation would distort the process, and liberalism would tend to reject it. In practice, liberals typically oppose redistributive policies, which alter the distribution of wealth and income. Economic liberalism developed as, and still is, the ideology of the free market, and an ideological defence of the interests of the entrepreneur.

Classic political liberals also reject moral values external to liberal process: the most far-reaching liberal position is that there are no values, only opinions. All liberals hold that opinions should be expressed in public, and that in some way this 'market of opinions' will favour the truth. (The idea, that truth can be revealed by discourse, is much older than liberalism). The liberal rejection of external moral norms influences the liberal idea of human rights: both good and evil humans have equal rights, which apply equally when they facilitate good or evil actions.

As a social philosophy, liberalism holds that human beings are inherently unequal, and specifically that they have unequal talents. Liberalism advocates that society should be structured to reflect this inequality, by rewarding the talented and (at least relatively) punishing the untalented. Liberalism advocates social stratification: in modern liberal societies the primary stratification is income inequality, resulting from a competitive labour market. The labour market stratifies by ethnic origin and gender, and it generally allocates the lowest incomes to the children of those with a low income. For liberals, this is the way it should be: they often have a hostile attitude to the poor, and some are Social Darwinists. Liberalism does not recognise an end point to this process, and therefore considers increasing inequality as legitimate and just.

Although it presents itself as an ideology of limited state power, the ideological goals of liberalism are not enforceable on a non-liberal population without political repression. Where liberalism as foundational ideology is unchallenged, the repression may be limited to small minorities. In Europe, the unexpected re-emergence of a radical anti-liberal ideology in the form of Islamism, has led many liberals to advocate repressive measures, and the selective repeal of civil liberties which they formerly claimed to defend.

A global ideology

By the end of the 19th century, the broad principles of liberalism formed the dominant ideology in the United States and western Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism extended its ideological domain to eastern Europe. Opposing ideologies, especially Islamism, are a reminder that liberalism itself is an ideology, but in the western democracies it is often so pervasive, that it is taken for granted.

When people in these countries speak of "liberalism", they usually refer to specific parties. Many political parties use the word liberal in their name (in some cases other liberals might dispute their liberalism). The world's largest political grouping generally recognised as liberal, is the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, which has 74 seats in the European Parliament (9% of the total). Most of its 54 affiliate parties [1] in the EU member states are also regarded as liberal parties.

In most of the world, the term 'liberalism' refers to the general ideology described here, and to that type of political movement. That is how it is generally used in political science. In common US usage, however, it is an antonym of 'conservative', or a synonym for 'left'. This is confusing, especially seen from Europe, where liberalism is generally classified with 'the right'. From the perspective of history and political science, however, the United States is clearly a liberal society, and its two main political parties are liberal in terms of ideology. In fact the United States is the primary agent of the global expansion of liberal democracy, since 1918.
Liberalism is a universal ideology, and in principle liberals seek to apply it to the entire planet, and the entire human population. It is inherently hostile to competing non-liberal societies - which it sees not simply as different, but as wrong. (Islamist states have now replaced the Communist state, as the commonly perceived 'opposite' to a liberal society). Most liberals have supported the expansion of liberal society, although in the 19th century that meant among the 'civilised nations'. For a long time the free market was considered the only cross-cultural and 'exportable' element of liberalism. Only towards the end of the 20th century did liberals advocate, that all African and Asian societies should become liberal-democratic.
Liberals define liberalism itself as 'freedom', so they rarely think consent is required for the imposition of a liberal society. After the end of the Cold War, this belief acquired a geostrategic significance: many western liberal-democrats now believe, that a war to impose a liberal-democratic society is inherently just. Liberals hold this equivalence of liberalism and freedom to be an absolute truth, and consequently see all non-liberals as enemies of freedom. Liberalism therefore includes an implicit premise, that all criticism of liberalism is invalid.

The belief in the absolute truth of its own core doctrines, and in the absolute rightness of the liberal cause, has made liberalism a violent ideology. In western Europe, liberal violence characterised the early phases of the transition to liberalism, and subsided once the ideology was established. Most victims of liberal violence now fall in wars of liberalisation fought by liberal-democratic states (wars such as the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan also have geostrategic objectives, so the casualties and atrocities can not be attributed solely to liberalism). Where a liberal society is threatened from within, the ideology can lead to brutal repression, including the mass killing and torture of opponents. The restoration of free-market liberalism in Chile, under General Augusto Pinochet, was accomplished by 2 279 known killings of real or presumed opponents [2] and 28 459 known cases of torture. [3]

Relationship to other ideologies

Early political liberalism opposed the existing doctrines on the legitimacy of government, especially religious belief in the authority of the monarch. It opposed the power of religion, and in Catholic Europe the Church itself. Early economic liberalism opposed mercantilism, and the mediaeval economic order. In the course of the 19th century, the emergence of new anti-liberal ideologies re-aligned the political spectrum. The left then referred to Marxist-inspired social and political movements: liberalism now took its place on the right - although it did not displace older conservative traditions. After the Russian Revolution, that seemed a permanent state of affairs. Liberalism became typically pro-American: it stood for the free market as a pillar of western democracy, in the face of Soviet totalitarianism and central planning. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the centrally planned economies left liberalism, so it seemed, without a major ideological opponent. The perceived threat from Islamism (an ideology which went largely unnoticed during the Cold War) has led some liberals, to treat it as the primary ideological opponent. That, in turn, has led to a revival of the anti-clerical and anti-religious tradition in European liberalism.

