The crisis of liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is one of today’s most popular buzzwords. It is also one of the emptiest. Many different people, from European centre-left politicians to Barack Obama, George W Bush, supposedly liberal parties like the UK Liberal Democrats, and even mainstream conservative thinkers, consider themselves defenders of the liberal and democratic order. But when it comes to what it actually means, many do not seem to know.

It’s something that sounds good, something that everyone in today’s establishment seems to be in favour of – indeed, it is almost, one could say, a set of ideas that one must advocate to even be allowed in today’s grand debates. And even those rebels that rebuke the term are at least in favour of one of the two: libertarians and anarchists are in favour of liberty, but not “mob rule”. Meanwhile, populists on the right consider themselves as the true democrats, but are opposed to globalism and libertinism.

So what does “liberal democracy” actually mean? It has, at the very least, lost its meaning these days. Take the European Union as a prime example. The EU is generally seen as a liberal democratic project – indeed, maybe the biggest and supposedly most successful of them all. But in reality, Brussels is neither liberal nor democratic.

Instead, the EU is just one of many institutions that – if by democracy we mean the will of the people – has made the world more undemocratic in recent decades. As power has shifted to ever higher levels of the much-hailed multilateral world order, decisions have increasingly been made further away from people. In the EU’s case, many decisions are made today by unelected bureaucrats in the European commission.

Even in the rare instances when the 500 million or so Europeans had their say in European affairs, the democratic EU, which has been criticized for long for its “democratic deficit”, has been quick to ignore the result. This has been well documented, with second votes on rejections of the “ever closer union” occurring repeatedly ever since the Danish people voted against the Maastricht treaty. Who could forget the chaos surrounding the Lisbon treaty, which didn’t pass a vote in Ireland (it did on a second attempt), which was just a duplicate of the European constitution, the latter having been rejected by the French and Dutch?

The EU is a perfect example of how democratic many liberal democrats are today: they are only democratic if what the demos votes for means being on the “right side of history”. But if the people vote for regression in the elite’s progressive vision, the vote has to go to the ash heap of history and be repeated as many times as it takes for the correct result to come out on top. Take as another prime example the Liberal Democrats and the “liberal democrat” Blairite wing of the Labour party in the UK, who are both trying to force a second referendum on the Brexit vote.

In the current climate, it is not overly surprising why Viktor Orbán thinks he is the true democrat in contrast to Brussels. That decisions should be made on the national and local level again rather than in a far-away capital city has been one of the cornerstones of his EU critique – then again, whether the steady abolition of the free press and judiciary paired with the establishment of an oligarchy led by a different elite is actually democratic is a different question.

Needless to say, it can hardly be said that most self-proclaimed liberal democrats today are actually liberal. They are often actively protectionist, they introduce regulations and harmonisations en masse, and rather than merely facilitating free trade, they facilitate a gigantic machine of fiscal transfers, like the EU does. They implement big economic stimuli and let the power of the government grow by overspending and intensifying welfare systems, as Barack Obama did. Or they cause mayhem in foreign countries, by intervening in affairs which are not theirs to decide, as George W Bush did. Of course, those self-proclaimed liberal democrats are all illiberal in their own distinct way, but to say that anyone’s ideas are a boon for liberty would still remain a fallacy.

Considering, then, that most liberal democrats today are neither overly liberal nor democratic, is there a way to still save true liberal democracy? If we take Wilhelm Röpke’s definition, there might be. For Röpke, “liberal democracy is a source of freedom because it is liberal, that is, respectful of the individual’s right to liberty, and because it is, at the same time, democracy, that is, makes government subject to the consent of those governed.”

Therefore, the only true liberal democracy is by the old definition, where liberal stands for the principles of individual liberty and personal responsibility, and where democracy means that those leading should not lead without the will of the people, and should see all citizens as equal before the law. It is a return to the old republican system, a system which is truly democratic to the base, but where minority positions are always protected by liberal institutions and constitutional checks.

Such a system includes, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s description, a love of liberty, respect for the law, an idea of rights as well as benevolence arising from equality of rights, and the possibility of free association. Only those in favour of such a republican system should truly call themselves liberal democrats. After all, they are the only ones preaching democracy checked by liberal institutions.

Written by Kai Weiss

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute.