World Without Liberal Democracy

Joe Wolf via flickr // CC

This article shall serve as a cautionary tale about the fact that if liberal democracy collapses, even liberally-minded people may dismiss democracy and promote liberty-oriented meritocracy, which would cut off numerous citizens from politics – sometimes, for their own good.

Is the long-standing belief shared by some classical liberals that democracy is an enemy rather than a guarantee of personal freedom again gaining on popularity? Will people voting in elections give away theirfreedom and thus lose democracy later too, or at least parts of it? Nowadays, numerous worrying signals that point to such a conclusion may be observed.

Benjamin Constant warned against democracy and governing by means of general elections. He pointed out that, as a consequence, it shall become a tool used to deprive people of freedom by means of formal, yet superficial, rooting it in governing processes. By gaining the right to vote for those who rule, average citizens became exposed to the risk of losing all of their liberties by means of a simple arithmetical majority. 

Other philosophers, inspired by the works of Constant, started creating safety fuses. These formed liberal democracy – a limited rule of the majority, limited being the operative word. The system encompassing the separation of powers, checks and balances, independent judiciary, constitutional norms, and the rule of law.

In the today’s democratic world, do we not experience a deterioration of these safety fuses? An increasing number of populist politicians with extremist views emerges. These leaders openly advocate exchanging liberal democracy for popular democracy – one that would be plebiscit-like and illiberal, disregarding the legal and constitutional impossibilism, which is thought to serve only the interests of the elites, while at the same time ignoring the will of the sovereign, namely: the people.

They demand unrestricted mandate for the rule of the majority, as they believe they are its embodiment. Such leaders gain on popularity quite rapidly. Not only in fledgling democracies like Poland or Hungary, but also in the United States, Italy, France, or even in the United Kingdom.

More and more people view the safety fuses of liberal democracy as a dictate, a tool that instead of protecting them deprives them of their inborn rights. Typically, these are the voters supporting the mentioned populist leaders. An increasing number of citizens is willing to put their fate in the hands of an arbitrarily governing omnipotent, who may also be a beloved tribune, in order to break free from the unforgiving rules of this obsolete legal order.

The schools are losing control over the process of preparing the youth for liberal democracy. As a result, the looming threat of a degeneration of democracy towards ochlocracy returns. In a world that gets more and more complicated, where political, social, and economic decisions lead to complex consequences, this would imply moving towards making decisions by means of referenda instead of leaving them up to experts.

Meanwhile, questioning the intellectual readiness of citizens to decide in referenda (eg. on Brexit) is still viewed as a politically incorrect move that makes any debate nearly impossible. Not many people are brave enough to question the consequences of people’s lack of basic knowledge and their impact on democratic processes.

Anti-elitist tone in the ongoing debate further speeds up these negative trends. The voter shows a disdain towards experts, disregards competent and moderate candidates, choosing instead showmen (or even clowns) who offer entertainment.

The quality of public debate is drastically deteriorating. Its place are taking hate speech and extremist information bubbles. Extreme political views are no longer something to be ashamed of. The fight for voter support has turned into a bidding war based on who will give out the most money. At the same time, modern information technology further hampers election and opinion-making processes.

The ongoing debate on the shortcomings related to the very limited scope of the real participation of citizens in political co-deciding has given hope that the public opinion will not be in favor of removing the barriers enabling the government to act with no imposed restrictions, but rather of imposing new additional barriers related to mass public consultations, enabling further subsidiarity (as at the local level one voice can make a difference), introducing new technologies for including citizens in political processes, enabling them to issue formal requests for calling a referendum on bills prepared by the said citizens.

Meanwhile, the democratic majority often opts for political offers whose spokesmen demand being given free rein in terms of passing bills upon their electoral victory. As exemplified by the Polish case, even after four years of such a way of governing the country, the majority is still willing to extend the mandate and, thus, ultimately and unquestionably allow for an undemocratic rule.