The conservative attitude of liberals toward western societies, has often brought them into alliance with non-liberal conservatives in those countries. Liberalism has also compromised with one specific form of non-liberal ideology: nationalism. A political community based on common origin, history, and language is not liberal, but liberals never tried to form the voluntarist, contractual, non-historical state, which liberalism would logically imply. The nation state was simply taken for granted, as the political and economic arena for liberal process. In practice, many European liberal parties endorse cultural nationalism, and some are xenophobic. Since liberals believe in inherent inequality, some sympathise with biological and racial theories of inequality, especially as a justification for non-intervention by the state in social inequalities.

Liberal states and societies

Liberalism as ideology exists in both liberal and non-liberal societies. The strength of explicitly named Liberal Parties says little about the degree of liberalism. The British Liberal Party, for example, dominated 19th-century politics, but almost disappeared by the 1950's (it has revived in the last few decades). Throughout that time, British society was pervaded by liberal values, and at present only a tiny Islamist minority challenges them explicitly. A similar pattern can be found in other European states - pervasive liberal hegemony, accompanied by the apparent decline of the Liberal parties, which then specialised in the promotion of market liberalism. In non-liberal or illiberal societies, on the other hand, liberalism is inherently radical, since it seeks a total transformation of the existing society. It is not however the only radical alternative to any given non-liberal society: the dichotomy liberal / illiberal suggests that all non-liberal societies are clones, but that is not the case.

These states can be considered liberal-democratic states, with a liberal form of society:

The United States and Canada.

The member states of the European Union: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The European microstates associated with the European Union: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino - but not the Vatican.

The remaining OECD member states, except Turkey and Mexico: Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea.

Mercosur members, candidate members, and associate members, except Colombia: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.

Turkey, Colombia, and Mexico are market economies, and they meet the formal criteria for a liberal democracy, but internal tensions and violence disrupt the liberal political process.

Market liberalism

Since the emergence of economics as a separate discipline in the 19th century, a comprehensive liberal economic theory has developed, but it has never been entirely separated from political liberalism. Although the label 'market liberals' is applied to liberal movements and parties which emphasise economic policy, it is more correct to say that all liberals are market-liberals. Certainly there is no liberal political grouping, which advocates a centrally planned economy within a liberal-democratic society.

The free market is not simply 'exchange' or 'trade'. Two people who exchange products can not form a free market in the liberal sense, even if their transactions are monetarised. The element of competition is missing in this two-person society. A minimal liberal free market needs at least three parties, with two of them in competition - for instance, two competing sellers and one buyer. The resultant pressure on the two sellers to lower prices, is the simplest type of 'market force'. Such a force comes into existence without any conscious action on the part of the three parties. In modern markets there are millions of parties, and complex market forces. Market-liberals value this characteristic of the market: they believe in the moral necessity of market forces, and hold that entrepreneurs form a good and necessary social group.

For all liberals, interactive process legitimises outcome: in market liberalism, the market is the primary process, and market transactions are the interaction. Market liberals believe that economic transactions should take place in an interactive framework, which maximises the effect of each transaction on every other transaction. Liberals see the market as good, and often as semi-sacred. They want the market to be as large as possible, involving all of society. In modern liberal-democratic states almost all adults participate in the market. (A private club in a Communist state, where members can hold a closed free market, would satisfy no liberal).

Liberals are therefore hostile to economic self-sufficiency - so strongly, that they believed in war to 'open up markets'. The most famous example is the Opium War, when Britain forced the Chinese Empire to allow the import of opium. This liberal belief in market expansionism has revived after the end of the Cold War. Market liberals are hostile to trade barriers: "free trade" is a classic slogan of market liberalism.

Market liberals believe that important aspects of society should be determined by the market, certainly the distribution of income and wealth. They reject interference in the market - historically by guilds and the church, in modern economies by the state. Market liberals are anti-utopian in the sense of opposing economic planning, especially centralised state control of the entire economy. They believe that the market produces the best design for society, and that is is wrong to substitute any other design. However, market liberalism is itself a utopia: in the ideal world of market liberalism, no goods or services exist which are not the product of market forces, but all goods or services which are market-responsive would exist. This is in itself a utopian project, implying a total structuring of society.

The social institution of the entrepreneur is central to the market-liberal view of society. An entrepreneur is a person whose profession is, to respond to market forces. In the 19th century most entrepreneurs were still private individuals, later the business firm took over this function. The enterprise/firm is a permanent organisation, structured to respond to market forces. Without the entrepreneur there is no free market, therefore market liberals demand a privileged social status for the entrepreneur. The early liberal theorists were hostile to the urban guild economy of mediaeval Europe: they saw it, in effect, as a conspiracy not to compete. In their view of history, the entrepreneur rescued Europe from the poverty of the Middle Ages. (This view was shared by Karl Marx, who admired the cultural dynamism of the free market). Not just mediaeval Europe, but all societies without an entrepreneurial caste, were seen as failures.

