Freedom in the Balance?


Modern liberal democracies were the result of having already tried everything, from the life of the nomadic hunter-gatherer to the feudal society to monarchical autocracy to the bloodiest of anti-monarchical revolutions. They were the result of brilliant men from Plato to Edmund Burke thinking about how a society should be constructed, who should rule it, and on what basis the authority of a ruler rests.

By the time that the new life of a modern liberal democracy flopped upon the shores of the 20th century it was a thing which was simultaneously both an infant and an ancient. It was in many ways a child.

Universal suffrage, for instance, the idea that women as well as men, and women and men without property (working class women and men) should have a say theoretically equal to that of their social betters did not come fully into existence until the 1920’s. Some few places, for specific and usually local reasons, granted women the vote somewhat earlier (like New Zealand, in 1893). But on the whole the universal suffrage of all citizens above 18 is itself a very youthful thing in terms of political if not human lifespans.

There are still some people alive today who were alive when women did not have the vote. Modern liberal democracy in this sense only spans the uttermost lengths of a single human lifespan. When thinking about this, we should perhaps remember that in the Ancient world the basic political characteristics of a societal system remained almost identical for several thousand years (as in the case of Egypt, or China). Who was in charge might change, rulers and dynasties might change, barbarian hordes might come and go, or come and settle as new rulers, empires and kingdoms would fall and rise and fall again. Whole peoples might be carted off into slavery or elevated from client to master, Ozymandias might be feared or forgotten….but the basic hierarchies, classes and even many details of ordinary life (what it meant to be a peasant farmer, for instance) never changed.

Modern liberal democracy is very modern indeed. It took around 6,000 years of recorded human history to emerge, and has only been with us for a single human lifespan. But at the same time it is truly ancient in terms of its cultural DNA, perhaps showing in modern faces the same scowl that appeared on the very first Egyptian, to think ‘this is not just’ or ‘Pharaoh is wrong’, and certainly sharing a textual descent from the Ancient Greeks who, some two and a half thousand years ago, invented, wrote and thought about the nature of the Demos.

The ideas that define modern liberal democracy were then the ideas that had been forged through centuries of good rulers and bad and through the evolution of rule from the hands of a King anointed by God to a Parliament of men elected by the people. And the ideas reached as the conclusion of everything from Plato’s dialogues through to Thomas Paine’s pamphlets (and beyond) were rather and perhaps surprisingly simple ones.

The ruler should be someone who possesses the approval of the people. Rule should be consensual and moral, not arbitrarily imposed simply by greater strength (a concept which actually motivated BOTH sides of the English Civil War). The legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the people, and this consent is judged and decided by regular elections featuring one vote per citizen. The other features of liberal democracy – separation of Church and State, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, freedom of assembly and speech, freedom of religion, conscience and thought, even the separation of the executive and the Civil Service, are all means designed to prevent arbitrary rule, unjust rule, and ensure the rights pertaining to all citizens. In other words, enfranchisement might have been gained as the last right for some groups, but all the other rights exist to protect it.

Classical liberal democracy is, at heart, a means of trying to simultaneously protect the citizen from the elite and the elite from violent revolution, by limiting elite power within bounds acceptable to all and by publicly connecting elite power to the preservation of inalienable rights for those less powerful. However much a single vote is a paltry thing in purely rational terms, when lost in the sea of all other votes, it is a marker of a certain basic level of stake, say and protection within that society.

What we look for in our rulers and what we look for in our system, our two questions pertaining to the character of an individual and the nature of the system surrounding that individual, are inextricably linked. If our ruler/s are good and just, but the system that decides how much power they can apply is irredeemably corrupt, that goodness will not manifest. If our rulers are cruel and unjust, and our system is full of good men with far less power than our rulers, then too we will face a traditional tyranny.

Classical liberal democracy tried to resolve the issue of injustice and tyranny by the separation and compartmentalisation of power. The US system is the most sustained and obvious example of this very Enlightenment idea that society can be ordered through a series of checks and balances to prevent tyranny.

The King is removed from the board. How do we prevent the rule of the mob, or the Terror of the French Revolution? How do we make sure that the President does not become a King, or that the judges do not become an executive? How do we limit the Congress, the President, the Senate, the judiciary, the military and the clergy? How do you prevent an elective dictatorship in which our democracy is really just the rule of the mob or a tyranny of the majority?

We divide up the power, we divide up the responsibilities, we try to parcel them out in a way that limits and restrains everyone, or at least that stops any one of them assuming total power, and we assign a clear list of limits, of do’s, don’ts and basic rights. We call that a Constitution.

However much one might grow cynical about the merchant class selfish interests that rebelled against kingship, or about the ineffectual wisp that is a single vote, or about the many obvious abuses at home and abroad that liberal democracies have engaged in, we must still see efforts like this as noble ones, valuable not just for the beauty of their expression (18th and 19th century politicians were quite frequently great writers in ways no politician is today) but for the wisdom of their fears.

The relationship between the formation of the USA and the modern liberal democracy throughout the western world is as direct as the relationship between getting pregnant and having a baby. The American Revolution was manifested in the spirit of liberty, and the spirit of liberty is the path to democracy. This Enlightenment effort to craft a nation covered all of the issues about preserving the rights of the citizen and limiting the powers of the ruler that liberal democracy is likewise intended to address and resolve.

And where we currently are in other western liberal democracies is where the Federal Republic of the United States of America is too. We are at the point where the young-old experiment in universal suffrage and modern democratic rights has been murdered. And murdered most by those who claim to be its custodians, its guardians, its carers. Our modern liberal democracy no longer exists. It’s no longer liberal, in the sense of being open-minded, open-hearted, generous to a plurality of opinion, protective of free speech, respectful of the rights of the majority as well as of minorities, convinced of the necessity of individual rights and equality before the law. Those classical liberal values are dead within the very systems designed to defend them, they are most dead in the institutions created to keep them alive.

Liberal democracy temporarily divided the power to lessen the risk of tyranny. Modern technocrats, scientists, corrupt politicians and influential billionaires in building their corrupt networks of power have circumvented old checks and balances. They have patched back together the beast of autocracy from the flesh of a butchered liberal democracy. And they intend that it should live.

Daniel Jupp is the author of A Gift for Treason: The Cultural Marxist Assault on Western Civilisation, which was published in 2019. He has had previous articles published by Spiked, The Spectator and Politicalite, and is a married father of two from Essex. Daniel’s SubStack is available here.