Democracy v. Liberty?
Half a century ago, at the height of the Cold War, the United States faced this same question when scheduled elections in Vietnam threatened to bring to power a communist government under Ho Chi Minh. From across the ocean came an answer. It was written by the conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne and published in Encounter, Irving Kristol's magazine. Kristol commended the essay for its freshness. Fifty years later, despite some obvious anachronisms, it still seems fresh.
When a country's future is in dispute, Western public opinion usually suggests
that free elections should settle the question. This comprehensive enthusiasm,
for settling territories in dispute by putting the question to the people themselves,
is nothing new. After the First World War, the same principle enjoyed a disastrous
vogue; but then it was a question of allowing each ethnic group to set up shop
on its own, if it so chose. Today, free elections are to decide whether or not
the countries concerned are to live under Communist governments. The revolutionary
implications of asserting that the people, let alone the transient majority
of the people, have the
"right" to decide an issue of this dimension, should be obvious to anyone. Unfortunately, they are not.
Until very recently, Western public opinion has been prepared to leave the
whole subject to the diplomatists. If the Foreign Ministers liked to produce
a plan containing a clause promising free elections, who were we to quarrel?
In any case, it always seemed a sensible enough arrangement, because
in each case the West had every reason to anticipate an overwhelming Communist defeat.
There has, it is true, been no example to date of a people freely choosing Communism. The Germans would certainly reject it and so would the Koreans. There seemed, therefore, no good reason for examining the propriety of asking peoples to choose between Communist and Western parties. In other words, since in the struggle between Communism and democracy, free elections seem always likely to serve the latter and defeat the former, why make difficulties for ourselves by anticipating defeats that are unlikely to occur?
The answer is now quite simple. The difficulties have arisen and in an acute
form. Next year in Indo-China the Geneva agreements commit Great Britain to
a policy of holding free elections which will almost certainly produce an overwhelming
Communist victory. It is possible, of course, to disallow
the result by arguing that the voting will not be free. But why should Ho Chi-minh rig an election which he is likely to win anyhow?
Most independent observers are convinced that given the choice, a majority
of Vietnamese will freely vote for the Communist regime. Under the Geneva agreement,
Britain is pledged to provide this free choice. Not only are we pledged to go
forward with an election which almost certainly will result in a Communist victory,
but we are also pledged to oppose any action by the anti-Communist minority
to reverse by violence the verdict of the majority. To put it in another way,
the defenders of democracy, by proclaiming their faith in the will of the people,
find themselves compelled by the logic of their doctrine to act as a midwife
It is perhaps hardly necessary nowadays to point out the obvious truth that democracy which, by itself, in isolation, is concerned only with the question of who should be vested with ruling authority, can and often is highly illiberal. In practice, self-government often means, not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. Fifty-one per cent of a nation can establish a totalitarian regime, suppress minorities, and still remain democratic. Hitler came to power through democratic procedures, and Senator McCarthy's appeal was to the "right" of the majority to curtail the liberties of the few.
But if democracy, which simply means government according to the will of the
people, can be illiberal, autocracy can, of course, be liberal; just as majorities
can be unjust, so minorities and even one man can be, and often have been, just.
The point to notice is that there is nothing necessarily
liberal about democracy, and nothing necessarily democratic about liberalism. Democracy, as a system of government, is concerned with the question of who should be vested with the freedom of the individual, regardless of who carries on the government. It is possible, therefore, indeed it is all too easy, for a democratic government, acting in accordance with the will of the governed, to outrage every virtue in the liberal catechism. Once it is recognised that liberalism and democracy can be contradictory, the importance of keeping these two political concepts separate needs no further underlining.
What I am saying, of course, is that liberalism presupposes the existence of
natural law, rational and ascertainable. It is above the will of all rulers, be they kings, nobles, or the people. There can therefore be no divine right of the people which elevates the popular will into something above the natural law. Although this is a truism, its implications are nevertheless often overlooked. If the people have no right to govern as they wish but only as they ought to, this means in practice that democracy is only a viable system of government when those practising it accept this particular limitation.
Unless, therefore, a country is either "born free, without having to become
so," as Tocqueville saw the United States had the unique good fortune to
be, or, like Britain, arrived at democratic freedom by passing through an apprenticeship
of liberal aristocracy, its struggle for "self-government" may end
up in dictatorship. Because democratic theory prevents any frank recognition
that some group of educated or literate leaders at the head of a new nation
must give the orders, these same leaders, nurtured on pure milk of democratic
doctrine, are forced to pretend to themselves and their followers that they
are acting as the spokesman of the popular will. Once this fiction is adopted,
the rot sets in. The literate elite, having convinced themselves that they represent
the people, accept no limitations on their power. For to do so would be undemocratic,
and above all things they want to be democratic. The illiterate masses, hoodwinked
by a mass
of propaganda disguised as information, upon which they are theoretically expected to form their democratic decisions, give their consent to everything that is proposed. ...
