Liberalism, Democracy, and Socialism

By Osorio, Jaime | Social Justice, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Liberalism, Democracy, and Socialism


Osorio, Jaime, Social Justice


It's common these days to talk about liberal democracy. Yet it wasn't that way in the past. At least until the mid-19th century, the terms liberalism and democracy were in conflict. The first called attention to liberties and gave special emphasis to economic freedom. Liberalism's defenders rejected democracy because they believed that the search for equality under governments of the majorities would call liberal principles into question.

Democracy and liberalism were only able to join hands on the basis of mutual concessions, but it was democracy that conceded the most ground. Liberalism was forced to accept universal suffrage and, later, the fact that the limits of the minimum state would be surpassed as social policies were formulated and a significant number of public enterprises emerged. For democrats, the bloodletting was far greater. Democracy was reduced from a conception of social organization based on ethical principles, in which equality played a central role, to a set of rules or procedures for the distribution of political power.

Nevertheless, at first glance it appeared that the liberals suffered the greatest defeats, having lost even the name itself, as they took refuge under the simple denomination of democrats. The lost prestige of the industrial revolution, because of the atrocities committed by the defenders of laissez faire, was an important factor in the liberals' retreat. A little later, faced with the rising influence of socialist ideology, liberals and democrats ended up joining forces against what they considered the common enemy. From that point on, democrat tended to be synonymous with liberal and liberal tended to be synonymous with defender of laissez faire. Locke, Montesquieu, Hobbes, de Tocqueville, and even more so Rousseau, would be abandoned for Adam Smith.

The imprecisions of the last century are still with us. To define oneself as a democrat can mean at least two very different visions: either a defender of liberty with the accent on economic freedom, or a defender of liberty with emphasis on equality. I think the positions of George Bush, when he applauds Latin America's advances in terms of economic freedom and democracy, are closer to the first vision, while the democratic demands of "Lula" in Brazil or of the FMLN in El Salvador are identified more with the second.

Liberals will accept democracy so long as universal suffrage does not call into question the social organization of the economy or development projects. The majority should not interfere in the key point of all freedoms: the economy. Thus the paradox of peoples who vote and elect, and vote and elect again, yet never achieve any influence over substantive questions that would improve the conditions of their lives.

The problems between liberalism and democracy tend to sharpen when social demands grow and civil society manages to broaden social benefits and reduce inequities in the distribution of wealth. From the liberal perspective, these are moments when democracy becomes ungovernable. We are faced with an "overload" that the system must remedy by limiting democracy, social benefits, and wages. As the population comes to understand and accept the new situation, liberalism and democracy will again join hands. Otherwise it is liberalism -- a liberalism bold in economics and conservative in politics -- that will impose itself.

Against these positions there are others within liberalism that are more concerned with social and political problems and that do not view this concern as conflicting with democracy. Moreover, they consider democracy to be a desirable political goal, although limited to procedural issues. They seek a "minimal" democracy. They are also concerned about crude liberalism's view of the market as the ultimate judge in determining the distribution of material wealth.

Progressive sectors of liberalism even go so far as to express sympathies with socialism. …

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