A new type of political systems is materializing. One based on a battle between liberal democracy, with its pluralistic society, and spontaneous order, which stands in opposition to a plebiscit-like democracy, with its state governed by the ruling group and social order organized thanks to privileges granted by the said group. What is the future of such a system? What if it backfires? What is in store for the people in a world without liberal democracy?

21st Century Authoritarianism

One of the possible directions of how political systems in the countries that were until now democratic will develop is a new form of authoritarianism. The abovementioned plebiscit-like democracy will be a natural link in this process.

Several stages will thus occur. Some countries already experience the first stage: a take-over of the key institutions by the ruling party. Without the institutions to put a stop to the changes violating the Constitution and destroying the liberal and democratic safety fuses, safeguarding them becomes impossible.

At the same time, the members of the ruling party enter every possible structure dependent on the government: public administration institutions, media, foundations, task-oriented organizations, cultural institutions, and, of course, state-owned enterprises.

This staff-related revolution, when combined with creating a space for exchanging the rule of law for arbitrary decisions made by the party leaders, leads to the emergence of a truly privileged class which does not have to follow the law in certain respects, and which has at their disposal sinecures, public funds, and privileges that may be later redistributed among those citizens who are willing to support the new order.

Still, a completely free election process remains in place, thus, in theory, the negative changes might be stopped once the party loses the election.

The second stage involves the disappearance of opposition media and a wide-spread belief that refusing to join the apologists of the ruling camp may truly destroy any chances they might have had to fulfill their life, professional, or business goals.

Then, there is also legal inequality – a lack of legal capacity to assert their rights in courts or in the Prosecutor’s Office, when the member of the privileged class is on the other side of the conflict. In such a situation, a critical mass of society gives up any thoughts of opposing such a status quo.

In such circumstances, the loss of the ruling party in the election no longer seems feasible and elections become a facade, a meaningless ritual, even though they still may remain free. The sense of serfdom instilled in the society thus stems from their internal, personal conformism and wanting to be left in peace, and is not a result of external repression or sanctions.

The third stage may, potentially, allow for introducing classical authoritarianism, well known from history – one that involves harassing opposition politicians, excluding them from elections, formally eradicating freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and employing forms of direct coercion and harassment.

Nevertheless, it is possible that in the 21st century, this third stage may not even occur. Modern technologies allow for building a stable authoritarian system without the need to resort to brutal methods. Authoritarianism may easily emerge in democratic conditions.

The prospective agents willing to bring about such a political system in the 21st century will likely resort to right-wing, national, nationalist, conservative, traditional, and religious values. They will emphasize such values as pride of one’s origins, dignity, attachment to carefully selected historical topics, distrust towards the outside world, treating other cultures as inferior, and social homogeneity.

However, for both the autocrats and the great majority of their supporters as well as beneficiaries of the new regime, these ideological elements will serve as mere decoration, a manifestation of the need to have their own raison d’être.

Although the ideological aspect will be in no way irrelevant, and often drawn upon on various occasions (be it celebratory marches or official gatherings), it will serve as a kind of “food for the lesser people”. It may, though, be easily exchanged for other values, provided they are an effective tool for keeping the privilege and influence of the insiders in place.

When global trends and sources of fear change, the ruling camp may become eager to change its colors to social democrats, eco-enthusiasts, or even a liberally minded group.

The largest part of the society, for whom any significant privileges are out of their reach, but who remain aware of the artificially imposed ideology, will be kept at arms length and in check by means of mass indoctrination – introduced via innovative technologies of the digital age.

Everyone will know that, in reality, no anti-governmental action will go unnoticed. Everything will be recorded and forever tied to the personal history of a given citizen. The citizen will know that the authorities are not national, conservative, but merely pretend to be perceived as such.

The authorities, in turn, will know that the citizen does not exhibit similar traits, and this shall be no problem as long as they pretend well enough, just like they do. This collective game of appearances will bind them together in loyalty.

This mechanism was, of course, already in place in the authoritarian regimes in the 20th century. However, back then, the lack of total technology and constant invigilation served as a kind of incentive for risking being a dissident.

