This report will explain the merits of a liberal democracy and how they are beneficial to you. Abraham Lincoln once quoted that democracy was “A Government of the people, by the people and for the people”1, and 140 years later this still stands firm. Liberal Democracy is about power within the people, although there maybe leaders or governments they are always elected in a fair contest, and candidates for these elections can be drawn from the general public. Liberal Democracy in a modern society is a liberty to live in a culture free from dictatorship, or an unmerited class system whose interests are rarely those of the majority.
My aim is to explain to you the institutional features of liberal democracy, and help you to understand what liberal democracy is, what its professed benefits are and how, if any, drawbacks may be overcome. Before we look at liberal democracy in a modern society it is interesting to look to the past and see how it first came about. The Liberal movement can be traced back 300 years, though it grew to prominence during the middle of the nineteenth century in central Europe, a time where the Aristocracy was the ruling class, and the working class were suppressed into giving a share of their earnings made from the land to the nobility.
Essentially Liberals believed in freedom and individualism, the “supreme importance being that of the individual as opposed to any social group or collective body” (Andrew Heywood, 2002, pp43-44). Slowly countries began to implement these ideas, though few would be as radical to apply all the measures of the liberal thinkers, parliaments were set up and the majority of the people were able to vote in a secret ballot. (Though this did not include women in many countries until the 20th century)
As I have mentioned one of the most central issues arising from democracy is that of government by the people. Every member of the general public (bar criminals and the certifiably insane – who are regarded as beyond ‘universal suffrage’) must have the ability to influence government, be that in their right to vote, or in their right to stand office, be it at a local or national level. Reiterating what Abraham Lincoln said, it is not so much a government for the people but by the people.
Society is still institutionalised, but the establishment is not autocratic or dictatorial. The government needs checks in the form of a constitution, law courts or civil service; even a fairly elected government or president can go wrong (Hitler was elected in 1933 as German chancellor in a democratic election, though after Hindenburg’s death a year later he quickly starts to build his position as dictator)2. In the past, the aristocracy ran the civil service, an establishment crucial for the running of the country.
People reached high positions because of their family lineage and not because of personal ability. From the very beginning of Liberal thinking, meritocracy (the belief in the best person for the job) has been critical. Meritocracy is the one of the first steps to allowing other classes (as opposed to the established upper class) to take their place as part of a professional class. Liberal Democracy does not look to take power away from one class and give it to another; it is about equality. A Liberal Democracy requires a state to be open-minded.
A “tolerance of a wide range of contending beliefs, and the existence of conflicting social philosophies and rival political movements and parties” (Andrew Heywood, 2002, p77) If members of society wish to stand at elections as communist candidates, although there victory would possibly (though highly unlikely) lead to the downfall of democracy, in a Liberal Democratic state he or she would still be afforded the freedom to stand for his beliefs. As part of a Liberal democracy individuals have the right to vote through the means of a secret ballot.
A competitive election assures that alternative candidates compete for their place in a parliament. G. Bingham Powell talks of a bargain being striked between citizen and governmental representative: “The Bargain is that the government’s legitimacy, its expectation of obedience to its laws, is dependent on its claim to be doing what the citizens want it to do”, he then goes on to say that the “organised arrangement that regulates this bargain is the competitive political election”. (G. Bingham Powell, 1992 p195) One of the leading arguments concerning Liberal Democracy is the definition of ‘the people’.
Not so much who they are (though many would consider how far we do consider the ‘people’ in a Liberal Democratic institution) but to what power they can attain in society. Barry Holden remarks that “the whole people, positively or negatively, make, and are entitled to make, the basic determining decisions on important matters of public policy” (Barry Holden, 1993, p8) In the United Kingdom for example with a population of 60,000,000 people it is a reality that politics can only be participated by a small majority, but the population still has limited direct control.