Nothing is more inimical to freedom than an experiment in democracy before
the necessary preconditions have been fulfilled. It gives the elite, who are
in power because there is no alternative, both an excuse and an encouragement
to pretend that their right to govern rests on something far more substantial
than their ability to read and write and the inability of their followers to
If you asked any American or Englishman if he believed that the will of the people must in all circumstances prevail, he would answer "yes." If you asked him whether he would accept to live under a Communist government in England or America simply because 51 per cent of the electorate had voted in favour, he would say "no." The will of the people, in short, must be reasonable if it is to be respected. But what does that mean? It means, of course, that it must conform to certain generally accepted standards of justice. The will of the people, then, is not sovereign at all. It is subject to laws over which it has no control. If the majority refused to accept these limitations, the minority are under no obligation to accept their dominion. No majority can impose slavery, or legislate in favour of incest, or impose one religion and ban another.
I hope I have said enough to suggest that there is no place in the Anglo-American
form of democracy for the totalitarian concept of unlimited popular sovereignty.
This will no doubt appear a banal conclusion. Everyone
had reached it independently already. But had they? In theory, yes, but the fact remains that without a tremor of conscience this country is prepared to underwrite a Communist victory in Indo-China, so long as it is achieved by a democratic process. Surely, implicit in this attitude is the assumption that a sovereign people has the right to choose any form of government, liberal or tyrannical.
I am fully aware, of course, that a sovereign people, using the word sovereign as a synonym for independent, should not have its internal affairs regulated from outside. It is a law of nations that a country can go to hell in its own fashion. In this sense the people of Indo-China are now no doubt sovereign. Limitations of power, as well as international custom, prevent us from effective and legitimate intervention. However much we may disapprove of the prospect of Indo-China voting Communist, we neither have the right --in international law -- nor the military strength to do anything about it. But because outside powers have no right to reverse the choice of independent peoples, it is quite another matter to pretend that the independent peoples themselves have the "right" to choose tyranny.
Why should the Indo-Chinese, for example, have a right that we don't, in our own political arrangements, grant ourselves? Why should the Indo-Chinese people be free to choose tyranny, when we don't grant ourselves this indulgence? Since it is no part of the Anglo-American political tradition to claim absolute sovereignty for the British and American peoples, let alone absolute sovereignty for transient popular majorities, why should this claim be made for the Indo-Chinese?
We assume that the Communist Party is allowed to campaign for power in this country because of our own innate belief in democracy. The truth is that we grant this, right because the Communists have no chance of winning. If they did have a chance of winning, political instinct would very quickly suggest that our democratic assumptions needed re-examination. It would then be discovered that Communist participation in the electoral process fulfils none of the conditions -- practical, historical, or ethical -- on which the Anglo-American tradition depends.
Communism so debauches the basic conditions of the Anglo-American tradition that to accept a Communist electoral victory as "democratic" would be base apostasy. It has been the continuing triumph of the Anglo-American tradition to embody standards of morality in its democratic institutions. However much, therefore, the Communists may be able to claim power through electoral victory, their claim need in no way demand Western acceptance. We are not committed to any belief in popular sovereignty by moral standards. In any conflict between the claims of liberalism and the claims of democracy, the Anglo-American tradition leaves us in no doubt where our allegiance lies.
All this is, of course, common knowledge. But because it is so much a part of us, because it lies so deep, we often forget its implications when we consider day-to-day affairs. Then the jargon, the slogans, dominate our reactions. In such moods, we allow our national reputation to underwrite such disgraceful arrangements as the proposed Indo-Chinese elections. Possibly, for military reasons, we had no alternative. But it obviously compounds the danger to pretend that these elections are forced upon us by our political beliefs. Then we are likely to jeopardise something far more precious than national security or diplomatic advantage -- we are likely to jeopardise our political beliefs themselves.
This essay was originally published in Encounter, VI, No. 1 (Jan. 1956), 5-13. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
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r.a. leiby - 10/3/2002
Is this a typo?
r.a. leiby - 10/3/2002
Is this a typo?.........don't you mean Worsthorne?
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