One could even speculate that an act of anti-regime disobedience would not go unnoticed by the services, and thus will not have a negative impact on one’s potential future career. Today, technology is so ubiquitous that operating under the radar would be impossible. Those who think otherwise are simply naive.

Therefore, any ostentatious action taken against the system and its formally adopted “values” will not be sanctioned. The sheer possibility of being cut off from any potential or real chance to enter the ranks of the privileged will be enough to put a stop to it.

Self-censorship, cold calculation, cynicism, and most importantly the way people think about the future will constitute a sufficient instrument of control. Why should a 30-year-old attack the authorities and lose any chance for living peacefully, while when turning 45 they may become true supporters of the government? Who knows?

Most people living in this reality will easily learn the ropes of dealing with the situation and will find a way to have some kind of a life. They may not like it, but they will swallow this bitter pill partly thanks to the fact that drastic sanctions would be minimized.

After all, one can be relatively comfortable living in a therapy center where someone else is making all the decisions, tells us what to eat or watch on the tv, without harming us in any significant way.

Total Democracy

However, things could go in a different way too. It may be much less likely in our part of Europe, as opposed to the western part of the continent or, especially, the south. I am talking about a path of rebellion against the safety fuses of liberal democracy from the point of view of perceiving the meaninglessness of a voting ballot and demanding expanding the scope of democratic participation to a significant degree.

Among the modern populist leaders there are many who speculate that the greater part of political influence could be amassed by giving up almost all power to make decisions and putting it into the hands of citizens – in an incomplete form, yet one based on the utopian vision of direct democracy.

These are the tribunes of various ideological affiliations, ready to surf every wave of popular support. However, the axis of their approach clearly starts a broad stream of social transfers that enables them to buy the access to power in a state with public funds.

Modern technologies enable not only widespread invigilation, but also make it possible to bring about a project of total democracy. Both taking steps in support of certain bills and conducting referenda and open social consultations for such bills can be now easily executed thanks to the new communication channels.

True, the recent examples of hackers supported by hostile states and their involvement in democratic processes cast a shadow on these developments and pose a threat of interfering with or forging the results of digital voting procedures.

However, one may safely assume that there still is a possibility that even in large countries most decisions could be made outside of the parliament, and thus without a kind of filter consisting of the elites.

The referendum could be dedicated to any topic whatsoever. A system designed in this manner would be based on the idea that the so-called collective knowledge is deemed more important than expert analyses.

Therefore, the sensibility of all decisions would not be tied to one’s education or knowledge of the voters, but instead depended on their number. As such, the higher the voter turn-out, the better decision will be made.

Nevertheless, such an approach would make keeping the system of liberal and democratic safety fuses in place impossible. Depriving citizens of the right to decide on any issue would have to be viewed as an assault not only on their political freedom, but – paradoxically – also on the quality of the decision-making process.

Of course, the first result of introducing total democracy would be a generous financial support policy aimed at citizens. Here, two paths may possibly emerge.

Either the citizens would “solidarily” cooperate and thus an unwritten principle of supporting each and every group by means of a kind of “unanimous vote” of the vast majority of the society would emerge; or, in light of a deficit in public funds, competition and fighting for support would occur, as a result of which any support would be limited and granted only to the largest and most influential groups, or those that would manage to create a stable majoritarian coalition.

As a consequence, the groups that are not the members of this “coalition” – possibly even more deserving, but smaller and thus ignored while the votes are counted – would be left with no suffivient social support.

Additionally, the introduction of a policy based on putting on the tax burden on the minority groups would likely follow – with the more wealthy groups being the first that would experience the blow, with taxes at the level of up to 75-100% of their income.

Then, the groups with average income that are also outside of the majoritarian “coalition” would be next. Therefore, following the principle of all decisions made through general voting would be simply arbitrary.

