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Strengths Of Liberal Democracy Essay, Research Paper
This essay will deal mainly with the origins of Liberal Democracy, and will say only a little about its current prospects. I turn to the history, however, because I believe we can learn from it a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of liberal democray and therefore its prospects. Indeed, what I wish to sress is a certain source of strength that has helped free governement survive in the long competition with ungree government in modern times. That source of strength is free speech. I want to emphasize the roleof free speech as an instrument of self-government. Free speech has other aspects- for instance, its function in promoting the private concerns or personal growth of the individal. In this present inquiry, however, I am thinking of its public function as the way in which liberal democracy enlists the intelligence of its citizens in solving common problems. I am concerned, in short, not with the moral value of liberal democracy nor with the individuals right of free expression, but rather with the utility to the modern democratic state of government by discussion.
In modern political thought this public function of free speech and free discussion has been perceived and appraised with favour by men of many different schools. All share in some degree the great tradition of modern rationalism. I can suggest the thrust of the basic analysis and the spread of its advocacy over time by mentioning the work of a few of the more notable. This body of though includes- indeed, I should say, it starts with- John Milton’s immortal rhetoric in defense of freedom of the press in Areopagitica (1644) It includes Burke’s portrait of the eighteenth century Parliament as a “deliberate assembly” guided by “the general reason of the whole” and Walter Bagehot’s analysis, a hundred years later, of the long-run survival value of what he first termed “government by discussion”. On the American side the case was made by Thomas Jefferson in the confident plea for political tolerance in his first inaugural; and by Mr. Justice Holmes in the defense of “free trade in ideas” put forward in his famous dissent in the Abrams case. More recently, the essentials of the analysis have been restated and put to use by political scientists who have shown how in democratic systems policy making can be a process of “social learning” in which outcomes are determined not by “the bumping of impenetrable billiard balls of power, but by men who could learn and whose viewpoints could change.”
Even today the best statement of the case for government by discussion-the fullest and clearest articuluation of the model-is found in the writings of John Stuart Mill, principally his two works on liberty (1859) and Representative Government (1861). In order to know what we are looking for in our historical inquiry, it will be helpful to summarize what Mill had to say.
He bases his arguement up what he terms “a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible.” Because of this quality of mind, Mill continues, man “is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience is to be enterpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument; but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind must be brought before it.”
Mill’s hypothesis is that truth will prevail over error, when both can be freely tested by investigation and discussion. That sounds innocent enough. But in stating this view, he is rejecting another view, indeed a major tenet of the western tradition, that truth is unlikely to prevail, unless the opinion of the many isauthoritartively controlled by the few, specifically the wiser sort of men, such as kings, priests, or philosophers. He could reject this older, hierarchical view because of his belief in the capacity of the individual for rational self-correction. But his hypothesis also includes the propositionthat this capacity will be rendered far more efficacious-more productive, I am tempted to say- if individuals freely and rationally exchange ideas with one another.
Mill did not let his brave hypothesis stand without qualification. He was aware that representative democracy is not “practicable or eligible in all states of civilisation” and that if free discussion were to bear the fruit he expected of it, certain preconditions must exist. Nor did he expect that even in those communities which met these moral and material prerequistites every individual would make an equal contribution. Some people would know more than others and therefore would probably make a larger contribution to the consideration of public policy. Yet he did not give these people a particularly honourific title, usually calling them simply “the instructed minority,” and conceived their influence as proceeding not from coerciion, or manipulation, or status, but essentially from rational persuasion.
His earnest and central concern was to make the greatest possible use of the intellectual and moral resources of all citizens. Rather like the economist who looks for that economic system in which the material resources of a society will be so allocated as to maximise the national product, Mill soguht that political system which would so utilise these less tangible resources as to elicit the greatest possible enlightenment regarding public policy. He critisized authoritarian government for “not bringing into sufficient exercise the individual faculties, moral, intellectual and active, of the people.” He saw in representative democracy the means by which these faculties would be utilised by opening office-holding to all classes of private citizens, but “above all, by the utmost possible publicity and liberty of discussion, whereby not merely a few individuals in succession, but the whole public, are made, to a certain extent, participants in the government.”
As a child of Benthamite utilitarianism, Mill could not overlook the function of democratic goverment as a means by which individuals and groups protect and promote their interests, using their political power to put forward and make good their demands on the polity. In his view, however, the discussion that takes place under liberal democracy is not merely a process in which demands are made and the will of the people is asserted. It is also a process in which the truth about public policy is examined, criticised, and improved- a process in which something is discovered or invented or learned. Free government consists not only of an organisation of will, but also of an organisation of thought. For that reason it has access to a source of power denied to unfree government.
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