A central (but rarely explicit) political demand of market liberals is therefore, that entrepreneurs should have control of the economy. This has been so fully integrated into the culture of western liberal-democratic societies, that few people ever think about it. But it would be no less logical, to hand the economy to engineers, or priests - or not to privilege any one group. The choice depends on underlying values, and liberals value the entrepreneur. This value preference of liberals, and its widespread acceptance, has helped create 'the business community'. That is a real and identifiable social elite - with specific cultural preferences, specific clothing, and often a specific form of language (sociolect). It does in fact control the economy, in liberal-democratic states. Although probably not foreseen by early liberals, market liberalism has become an ideology in support of this elite.

Liberal positions and policies

The goals of present-day political liberalism are illustrated by the policy proposals of two mainstream Liberal Parties in Europe, the Dutch VVD and the German FDP. Since they operate within an existing liberal-democratic society, they do not need to restate its founding principles daily. (They do have declarations, where those principles are set out). [15][16] Their day-to-day policy proposals indicate their focus on the market and the entrepreneur, and the generally negative and repressive tone of their social policies. The standard liberal claim to promote and defend 'freedom' must be understood in this context - and its meaning in that context continues to evolve. The word 'freedom' may mean something entirely different to liberals, and to their opponents. Many present-day liberals seek a society, where the state strictly enforces certain cultural norms and values, either national or 'western' in character.


The liberal parties advocate less bureaucracy, more competition and more market. They seek to reduce all state subsidies (at least until the current economic crisis). They want privatisation of postal services, telecoms, the railways, and energy and water utilities. They want deregulation of the energy sector, and the sale of all state holdings in private firms. They want priority for road transport over all other forms of transport, privatisation of the entire transport infrastructure and its management, and privatisation of all public transport. They seek legal privileges for business, especially small businesses. Global free trade is the ultimate goal, specifically the creation of a Euro-American Free Trade Zone. They want restrictions on alcohol and tobacco advertising lifted, since they constitute state interference in the market. They seek to selectively limit the power of the state, for instance by abolishing tax inspectors access to bank accounts, and abolishing personal tax numbers (since these make income traceable). They seek lower taxes for higher incomes.

On social policy, they assume natural inequality, and consequently they oppose in principle anti-discrimination laws, or equality laws. They prefer 'equality of opportunity', for instance for women, to legally-enforced 'equal treatment' (equality of outcome). They want all minimum wages abolished, and explicitly want more low-paid jobs, with a maximum term of one year for state unemployment benefit. Employee protection laws would be changed to benefit the employer, not the employee; small businesses should be be wholly exempt from such laws. The unemployed should lose employee protection, when they re-enter the labour market. The liberals oppose transfer taxation, which transfers income to poorer groups. They seek compulsory competition between schools and universities, and abolition of all restrictions on genetic research. They want to introduce genetically modified crops in agriculture, and end government support for ecological farming. They support research into nuclear energy, and want to keep the nuclear option open.

Their most rigid policies are related to immigration and national identity. They oppose all immigration, if it is avoidable - and seek to limit it in any case. They would restrict migration to those who speak the national language, have a job, and subscribe to the national values. They want compulsory integration and language courses for foreigners, and demand that the government punish those who do not learn the national language. They reject cultural relativism, and seek to prohibit discussion or debate about national values, which they insist on. The government, in their view, must enforce cultural assimilation, and prevent multiculturalism. The liberals see the national core values as Judeo-Christian, so that Islamic traditions are not part of them: no Islamic tradition must therefore be allowed to develop. They claim that Islam does not belong in their country, unless it accepts liberal values. No foreign Muslim preachers or teachers would be allowed, and Islamic teachers must use their classes to promote the national constitution. They want the government to impose compulsory values on immigrants - meaning the fundamental values as set out in the constiutution, specifically democracy, the rule of law and human rights. They oppose freedom of conscience, or cultural freedom, as regards these values. They explicitly oppose freedom of religion for immigrants, if their religion includes opression of women, arranged marriages, or the preaching of hatred for others. They reject freedom of religion for Muslim men who refuse to shake hands with a woman, and demand a legal ban on the burqa.

Geert Wilders and the PVV

Liberal attitudes to freedom are even better illustrated by the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders. He was formerly a member of the more mainstream liberal VVD - where he demanded suspension of the freedom of religion (to suppress Islamic radicalism), and called for a "liberal jihad". [19] The VVD expelled him for opposing Turkish EU membership, but he still describes himself and his new party as "liberal". Its policies are typically prohibition and repression, directed at Islam, immigrants, and the left. [17] [18] The party seeks to ban the Koran - effectively a ban on Islam itself. It seeks to ban Sikh turbans and Islamic dress (burqa or niqaab) in public, and Islamic headscarves in schools. Halal slaughterhouses would be closed, and even serving Halal meat to Muslims would be banned. Islamic chaplains in prisons would be fired, and foreign imams (Muslim clerics) forbidden to preach. Celebration in schools of the Islamic Eid-al-Fitr holiday would be banned. I

Immigration from non-western countries would be banned, as would double nationality. Any foreigner convicted of a crime would be deported. If naturalised, they would be stripped of their Dutch nationality, and then deported. If ethnic-minority children repeatedly commit crimes, then their parents would be stripped of their Dutch nationality and deported. Moroccan 'street terrorists' would be deported on a second conviction regardless of nationality. Speaking any language except Dutch in a government building would be prohibited.