The economic consequences of total democracy may be easily predicted. A vicious circle of debt with increasing cost of managing it would emerge, further encouraged with full premeditation. The eventual unwillingness to pay the debt would be disguised as yet another general vote, thus making the postponement seem like a democratic decision.

This would, in turn, lead to a domino effect of family companies going bankrupt and pose a threat of disintegrating international structures – both in the sense of global markets and regional systems of collective security. In other words, international conflicts stemming from not paying back an extremely large debt would keep piling up until, eventually, would likely result in a war.

A total democracy that involves the destruction of liberal and democratic safety fuses would, however, also open the door to yet another process. Majoritarian social “coalitions” would inevitably emerge in order to impose on the rest of the society a system of values, religion, and lifestyle. No constitutional laws would then protect individual freedom in this regard.

Excluding these issues from general voting could thus be viewed as an assault on democracy and the rights of the people. When faced with an economic crisis and an increasing threat of an international armed conflict, the terrified social “coalition” may have no other choice but to pass giving the power away to someone with a so-called “heavy hand”, who would navigate the country through the turbulent waters.

And so, this scenario may lead to the emergence of authoritarianism – possibly even one resembling those typical of the 20th century.

Liberty-Oriented Meritocracy

The third scenario for the future without liberal democracy is the least likely of all. It is an alternative that must be chosen by all defenders of liberal democracy and its achievements who deem protecting personal freedom and individual liberties as the guiding principle of the very existence of the state and society, with all structures involved.

Should the project of liberal democracy fail and were it to be substituted for a plebiscit- and facade-like democracy or total democracy, the defenders of freedom would be forced to return to the views of Benjamin Constant and support limiting democracy in favor of meritocracy ruled by the elites of knowledge.

In such a situation, a fundamental return to all basic safety fuses typical of liberal democracy (especially the separation of power and a complex set of checks and balances that would play a crucial role in providing a legal framework preventing any potential instances of sliding into oligarchy, plutocracy, or even dictatorship) would become possible.

The courts would play a key part in this system, as they would take over most of the prerogatives in the process of safeguarding the rule of law by means of blocking any regulation that violates liberal constitutional norms.

The legislative and executive branches would be permanently deprived of any chance of interfering with private, religious, sexual, personal, and family lives of the citizens. Only the courts would have the mandate to make any interventions of this kind, but only in order to protect the freedom and autonomy of the individual against any attempts of violating their rights by other people or groups.

The scope of matters decided on via a democratic mechanism would be limited only to selecting members of the parliament – with the parliament having a limited set of legislative prerogatives. The key decisions of state importance would be made by teams of experts, whose members would be appointed solely on the basis of adequate education and internationally acknowledged scientific experience.

Although their recommendations would not be altered in any significant way during the parliamentary proceedings, they could be rejected altogether or confronted with the results of analyses conducted by other teams of experts.

The limiting of the democratic aspect in strictly decision-making processes would be accompanied by enabling competent citizens to have an impact on these processes by means of social consultations. The meritocratic spirit of the system would thus stimulate the very mentality of the participants of such consultations, who would automatically exclude from the process incompetent individuals who do not meet the high standards of joining the public debate, or who ignore the complications stemming from opting for radical solutions to complex problems.

Therefore, the quality of the public debate would improve significantly. The citizen would come to understand that joining the debate is not an inborn right, but a great opportunity granted to those who made sure they are adequately prepared and have the required expertise.

One of the pillars of a stable liberty-oriented meritocracy would be a social contract. It would serve as a guarantee of having a basic means to live a full life depending on the wealth and the state of the economy of a given state.

However, the legal mechanisms would give priority to those who are able to live on their own income. Additionally, the social contract would ensure the access to free education for all, thus creating a system of equal opportunity.

What We Know Is Better

Liberal democracy has many drawbacks, true. Nevertheless, it is a regime that was based on hundreds of years of experience of various states and nations that had been creating the Western (and not only) civilization and, as such, is far better than any of the alternatives which could emerge should liberal democracy cease to exist. Which is why liberal democracy is the system of the future too.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz