Liberalism Versus Liberal Democracy

I am a liberal democrat. My political ideology, however, has nothing to do with modern American liberalism and even less to do with the Democratic party. These two systems have become antithetical to the original ideals of liberal democracy.

During the 18th Century, Western political thought came of age when it acknowledged certain ideals: individualism, the social contract, democracy and liberty, to name a few. We call the ideal of government, based on democracy and accountable to the people it represents, liberal democracy. At the time, liberal democracy was quite radical in contrast to European monarchies. It was democratic, broadly based on principles derived from classical Athenian and Roman democracy. The founders of the United States based the US government on the principles of liberal democracy, tempered with republicanism, and placed the new government before the world as a grand experiment.

Critical thinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, especially in France, uncomfortable with the unregulated and (as they viewed) anarchistic society developed under liberal democracy, reacted against the new ideology by developing the ideology of socialism. Socialism began as a reaction against the liberalism of the French Revolution. “To [the socialists,] socialism meant an attempt to ‘terminate the revolution’ by a deliberate reorganization of society on hierarchical lines and by the imposition of a coersive ‘spiritual power’” (Hayek, p. 76).1

The philosophical ideals of socialism took on many forms as politicians applied its principles to a variety of government systems. We’re familiar with the extreme forms of socialism, embodied in the totalitarian Communist governments of the 20th Century. We’re also familiar with the slower-growing statist forms applied in social democracy. Instead of sudden, and usually severe, takeovers of government, social democrats opted for gradualism, replacing liberalism bit by bit with, as Hayek put it, “hierarchical” government and “coersive spiritual power.”

What this meant to European states, was the replacement of monarchies with welfare state governments which exercised control over its citizens while paying lip service to the ideals of democracy.2 In the US, social democracy has supplanted liberal democracy as the preferred system of government, yet the original ideals of liberalism still have a strong influence. The “spiritual power” of socialism has not yet taken hold over the original liberal ideology.

Modern liberals, who originally called themselves “progressives” are the inheritors of socialist thought of the 19th Century. Socialism in this sense, is not necessarily Marxist (although that was one manifestation of socialist thought) but rather as a reaction against such things as individualism and liberty. As the socialists of the 19th Century found liberal democracy dangerous, so also the modern liberals find liberal democracy too individualistic, too liberal, too uncontrolled, and hence, too dangerous.

The 19th Century historian, Alexis de Tocqueville had this to say about the differences between liberal democracy and socialism: “Democracy extends the sphere of personal independence; socialism confines it. Democracy values each man at his highest; socialism makes of each man an agent, an instrument, a number. Democracy and socialism have but one thing in common—equality. But note well the difference. Democracy aims at equality in liberty. Socialism desires equality in constraint and in servitude” (Tocqueville).

Of course, the servitude Tocqueville decries can take on the forms from enslavement of the population (as Stalin did to his own people in the former Soviet Union) to subjugating the population to dependence on government, tied with a tenuous thread of taxation and welfare (as the US government does).

Because modern liberalism derives from 19th Century anti-liberalism, its ideology includes a distrust of liberal democratic principles. For example, individualism is at the heart of liberal democracy. The concept of individualism derives from deep roots in Western civilization, based on the foundations of Christianity, the Greeks, and the Romans. This individualism expresses the ideal of absolute self-government – producing the frightening prospect of a society with no government but self-regulation.

Admittedly, this presents a utopian ideal for liberal democrats, one which could very well lead to anarchy. Yet the principles of self-government have a human appeal and are deeply entrenched in the American psyche.

The economic manifestation of individualism, the free market, also appears dangerous to modern liberals. To modern liberals, the unseen and uncontrolled forces of the market must be regulated under a benevolent government. Free exercise of the market produces too many variables, too many troughs which in turn can do harm. Rather than risk the free market, at the expense of individualism, modern liberalism prefers the safety net of government control.

This is not to say that some sort of government control isn’t necessary. Far from it. If anything, socialism is pragmatic, finding solutions to economic and social problems. The cost for modern social democracy (modern liberalism) is the steady, increased intrusion of government into the lives of its citizens. The danger is the possibility of the totalitarian state, where the benefits of both social welfare and of liberal democracy are lost to government assumption of total control.

In a world where absolutist regimes, such as Russia and China have discovered principles of liberal democracy and applied them with great benefit to their social structure and economics, does it make sense that the US should pursue a headlong advance into socialism? Does it make sense to deny the deep roots of liberal democracy in favor of a political system at odds with it and which holds the ideals of statism over self-government? And does it make sense to stifle the American psyche at the expense of our liberty?


F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Alexis de Tocqueville, “Critique of Socialism” found on The Forum at the Online Library of Liberty.


1 I’ll address the problems of the assumption of government control here. I may return in another article to the concept of coercive spiritual power.

2 I speak of the welfare state in terms of socialist ideals which are based on the principles of equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity, the redistribution of wealth in the form of onerous taxation to fund public programs, government regulation of the economy, and public responsibility over private concerns.

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