Squatting would be banned: so would the animal rights group Respect for Animals, paedophile associations, and the Dutch Indymedia website. "Coffeeshops" (which legally sell cannabis products) would all be closed, and possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms would be criminalised. The "three strikes and out" principle would impose automatic life sentences, on the third conviction for violent crime. 'Re-education camps' would be introduced, and sentences for all crime would be tougher. Police would get the power to stop and search at all times, in all places (at present this is limited to declared zones). The party also wants to introduce internment without trial ('administrative detention' on the Israeli model).

The intensity of repression and compulsion advocated by these substantial liberal parties (Wilders' PVV is the largest party in the Netherlands, according to March 2009 polls) is evidence of the oppressive nature of liberalism itself. Their preference for right-wing ideals which are not in themselves liberal - such as nationalism, Judeo-Christian values, and Atlanticism - is also evident.

Libertarianism and neoconservatism

The term 'libertarianism' is American in origin, and is only in general use in the United States and Canada, and to a lesser extent in other English-speaking countries. Libertarianism is liberalism: more specifically, it belongs to the Anglo-American liberal tradition. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with "classic liberalism". The theoretical justification of libertarianism does differ from that of early and current European liberalism, but the general principles are no different. Libertarian political activism does address some issues of individual choice, such as drug legalisation, but it is primarily 'anti-statist', opposing state intervention, above all in the economy. In other words, it is de facto a market liberalism. The theoretical principles also make it more fundamentally conservative: libertarianism rejects any innovative action as 'coercion', if that action would harm conservatives who oppose it. (That is perhaps a more radical statement of the general anti-utopianism of liberalism).
'Neoconservatism' is similarly an American neologism, invented because the term 'liberal' was already in use for their political opponents in the US. Some European political allies of US neoconservatives do describe themselves as 'liberal' - and that is the appropriate term, since their goal is to spread liberal society and liberal-democracy throughout the world. In varying degrees, neoconservatives seek to impose it by military force, and they influenced US-led intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. They too have adopted Islam as the perceived chief obstacle to liberalisation, and some believe in an internal battle for liberal and Judeo-Christian western civilisation, against immigration-driven Islamisation (the Eurabia scenario).

The defects of liberalism

The ethical rejection of liberalism is derived from its universal claims, its insistence on a particular social, economic and cultural structure, and its innate conservatism. The liberal insistence on a world shaped by liberal process (for instance an income distribution shaped by market forces), places liberalism on a war footing with all other possible worlds. Not just an Islamic society, but all possible non-liberal societies, conflict with the liberal value preference. As Robert Nozick puts it: [20]

...no end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people's lives.

Liberals do not see liberal process itself as an 'interference' in this sense, and they reject all non-liberal action which might be needed to realise any alternative outcome. The insistence on non-interference amounts to a veto on any non-liberal utopia, on any major social, political, or economic ideal. It amounts to a rejection of "end-state" or "patterned" structures, as such. Nozick is very explicit, but all liberals share this kind of anti-utopianism to a very large degree. They therefore reject any transformation of an existing society, either by the state or a political movement, or indeed the creation of a new 'society' in whatever form. In political practice, liberalism also attaches this conservatism to existing societies and cultures, even if their origins are distinctly illiberal.

This inherent conservatism of liberalism, coupled with its insistence that it is the only valid social and political order, makes it in historical perspective a major threat to innovation. The historical perspective also indicates the response: when universal ideologies conflict, the result is political strife and usually violence. Ironically, the political repression advocated by liberals themselves offers an appropriate short-term response to liberal activism. If the Koran can be banned, for instance, then so can the works of liberal ideologues such as Nozick, Hayek, and Popper. At present, however, there is no specifically anti-liberal movement in liberal societies, certainly not in Europe.

THE AMERICAN diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered a problem on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country. "Suppose the election was declared free and fair," he said, and those elected are "racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma." Indeed it is, not just in the former Yugoslavia, but increasingly around the world. Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life -- illiberal democracy.

It has been difficult to recognize this problem because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy -- a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms -- what might be termed constitutional liberalism -- is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, "Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice." Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.

Today, 118 of the world's 193 countries are democratic, encompassing a majority of its people (54.8 percent, to be exact), a vast increase from even a decade ago. In this season of victory, one might have expected Western statesmen and intellectuals to go one further than E. M. Forster and give a rousing three cheers for democracy. Instead there is a growing unease at the rapid spread of multiparty elections across south-central Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, perhaps because of what happens after the elections. Popular leaders like Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Argentina's Carlos Menem bypass their parliaments and rule by presidential decree, eroding basic constitutional
practices. The Iranian parliament -- elected more freely than most in the Middle East -- imposes harsh restrictions on speech, assembly, and even dress, diminishing that country's already meager supply of liberty. Ethiopia's elected government turns its security forces on journalists and political opponents, doing permanent damage to human rights (as well as human beings).

