Liberals subscribe to the concept of democracy, literally ‘rule by the people’, which is based on a system of regular and competitive elections conforming to the principles of universal suffrage and political equality. However, liberals have not believed that democracy is perfect, advocating fears such as majoritarianism and the dangers of the uneducated having the vote. Nevertheless, liberals believe that the benefits of democracy outweigh the negatives, and thus liberal states have advocated the use of democracy.
Liberals have have been fearful of democracy because democratic systems that widen access to political influence tend to be characterised by a growth in intervention and over-government. This critique has been particularly emphasised by classical liberals who believe in negative freedom, the absence of external constraints upon an individual. The problem with over-government is that it can lead to increased restrictions in the social sphere, as well as weakening the market mechanism. The market is seen by liberals, classical liberals in particular, as possessing almost miraculous qualities and been able to improve the general standard of living for individuals. Therefore, democracy threatens to disadvantage citizens by increasing government regulation in life. Such a view has also been put forward by the conservative New Right, which holds similar views on the economy.
For liberals, democracy also leads to majoritarianism, a belief that the majority dominates the minority. This clearly has illiberal implications because it threatens the core liberal principle of individuality. ‘The people’ are not seen as a collective identity but rather a collection of individuals and groups possessing different opinions and different interests. The application of majority rule therefore leads to, as Alexis de Tocqueville said, ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Individual liberty and minority rights can be crushed in the name of ‘the people’. James Madison articulated such views arguing that the best defense against majoritarianism is a network of checks and balances that would make government responsive to competing minorities.
Liberalism has also been fearful of the impact that the uneducated could have. J.S Mill believed that due to differences regarding education, political wisdom is unequally distributed in society. The uneducated are more likely to vote in accordance to narrow class interests, whereas the educated are able to use their wisdom to identify what is for the good of everyone. Mill therefore proposed that elected politicians speak for themselves and proposed a system of voting that would disenfranchise the illiterate and allocate one, two, three or four votes to people depending on their level of education. Such fear in the behaviour of the uneducated has also led liberals to be wary of populism. Ortega y Gasset warned that the arrival of mass democracy had paved the way for authoritarian rulers to come to power by appealing to the base interests of the masses.
Despite these drawbacks, liberals have also espoused several benefits of democracy, including the idea of protective democracy. This is based upon consent, the idea that citizens must have a means of protecting themselves from the encroachment of government. As a result, this idea has been particularly emphasised by classical liberals due to their belief in negative freedom. John Locke argued that voting rights should be extended to the propertied, who could then defend their natural rights against government. If government possesses the right, through taxation, to expropriate property then citizens are entitled to protect themselves by controlling the make-up of the legislature. This idea is most clearly reflected in the iconic slogan of the American Revolution, ‘No taxation without representation’.
Furthermore, liberals have advocated democracy because it has educational properties. This belief in ‘educational democracy’ stems from a belief that democracy promotes the ‘highest and most harmonious’ development of human capacities. By participating in political life, citizens enhance their understanding, strengthen their sensibilities and achieve a higher level of personal development. Therefore, developmental democracy stresses positive freedom (the ability for individuals to gain self-realisation and self autonomy), and thus has been particularly supported by modern liberals. For J.S. Mill, this meant that suffrage should be extended to all but those who are illiterate, and thus suggested (radically for the time) that the vote should be extended to women.
Liberals have also seen democracy as being capable of maintaining political stability. Pluralist theorists have argued that organised groups and not individuals have become the primary political actors and portrayed modern industrial societies as increasingly complex, characterised by competition between and amongst rival interests. As a result, democracy is attractive because it is the only system capable of maintaining balance or equilibrium within complex societies. Therefore, ‘equilibrium democracy’ gives competing groups a political voice and thus helps bind them to the political system and in doing so maintaining political stability.
The liberal view of democracy has been criticised by traditional socialists who have a desire to bring economic life under public control and have dismissed liberal democracy as simply capitalist democracy, working in the interests of the Bourgeoisie. Anarchists, for their part, have criticised the idea of representative democracy as merely a façade that attempts to conceal elite domination, and have thus called for direct democracy and continuous popular participation.
In conclusion, liberals believe that in its unrestrained form, democracy leads to tyranny, but, in the absence of democracy, ignorance and brutality will prevail. Nineteenth century liberals saw democracy as threatening or dangerous, however by the 20th century a large proportion of liberals had come to believe that democracy was a virtue. For them the positives of democracy outweigh the negatives, hence why liberal states adopt a liberal democratic framework. Therefore, whilst liberals have several fears about democracy, their faith in democracy is stronger.