David Beetham's "Liberal Democracy and Deliberative Choice"

A summary by Howard Fienberg

for Andreas Pickel, October 31, 1995

David Beetham, in his piece "Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Democratization," offers several different arguments. Beetham opens by clarifying his own view of democracy as "lying at one end of the spectrum," with the other end of the spectrum being "a system of rule where the people are totally excluded from the decision-making process and any control over it." (55) He then differentiates between liberalism and democracy, and elaborates upon the struggle between the two concepts. Beetham later deals with constraints on both representation and time. Finally, he tackles the conundrum of what he sees as the three-tiered battle between the traditions of liberalism, socialism (or social democracy), and feminism.

David Beetham has discovered that liberal democracy is paradoxical, that the two ideas work together and at odds. Five components of liberalism that work for the better are described. First of all, there are "individual rights subject to constitutional protection." (56) He finds these the backbone of democracy, although not all of these rights are necessarily democratic. Second of all, he notes the "institutional separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary." (56) The concept of separated powers is essential to the functioning of the rule of law. Third of all, Beetham cites the representative assembly. The assembly is "the most effective device for reconciling the requirements" of popular control and equality within the time and size constraints of modern society. (57) Fourth of all, there is the principle of the limited state. This allows the separation of society into two spheres, the public and the private. Finally, Beetham cites liberalism's disbelief in the existence of a final truth. This finds that "the only criterion for the public good is what the people ... will choose." (57) This notion rejects the need for special knowledge or expert decisions to guide society. But there have been two classic struggles between liberals and democratizers. The first has been over the extension of the suffrage, while the second has focused on the "kind of social agenda necessary to make the principle of political control by equal citizens properly effective." (59)

Liberalism, however, tends to equate representative democracy to capitalist democracy, since only thus can state power be limited and democratically controlled. Several arguments arise in support of their conception. First of all, state ownership of all productive property would give it the power "to deny resources and even a livelihood to those" who were against its policies; plus it would have to do so, in order to prevent the emergence of parties which would work for the restitution of private property. Second of all, state control of economic coordination would lead to a "bureaucratic monster" which would "stifle all independent initiative." Third of all, the market allows the "maximum individual choice and power to the consumer," making it more democratic than the polity, and leading to the premise that the polity must be severely limited. Finally, capitalist democracy guarantees a plurality of power centers necessary for political liberties. (67)

Socialists rebut these arguments with some of their own. Firstly, democratizing the workplace is impossible as long as managers are responsible only to their shareholders. Secondly, capitalists have historically backed dictatorships when their property interest has been threatened by socialist movements. Thirdly, an open market surrenders "collective self-determination to the haphazard play of private choices and to powerful" and private institutions. Fourth, "the freer the market, the more repressive the state has to be to control the dissatisfactions of market losers." Finally, pluralism would be less constrained under capitalism than socialism because "it would not be tied to class conflict at the point of production." (68)

Feminism is looked at in a most optimistic manner, with Beetham finding it to be far more compatible with liberal democracy than socialism. Since "feminists have always been much more suspicious of the state," they do not entrust in it any more than the liberals. (69) What they do seek is a "redefinition of the private and public spheres and of their relationship" to each other. The feminist agenda has more to do with society in general than with the state, and their challenge to male power and privilege is not a threat to liberal democracy per se. In the end, theirs is the more adaptable for such purposes as changing the democratic outlook.

Return to Howard Fienberg's home page