Naturally there is a spectrum of illiberal democracy, ranging from modest offenders like Argentina to near-tyrannies like Kazakstan and Belarus, with countries like Romania and Bangladesh in between. Along much of the spectrum, elections are rarely as free and fair as in the West today, but they do reflect the reality of popular participation in politics and support for those elected. And the examples are not isolated or atypical. Freedom House's 1996-97 survey, Freedom in the World, has separate rankings for political liberties and civil liberties, which correspond roughly with democracy and constitutional liberalism, respectively. Of the countries that lie between confirmed dictatorship and consolidated democracy, 50 percent do better on political liberties than on civil ones. In other words, half of the "democratizing" countries in the world today are illiberal democracies.

Illiberal democracy is a growth industry. Seven years ago only 22 percent of democratizing countries could have been so categorized; five years ago that figure had risen to 35 percent. n2 And to date few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies; if anything, they are moving toward heightened illiberalism. Far from being a temporary or transitional stage, it appears that many countries are settling into a form of government that mixes a substantial degree of democracy with a substantial degree of illiberalism. Just as nations across the world have become comfortable with many variations of capitalism, they could well adopt and sustain varied forms of democracy. Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of many possible exits.


FROM THE TIME of Herodotus democracy has meant, first and foremost, the rule of the people. This view of democracy as a process of selecting governments, articulated by scholars ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Joseph Schumpeter to Robert Dahl, is now widely used by social scientists. In The Third Wave, Samuel P. Huntington explains why:

Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems.

This definition also accords with the commonsense view of the term. If a country holds competitive, multiparty elections, we call it democratic. When public participation in politics is increased, for example through the enfranchisement of women, it is seen as more democratic. Of course elections must be open and fair, and this requires some protections for freedom of speech and assembly. But to go beyond this minimalist definition and label a country democratic only if it guarantees a comprehensive catalog of social, political, economic, and religious rights turns the word democracy into a badge of honor rather than a descriptive category. After all, Sweden has an economic system that many argue curtails individual property rights, France until recently had a state monopoly on television, and England has an established religion. But they are all clearly and identifiably democracies. To have democracy mean, subjectively, "a good government" renders it analytically useless.

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government's goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source -- state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law. Constitutional liberalism developed in Western Europe and the United States as a defense of the individual's right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, it emphasized checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and separation of church and state. Its canonical figures include the poet John Milton, the jurist William Blackstone, statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, and Isaiah Berlin. In almost all of its variants, constitutional liberalism argues that human beings have certain natural (or "inalienable") rights and that governments must accept a basic law, limiting its own powers, that secures them. Thus in 1215 at Runnymede, England's barons forced the king to abide by the settled and customary law of the land. In the American colonies these laws were made explicit, and in 1638 the town of Hartford adopted the first written constitution in modern history. In the 1970s, Western nations codified standards of behavior for regimes across the globe. The Magna Carta, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the American Constitution, and the Helsinki Final Act are all expressions of constitutional liberalism.


SINCE 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power. In 1830 Great Britain, in some ways the most democratic European nation, allowed barely 2 percent of its population to vote for one house of Parliament; that figure rose to 7 percent after 1867 and reached around 40 percent in the 1880s. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism -- the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The "Western model" is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.

The recent history of East Asia follows the Western itinerary. After brief flirtations with democracy after World War II, most East Asian regimes turned authoritarian. Over time they moved from autocracy to liberalizing autocracy, and, in some cases, toward liberalizing semi-democracy. Most of the regimes in East Asia remain only semi-democratic, with patriarchs or one-party systems that make their elections ratifications of power rather than genuine contests. But these regimes have accorded their citizens a widening sphere of economic, civil, religious, and limited political rights. As in the West, liberalization in East Asia has included economic liberalization, which is crucial in promoting both growth and liberal democracy. Historically, the factors most closely associated with fullfledged liberal democracies are capitalism, a bourgeoisie, and a high per capita GNP. Today's East Asian governments are a mix of democracy, liberalism, capitalism, oligarchy, and corruption -- much like Western governments circa 1900.

Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism. In contrast to the Western and East Asian paths, during the last two decades in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, dictatorships with little background in constitutional liberalism have given way to democracy. The results are not encouraging. In the western hemisphere, with elections having been held in every country except Cuba, a 1993 study by the scholar Larry Diamond determined that 10 of the 22 principal Latin American countries "have levels of human rights abuse that are incompatible with the consolidation of [liberal] democracy." In Africa, democratization has been extraordinarily rapid. Within six months in 1990 much of Francophone Africa lifted its ban on multiparty politics. Yet although elections have been held in most of the 45 sub-Saharan states since 1991 (18 in 1996 alone), there have been etbacks for freedom in many countries. One of Africa's most careful observers, Michael Chege, surveyed the wave of democratization and drew the lesson that the continent had "overemphasized multiparty elections . . . and correspondingly neglected the basic tenets of liberal governance." In Central Asia, elections, even when reasonably free, as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, have resulted in strong executives, weak legislatures and judiciaries, and few civil and economic liberties. In the Islamic world, from the Palestinian Authority to Iran to Pakistan, democratization has led to an increasing role for theocratic politics, eroding long-standing traditions of secularism and tolerance. In many parts of that world, such as Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and some of the Gulf States, were elections to be held tomorrow, the resulting regimes would almost certainly be more illiberal than the ones now in place.

