Liberty vs Democracy

I would like to cast the divide between "liberals" and "conservatives" in another light. Those who support liberty vs those who push for democracy. Of course, everybody is in favor of both, so first some definitions.

By Democracy I mean an organizational structure where the key people in government are picked by elections. In addition there needs to be the rule of law so that elections are fair and honest. Opposing candidates can't be eliminated by ad hoc application of self-serving application of the law. In addition there needs to be some mechanism to prevent the worst abuses of the tyranny of the majority. In addition social conditions have to be such that no groups are prohibited from being represented either by legislation or by extra-legal means.

By Liberty I mean the ability for an individual to pursue his own goals without (excessive) government interference. In the sense used by conservatives liberty also implies that government won't stand in the way of individuals gaining as much economic power as they can as long as it doesn't involve criminal behavior.

We also seem to have two basic views of human nature in the political sphere. Group A (the "liberals") believes that people will tend to behave properly on their own and thus there is a minimal need for legal intervention into their social relationships. This means that government should stay away from enforcing moral behavior.

On the other hand the "conservatives", Group B, distrust human nature, believe that man is weak, born into a state of sin, and needs constant supervision or they will not behave ethically. In the most extreme form man is take as essentially selfish and society becomes a competition as each person tries to maximize their own desires. Government is supposed to regulate human interpersonal behavior.

When it comes to institutions the attitudes are reversed. Group A believes that private institutions are amoral and interested in maximizing their wealth and thus need to be regulated, while group B believes that government (except for police powers) is the area that can't be trusted. The remedy is to keep government as small as possible.

These seemingly strange positions actually flow from the groups world views. Group A trusts people, government is the representative of the people and, therefore, carries out the people's will. It is as big as the people desire it to be. Business, on the other hand, represents the owners, it is not democratic except in the limited sense that stockholders (if any) vote for the board of directors. In modern corporations control by stockholders is completely non-functional. So private firms need government supervision to restore some sense of democratic control to their behavior.

Group B, mistrusting human nature, also distrusts the public's representatives - the government. Instead, believing in personal liberty, then, by extension, firms should be free to do whatever they wish to maximize their returns. The inherent competition that comes from other's selfishness will keep things in check. Since government is funded by taxes, and since government is intrusive then taxes are also intrusive and a limit to one's "liberty". Support for the military is also consistent, since people can't be trusted by their inherent nature then it is important that their be a strong military and police to prevent others from taking one's property or otherwise infringing on personal liberty.

Conservatives believe in a hierarchical form of society. Most people can't be trusted and thus need to be guided by those of superior talents. Democracy is too uncertain, it runs the danger of mob rule or populist movements which redistribute wealth and power. A democratic society might decide that limits on "liberty" which have led to extreme social inequality are undemocratic and change laws so as to correct them. This would be the ultimate threat to "liberty".

So, using my expanded definitions we see that "conservatives" tend to be in favor of authoritarian rule and suspicious of democracy. The are also in favor of controlling the message. This ranges from sending children to private schools which support their parent's ideologies, to favoring media concentration and imposing limits on free speech in the name of "decency" and other imprecise criteria.

Liberals tend to be wary of too much "liberty" seeing it as a cover for the protection of wealth and social inequality. A functioning democratic government, which represents the majority of the people won't vote laws which favor privilege and wealth over equality. That this is so is widely understood by conservatives which is why one of their most common arguments is to claim that restrictions on wealth accumulation will prevent others from joining the privileged class in the future. Peddling such hope has worked for millennia, there is no reason to expect it to be less effective now.

Conservative, authoritarians don't trust the public and thus are not in favor of a vigorous democracy. Being superior people who know what is best, they prefer to guide public policy and private morality - this is fundamentally anti-democratic.


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Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.