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Individual rights of religious conscience and group freedom of worship do not merely protect a non-political but still social sphere. They also help keep a divisive issue off the political agenda. By privatizing religion in a multi-denominational society, liberal freedom helps make public discussion and majoritarian decision-making more effective.
By securing a "private space" for religious activity, constitutional government encourages citizens to engage in mutual learning and cooperation on a whole range of non-sacred issues. Separation of church and state unclutters the democratic agenda and creates an opportunity for collaboration across sectarian lines.
Again, because rights are protective, they can also be productive. The claim by the critics of classical liberalism that it was inherently hostile to democracy is baffling from a historical point of view. First, the only countries in which the majority of citizens has any chance at all to exercise influence on political decisions are those with liberal-constitutionalist regimes. Second, the democratization of the suffrage in the West did not seriously threaten the primary predemocratic liberal gains: religious toleration, freedom of the press, constraints on police misbehavior, freedom of entry into occupations and trades, and so forth.
So from whence derives the myth that liberalism and democracy are mutually exclusive?
The Five Conceptions of American Liberty
For one thing, liberals have always viewed political participation as voluntary and part-time. In a large nation densely populated with busy citizens, collective decision-making can occur only in a representative assembly, informed and stimulated by national discussion conducted by means of the free press.
Those who identify democracy with direct full-time, obligatory participation in public life, therefore, have traditionally smeared liberals as anti-democrats. Aspiring to an unrealizable ideal, they condemn liberals for the sin of being practical-minded. To be sure, liberals did not look back with nostalgia to the ancient Greek polis.
But was their skepticism, in this regard, antidemocratic? On the contrary. While admiring the extraordinary freedom of discussion in the Greek assemblies, liberals did not want to imitate most of the other characteristics of impoverished, slave-holding, militaristic oligarchies that managed to consume themselves in class warfare. Another common argument for liberalism's antidemocratic bias relies upon the historical debate over the restricted suffrage.
Liberals did have doubts and worries about majoritarian politics, and some were legitimate. Mill, for instance, was naturally distressed at the election of Louis Napoleon to the presidency of the Second French Republic by universal manhood suffrage. Nevertheless, despite practical reservations, liberals provided a strong theoretical basis for democratic politics as it eventually developed.
To be free, for liberals, was to obey laws made by oneself or one's representatives. That, in fact, was the second core norm of liberal theory. It is not surprising, therefore, that the two main political institutions of every liberal regime are the suffrage and a representative legislature. Citizens are bound to obey only those laws made by those expressly authorized to do so, laws made by legislators whom the electorate can oust from office if it wills. Locke insisted that the legislative power is "but a delegated Power from the People" and that "the Legislative being only a Fiduciary Power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the People a Supream Power to remove or alter the Legislative, when they find the Legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.
Athenian Democracy: a brief overview
That is the classic liberal formulation of a right of rebellion. Democratic politics, as we now know it, is but a routinization of this fundamental liberal right. Our legislators are our trustees whom we remove from office when they violate our trust. Madison was simply following his liberal predecessors when he asserted that "a dependence on the people" is "the primary control on government," more important even than the separation of powers.
The third core norm of liberal theory and one that again reveals the interconnection between liberalism and democracy, is the idea that public disagreement is a creative force. The standard view, among preliberal political theorists was that uniformity of belief is necessary for social order. John Milton was one of the first to reject this traditional idea, scorning what he called "obedient unanimity" and "a grosse and conforming stupidity.
Secret Enemies of True Republicanism by Andrew B. Smolnikar
This improbable idea had an earlier incarnation, among other places, in a few city-states of ancient Greece. But it was only encoded in the political systems of large nations during the liberal period. It is so radical that not even Rousseau, the father of modern radicalism, accepted it. Liberal rights, as mentioned, are not only protective. They are also productive. The purpose of freedom of speech, from this perspective, is less the protection of individual autonomy than the production of intelligent political decisions.
Participation in "the free market of ideas" does not guarantee self-fulfillment or emotional identification "among citizens.
Instead, it is a technique designed to enlist the decentralized imagination and knowledge of citizens, to expose errors, and to encourage new proposals. The free market of ideas is an implicitly egalitarian idea, moreover. It assumes that every citizen can, in principle, make a useful contribution to public debate. Milton wrote of "the voice of reason from what quarter soever it be heard speaking. Human beings are animals capable of self-correction.
Government-by-discussion is a political embodiment of the elemental human capacity to learn from experience and repair mistakes.
Suppose you wanted to create a political system for a large nation in which the majority would have a chance to influence public policy. What would you do? You would certainly avoid giving excessive power to urban mobs, who never represent more than a slim minority of the population. The only technique available to you would be electoral politics of some sort.
Liberal universalism implies that every individual's vote should count the same. The only morally justified decision-making rule in liberal politics, therefore, is majoritarianism. Liberal polities, however, while based on free and periodic elections, have all instituted a variety of restraints on majority rule.
How can these limits be reconciled with a commitment to democracy? Liberal limits on the power of electoral majorities have basically five justifications. The first three follow directly from the majority principle itself. First, the present majority must not be allowed to deprive future majorities of the right to correct earlier mistakes.
Second, the present majority needs the willing cooperation of outvoted minorities, whose personal rights must therefore be protected. Third, without freedom of debate, shielded from majority censorship and bullying, elites will capture power and ensconce themselves beyond criticism, eventually confiscating the majority's own power. Finally, there are two powerful non-majoritarian principles at work behind liberal limitations on majority rule. One is the norm of fairness. Majorities cannot be allowed to apply laws selectively or unequally. The second is the idea that political decisions will be more intelligent if produced by a process of wide-open debate and subjected even after they are made to an ongoing process of criticism.
The majority cannot silence its critics, even if it would love to do so. This prohibition insures that its decisions are more thoughtful and informed than they otherwise would be. The latter restrictions are indeed anti-majoritarian. But they are not antidemocratic if "democracy" includes -- as it surely does -- both equality before the law and government by discussion. One additional point needs to be made about majority rule.
Both conservatives and radicals enjoy citing the passage in The Federalist Papers where Madison writes that "the people in its collective capacity" should have no role in political life.
This phrase has always seemed oddly dissonant with other passages where Madison insists that the constitution being framed will create a "popular government. As I mentioned, the only way to give power to the majority is through elections. To allow "the people" to act collectively, like the Roman mobs, is to disenfranchise the majority. Only when the people act individually as voters, rather than collectively as a mob, can some influence of the majority over the long haul be secured. The problem with this arrangement, of course, is that the power wielded by voters on election day is relatively feeble.
To make popular participation compatible with majority rule, liberalism makes it dangerously weak.
What, then, can be done to increase the marginal leverage that a majority exerts through popular elections? To this problem, liberals provided a classic solution: the separation of powers. The separation of powers was a liberal application of the old maxim: divide and rule. Traditionally, the divide et impera strategy had been employed by tyrants against their restive subjects.
Liberals boldly turned this technique into a tool that the people could use against their rulers. By introducing internal divisions within government, liberals did not simply want to prevent tyranny. They were trying to create a regime that was relatively easy to influence from the outside. A "balance" is not stable.
On the contrary, it can be upset by a grain of sand.