Many of the countries of Central Europe, on the other hand, have moved successfully from communism to liberal democracy, having gone through the same phase of liberalization without democracy as other European countries did during the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to which most belonged, was a classic liberal autocracy. Even outside Europe, the political scientist Myron Weiner detected a striking connection between a constitutional past and a liberal democratic present. He pointed out that, as of 1983, "every single country in the Third World that emerged from colonial rule since the Second World War with a population of at least one million (and almost all the smaller colonies as well) with a continuous democratic experience is a former British colony." British rule meant not democracy -- colonialism is by definition undemocratic -- but constitutional liberalism. Britain's legacy of law and administration has proved more beneficial than France's policy of enfranchising some of its colonial populations.

While liberal autocracies may have existed in the past, can one imagine them today? Until recently, a small but powerful example flourished off the Asian mainland -- Hong Kong. For 156 years, until July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by the British Crown through an appointed governor general. Until 1991 it had never held a meaningful election, but its government epitomized constitutional liberalism, protecting its citizens' basic rights and administering a fair court system and bureaucracy. A September 8, 1997, editorial on the island's future in The Washington Post was titled ominously, "Undoing Hong Kong's Democracy." Actually, Hong Kong has precious little democracy to undo; what it has is a framework of rights and laws. Small islands may not hold much practical significance in today's world, but they do help one weigh the relative value of democracy and constitutional liberalism. Consider, for example, the question of where you would rather live, Haiti, an illiberal democracy, or Antigua, a liberal semi-democracy. Your choice would probably relate not to the weather, which is pleasant in both, but to the political climate, which is not.


JOHN STUART MILL opened his classic On Liberty by noting that as countries became democratic, people tended to believe that "too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power itself. That . . . was a response against rulers whose interests were opposed to those of the people." Once the people were themselves in charge, caution was unnecessary. "The nation did not need to be protected against its own will." As if confirming Mill's fears, consider the words of Alexandr Lukashenko after being elected president of Belarus with an overwhelming majority in a free election in 1994, when asked about limiting his powers: "There will be no dictatorship. I am of the people, and I am going to be for the people."

The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that "the danger of oppression" in a democracy came from "the majority of the community." Tocqueville warned of the "tyranny of the majority," writing, "The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority."

The tendency for a democratic government to believe it has absolute sovereignty (that is, power) can result in the centralization of authority, often by extraconstitutional means and with grim results. Over the last decade, elected governments claiming to represent the people have steadily encroached on the powers and rights of other elements in society, a usurpation that is both horizontal (from other branches of the national government) and vertical (from regional and local authorities as well as private businesses and other nongovernmental groups). Lukashenko and Peru's Alberto Fujimori are only the worst examples of this practice. (While Fujimori's actions -- disbanding the legislature and suspending the constitution, among others -- make it difficult to call his regime democratic, it is worth noting that he won two elections and was extremely popular until recently.) Even a bona fide reformer like Carlos Menem has passed close to 300 presidential decrees in his eight years in office,
about three times as many as all previous Argentinean presidents put together, going back to 1853. Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akayev, elected with 60 percent of the vote, proposed enhancing his powers in a referendum that passed easily in 1996. His new powers include appointing all top officials except the prime minister, although he can dissolve parliament if it turns down three of his nominees for
the latter post.

Horizontal usurpation, usually by presidents, is more obvious, but vertical usurpation is more common. Over the last three decades, the Indian government has routinely disbanded state legislatures on flimsy grounds, placing regions under New Delhi's direct rule. In a less dramatic but typical move, the elected government of the Central African Republic recently ended the longstanding independence of its university system, making it part of the central state

Usurpation is particularly widespread in Latin America and the states of the former Soviet Union, perhaps because both regions mostly have presidencies. These systems tend to produce strong leaders who believe that they speak for the people -- even when they have been elected by no more than a plurality. (As Juan Linz points out, Salvador Allende was elected to the Chilean presidency in 1970 with only 36 percent of the vote. In similar circumstances, a prime minister would have had to share power in a coalition government.) Presidents appoint cabinets of cronies, rather than senior party figures, maintaining few internal checks on their power. And when their views conflict with those of the legislature, or even the courts, presidents tend to "go to the nation," bypassing the dreary tasks of bargaining and coalition-building. While scholars debate the merits of presidential versus parliamentary forms of government, usurpation can occur under either, absent well-developed alternate centers of power such as strong legislatures, courts, political parties, regional governments, and independent universities and media. Latin America actually combines presidential systems with proportional representation, producing populist leaders and multiple parties -- an unstable combination.

