Liberalism, Democracy and Social Choice

for professor Andreas Pickel

Politics 450: Democracy and Democratic Movements

Liberal democracy is the focus in this past week's readings in Held's Prospects for Democracy . David Beetham, in "Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Democratization" presents the arguments surrounding representative democracy, and those between the three traditions of liberalism, socialism, and feminism. David Miller, in "Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice," presents social choice theory within a deliberative model of democracy, juxtaposed against the liberal theory of the citizen which employs rational choice theory. Both pieces are of significant weight within the scope of this course, the former primarily for the debate surrounding the supposed kinship between capitalism and democracy, and the latter mostly for exploration of the possibilities for the expansion of democracy.


A particular point of Beetham's piece is the relationship between capitalism and representative democracy. Liberals find them inextricably linked, socialist see capitalism as an inevitable guarantor of the failure of democracy.

Liberals claim that 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. (67) 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. Also, capitalist democracy guarantees a plurality of power centers necessary for political liberties. (67) In opposition, socialists state that an open market surrenders "collective self-determination to the haphazard play of private choices and to powerful" and private institutions. (68) As well, because these institutions are responsible only to their shareholders, the masses (workers) have no input into the decisions taken by the institutions, and thus have little say in the democratic decision-making in a capitalist democracy. Schumpeter could retort to this socialist assertion with his theory on the plurality of political actors. He finds that all powerful associations (including unions and community groups, both involving the masses) become political actors by lobbying the government in their interests.

Interestingly enough, liberals are not overly uniform in their criticisms of socialism. Many liberals believe that state control of economic coordination would lead to a "bureaucratic monster" which would "stifle all independent initiative." (67) Max Weber would not agree, for he believed that bureaucracy was inevitable anyhow, both in corporations and governments. He believed that bureaucracies were in fact more efficient than a democratic system. Of course, he has no problem with the express divisions of power between elite political actors and the politically ineffectual majority of the population.

The link between capitalism and democracy is one that is generally accepted in the western world, and is evident in its foreign policy. The American ambassador to the united Nations was the first to make a real justification for the manner in which the US chose which regimes in the world to support. She noted that there were two distinctly different kinds of freedom, political and economic, with the political tied to liberal democracy, and the economic tied to capitalism. Authoritarian regimes, those that maintain a capitalist economy and provide economic freedom, are thus preferable to totalitarian socialist regimes, which provide neither political nor economic freedoms. As noted by Beetham, this further demonstrates the liberal belief in pragmatically accepting half a loaf rather than none at all. Kirkpatrick stressed that democracy could not exist without the base of capitalism. Certainly this can be see in force across the board, since the US has always favored an authoritarian regime, such as Guatemala, to a communist one such as Cuba.

The socialists rebut such arguments with the claim that capitalists have historically backed dictatorships when their property interest has been threatened by socialist movements. These are often democratic movements which are conveniently labeled socialist by the governing elite so as to gather support against them. In such a manner, the only reason socialism has tended to prevent democracy is because capitalists force it into dictatorship. It is often said that Nicaragua was democratic before the US began to help the Contras defy the new regime. The war begun against them, the Sandanistas had no choice but to reign in political freedom while they fought to survive. The same can be said for the Soviet Union, which was invaded by the Western powers shortly after its socialist revolution, and thus had to instill wartime controls on democratic freedom.

But this is able to be countered as well. Russia in the civil war years actually allowed a great deal of economic and political freedoms in order to keep its citizenry happy and the country productive, freedoms which soon disappeared as the fighting died down. As such, the Russian people actually saw more freedom during the civil war than at most any other time. The Soviet state used its control over resources to temporarily buy its citizens. And this runs contrary to the taunt made by socialists that "the freer the market, the more repressive the state has to be to control the dissatisfactions of market losers." (68)

Is democracy a direct development from capitalism? Socialists might say yes, since it is the contradictions inherent in capitalist liberal democracy which should eventually lead to a socialist state, and their idea of the best and true democracy. Not surprisingly, this is a concept alien to liberals, since they believe socialism to be inherently dictatorial. What can be said is that capitalism is a necessary precondition of democracy, but is not a sufficient one. The task remains to discover the remaining preconditions. Most cases tend to hold to the theory, since there are really no examples of democratization without economic liberalization. Liberal democracy was in fact an outgrowth of the middle class which emerged from capitalism. However, the danger lies in equating political liberalization with democracy., since they are not necessarily the same. Economic liberalization usually leads to demands for political liberalization. This is evident in modern-day events in China, where successive economic reforms spawned a pro-democracy movement, which then led to the Tiennamen square massacre, a regime backlash. The seed of democratization still exists, even if it is not fruitful at this moment in time. It is the capitalist economy in development in China, however, which will keep the democratic seed alive, and may eventually allow it to bloom.


Miller's proposition of deliberative democracy is compelling. It examines a more optimistic alternative to traditional representative liberal democracy, in contrast to the conservative outlook of Beetham's piece. Deliberative democracy relies on people's susceptibility to rational argument, as well as on their ability to defer to fairness and the collective interest as opposed to their own interests and opinions. In order for deliberative democracy to operate properly, it is imperative that people exercise "democratic self-restraint," which means placing the importance for a decision on how genuinely democratic is the manner in which it is reached, and not in making sure that it reflects the decision they favor. (88)

The focus, therefore, in the deliberative model is the procedure, not the outcome. That is to say that the model does not seek to reach some higher mode of truth, "some objectively right or valid answer" as does the epistemic model. (76) The only goal of deliberative democracy is that of reaching agreement or a decent consensus. Miller stresses that this is not a "discovery procedure," but a practical method of open discussion encompassing many points of view in order to give legitimacy to the outcome. (77)

He does realize that it would be ill-conceived to hope that every instance of deliberation would result in a unanimous decision. as such, votes will still be required, and the problems of social choice will still crop up. He further clarifies that the deliberative model produces sets of rankings of issues with which social decision procedure should be able to cope. (81)

The major advantages within the deliberative model are twofold. One, preferences that are self-interested will tend to be eliminated by public debate, since they will have to be justified rationally. Two, discussion tends to activate norms by "inducing participants to think of themselves as forming a certain kind of group." (83)

This model, while thoughtful and significant, is still too utopian, because it relies on rationality and a deliberative group of manageable size. Rationality is rarely a given with citizens, and Miller proposes no real way to get around debates such as those over abortion, where participants tend to polarize either to one side or another, and rational argument has no swaying effect. As far as the size of the group, this is an obvious problem, which harkens back to our study of the Athenian model. He is in essence arguing for something along these classical lines. The problems are, as pointed out by Beetham, the limitations of time and space. The modern polity could not conceivably handle a discussion of the necessary scope due to its size, and to the amount of time it would require from a rushed consumerist society. So, it is a pleasant hope, but that is all it remains for now, until technology changes society enough to all for its enactment.


So, in conclusion, one finds that Beetham offers a reserved view of the links between capitalism and democracy, and Miller a hopeful and optimistic view of the possibilities of deliberative democracy. The issue that remains in the end is how best to combine modern capitalist democratic society with a deliberative model. Gradual reform, along with advances in technology, will possibly allow it.


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