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To what extent is liberalism compatible with democracy?

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Introduction

To what extent is liberalism compatible with democracy? Liberalism has an ambivalent relationship with democracy, as liberals are against collective power, but support political equality. In the nineteenth century liberals were often opposed to democracy as they saw it as a threat to individual rights - the people are not a single entity but rather a collection of individuals with different opinions and interests, and so it is impossible for every view and opinion to be respected. Since the twentieth century most liberals have come round to the idea of democracy, and support it, but they still have reservations. Liberals defend democracy for a variety of reasons. First of all it ensures public accountability. This gives the people a degree of protection against governments becoming too strong. Liberals believe in limited government, and democracy provides this system, as the government is accountable to the people. Although most liberals would agree that government is essential in order to defend the rights of the people, it can also be seen as a threat to individual liberty, so people need some form of protection against it. According to John Stuart Mill, 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'. ...read more.

Middle

This is very important because liberals believe that any view, however unpleasant, has to be tolerated, because the opinion of every individual in society matters, not just the opinion of the majority. Therefore all groups within society should have the opportunity of political representation, and democracy allows this. Utilitarian liberals support democracy because they believe that the best way to ensure 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' is universal suffrage. Being essentially selfish, people can be expected to base their votes on their own best interests, so if the result is chosen by the majority, then consequently the best interests of the majority will be served. Universal suffrage is also important in that it provides people with political equality - 'one person, one vote; one vote, one value'. This gives people formal equality within society, and there is no element of discrimination based on class, race, gender or religion. No system of government other than democracy would provide this level of political equality, which is such an important part of liberalism. Finally, liberals believe that equal access to policy formation amongst all of the competing groups in society leads to an equilibrium - although these groups have different opinions and opposing interests, democracy gives them a political voice and binds them to the system, ensuring social stability. ...read more.

Conclusion

Although this is rather a drastic view, many liberals would agree with earlier political thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle in describing democracy as rule by the masses at the expense of wisdom and property. Liberals have also argued that democratic pressures have led to an increase in interventionist government. Liberals, particularly classical liberals, are deeply opposed to government economic intervention as they feel it destabilises the market economy. They feel that the economy works better when left alone, as it is self-regulating, and this also links with the liberal idea of limited government - the state should not become involved with the economy, or any other matter which does not concern the protection and defence of human rights. In conclusion liberalism is not entirely compatible with democracy - some important liberal ideas, in particular the principle that every individual opinion should be taken into account, directly conflict with the system of democracy. However, in many other ways democracy does correspond with liberal values - it provides political equality for example, and protects the rights of the people against overly strong governments. In general, I feel that liberalism has been able to adapt and fit in with democracy, despite the problem of trying to balance popular participation against the protection of individual rights. Meghan Rimmer February 2006 1 Politics - Liberalism ...read more.

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