Many Western governments and scholars have encouraged the creation of strong and centralized states in the Third World. Leaders in these countries have argued that they need the authority to break down feudalism, split entrenched coalitions, override vested interests, and bring order to chaotic societies. But this confuses the need for a legitimate government with that for a powerful one. Governments that are seen as legitimate can usually maintain order and pursue tough policies, albeit slowly, by building coalitions. After all, few claim that governments in developing countries should not have adequate police powers; the trouble comes from all the other political, social, and economic powers that they accumulate. In crises like civil wars, constitutional governments might not be able to rule effectively, but the alternative -- states with vast security apparatuses that suspend constitutional rights -- has usually produced neither order nor good government. More often, such states have become predatory, maintaining some order but also arresting opponents, muzzling dissent, nationalizing industries, and confiscating property. While anarchy has its dangers, the greatest threats to human liberty and happiness in this century have been caused not by disorder but by brutally strong, centralized states, like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Maoist China. The Third World is littered with the bloody handiwork of strong states.

Historically, unchecked centralization has been the enemy of liberal democracy. As political participation increased in Europe over the nineteenth century, it was accommodated smoothly in countries such as England and Sweden, where medieval assemblies, local governments, and regional councils had remained strong. Countries like France and Prussia, on the other hand, where the monarchy had effectively centralized power (both horizontally and vertically), often ended up illiberal and undemocratic. It is not a coincidence that in twentieth-century Spain, the beachhead of liberalism lay in Catalonia, for centuries a doggedly independent and autonomous region. In America, the presence of a rich variety of institutions -- state, local, and private -- made it much easier to accommodate the rapid and large extensions in suffrage that took place in the early nineteenth century. Arthur Schlesinger Sr. has documented how, during America's first 50 years, virtually every state, interest group and faction tried to weaken and even break up the federal government. More recently, India's semi-liberal democracy has survived because of, not despite, its strong regions and varied languages, cultures, and even castes. The point is logical, even tautological: pluralism in the past helps ensure political pluralism in the present.

Fifty years ago, politicians in the developing world wanted extraordinary powers to implement then-fashionable economic doctrines, like nationalization of industries. Today their successors want similar powers to privatize those very industries. Menem's justification for his methods is that they are desperately needed to enact tough economic reforms. Similar arguments are made by Abdala Bucarem of Ecuador and by Fujimori. Lending institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have been sympathetic to these pleas, and the bond market has been positively exuberant. But except in emergencies like war, illiberal means are in the long run incompatible with liberal ends. Constitutional government is in fact the key to a successful economic reform policy. The experience of East Asia and Central Europe suggests that when regimes -- whether authoritarian, as in East Asia, or liberal democratic, as in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- protect individual rights, including those of property and contract, and create a framework of law and administration, capitalism and growth will follow. In a recent speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, explaining what it takes for capitalism to flourish, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan concluded that, "The guiding mechanism of a free market economy . . . is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary"

Finally, and perhaps more important, power accumulated to do good can be used subsequently to do ill. When Fujimori disbanded parliament, his approval ratings shot up to their highest ever. But recent opinion polls suggest that most of those who once approved of his actions now wish he were more constrained. In 1993 Boris Yeltsin famously (and literally) attacked the Russian parliament, prompted by parliament's own unconstitutional acts. He then suspended the constitutional court, dismantled the system of local governments, and fired several provincial governors. From the war in Chechnya to his economic programs, Yeltsin has displayed a routine lack of concern for constitutional procedures and limits. He may well be a liberal democrat at heart, but Yeltsin's actions have created a Russian super-presidency. We can only hope his successor will not abuse it.

For centuries Western intellectuals have had a tendency to view constitutional liberalism as a quaint exercise in rule-making, mere formalism that should take a back seat to battling larger evils in society. The most eloquent counterpoint to this view remains an exchange in Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons. The fiery young William Roper, who yearns to battle evil, is exasperated by Sir Thomas More's devotion to the law. More gently defends himself.

MORE: What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
: I'd cut every law in England to do that!
MORE: And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you -- where would you hide Roper, the laws all being flat?


ON DECEMBER 8, 1996, Jack Lang made a dramatic dash to Belgrade. The French celebrity politician, formerly minister of culture, had been inspired by the student demonstrations involving tens of thousands against Slobodan Milosevic, a man Lang and many Western intellectuals held responsible for the war in the Balkans. Lang wanted to lend his moral support to the Yugoslav opposition. The leaders of the movement received him in their offices -- the philosophy department -- only to boot him out, declare him "an enemy of the Serbs," and order him to leave the country. It turned out that the students opposed Milosevic not for starting the war, but for failing to win it.

Lang's embarrassment highlights two common, and often mistaken, assumptions -- that the forces of democracy are the forces of ethnic harmony and of peace. Neither is necessarily true. Mature liberal democracies can usually accommodate ethnic divisions without violence or terror and live in peace with other liberal democracies. But without a background in constitutional liberalism, the introduction of democracy in divided societies has actually fomented nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war. The spate of elections held immediately after the collapse of communism were won in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia by nationalist separatists and resulted in the breakup of those
countries. This was not in and of itself bad, since those countries had been bound together by force. But the rapid secessions, without guarantees, institutions, or political power for the many minorities living within the new countries, have caused spirals of rebellion, repression, and, in places like Bosnia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, war.

Elections require that politicians compete for peoples' votes. In societies without strong traditions of multiethnic groups or assimilation, it is easiest to organize support along racial, ethnic, or religious lines. Once an ethnic group is in power, it tends to exclude other ethnic groups. Compromise seems impossible; one can bargain on material issues like housing, hospitals, and handouts, but how does one split the difference on a national religion? Political competition that is so divisive can rapidly degenerate into violence. Opposition movements, armed rebellions, and coups in Africa have often been directed against ethnically based regimes, many of which came to power through elections. Surveying the breakdown of African and Asian democracies in the 1960s, two scholars concluded that democracy "is simply not viable in an environment of intense ethnic preferences." Recent studies, particularly of Africa and Central Asia, have confirmed this pessimism. A distinguished expert on ethnic conflict, Donald Horowitz, concluded, "In the face of this rather dismal account . . . of the concrete failures of democracy in divided societies . . . one is tempted to throw up one's hands. What is the point of holding elections if all they do in the end is to substitute a Bemba-dominated regime for a Nyanja regime in Zambia, the two equally narrow, or a southern regime for a northern one in Benin, neither incorporating the other half of the state?"

Over the past decade, one of the most spirited debates among scholars of international relations concerns the "democratic peace" -- the assertion that no two modern democracies have gone to war with each other. The debate raises interesting substantive questions (does the American Civil War count? do nuclear weapons better explain the peace?) and even the statistical findings have raised interesting dissents. (As the scholar David Spiro points out, given the small number of both democracies and wars over the last two hundred years, sheer chance might explain the absence of war between democracies. No member of his family has ever won the lottery, yet few offer explanations for this impressive correlation.) But even if the statistics are correct, what explains them? Kant, the original proponent of the democratic peace, contended that in democracies, those who pay for wars -- that is, the public -- make the decisions, so they are understandably cautious. But that claim suggests that democracies are more pacific than other states. Actually they are more warlike, going to war more often and with greater intensity than most states. It is only with other democracies that the peace holds.

When divining the cause behind this correlation, one thing becomes clear: the democratic peace is actually the liberal peace. Writing in the eighteenth century, Kant believed that democracies were tyrannical, and he specifically excluded them from his conception of "republican" governments, which lived in a zone of peace. Republicanism, for Kant, meant a separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law, protection of individual rights, and some level of representation in government (though nothing close to universal suffrage). Kant's other explanations for the "perpetual peace" between republics are all closely linked to their constitutional and liberal character: a mutual respect for the rights of each other's citizens, a system of checks and balances assuring that no single leader can drag his country into war, and classical liberal economic policies -- most importantly, free trade -- which create an interdependence that makes war costly and cooperation useful. Michael Doyle, th leading scholar on the subject, confirms in his 1997 book Ways of War and Peace that without constitutional liberalism, democracy itself has no peace-inducing qualities:

Kant distrusted unfettered, democratic majoritarianism, and his argument offers no support for a claim that all participatory polities -- democracies -- should be peaceful, either in general or between fellow democracies. Many participatory polities have been non-liberal. For two thousand years before the modern age, popular rule was widely associated with aggressiveness (by Thucydides) or imperial success (by Machiavelli) . . . The decisive preference of [the] median voter might well include "ethnic cleansing" against other democratic polities.

The distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies sheds light on another striking statistical correlation. Political scientists Jack Snyder and Edward Mansfield contend, using an impressive data set, that over the last 200 years democratizing states went to war significantly more often than either stable autocracies or liberal democracies. In countries not grounded in constitutional liberalism, the rise of democracy often brings with it hyper-nationalism and war-mongering. When the political system is opened up, diverse groups with incompatible interests gain access to power and press their demands. Political and military leaders, who are often embattled remnants of the old authoritarian order, realize that to succeed that they must rally the masses behind a national cause. The result is invariably aggressive rhetoric and policies, which often drag countries into confrontation and war. Noteworthy examples range from Napoleon III's France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Taisho Japan to those in today's newspapers, like Armenia and Azerbaijan and Milosevic's Serbia. The democratic peace, it turns out, has little to do with democracy.


WE LIVE IN a democratic age. Through much of human history the danger to an ndividual's life, liberty and happiness came from the absolutism of monarchies, the dogma of churches, the terror of dictatorships, and the iron grip of totalitarianism. Dictators and a few straggling totalitarian regimes still persist, but increasingly they are anachronisms in a world of global markets, information, and media. There are no longer respectable alternatives to democracy; it is part of the fashionable attire of modernity. Thus the problems of governance in the 21st century will likely be problems within democracy. This makes them more difficult to handle, wrapped as they are in the mantle of legitimacy.

Illiberal democracies gain legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that they are reasonably democratic. Conversely, the greatest danger that illiberal democracy poses -- other than to its own people -- is that it will discredit liberal democracy itself, casting a shadow on democratic governance. This would not be unprecedented. Every wave of democracy has been followed by setbacks in which the system was seen as inadequate and new alternatives were sought by ambitious leaders and restless masses. The last such period of disenchantment, in Europe during the interwar years, was seized upon by demagogues, many of whom were initially popular and even elected. Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is -- instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections -- to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war. Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge, to make the world safe for democracy. As we approach the next century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.

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