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Liberal Democracy

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken, 1920.

Liberal Democracy is a phrase often used to describe Western democratic political systems, such as Australia, the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and other nations.

It refers to political systems in which there are attempts to:

  • defend and increase civil liberties against the encroachment of governments, institutions and powerful forces in society
  • restrict or regulate government intervention in political, economic and moral matters affecting the citizenry
  • increase the scope for religious, political and intellectual freedom of citizens
  • question the demands made by vested interest groups seeking special privileges
  • develop a society open to talent and which rewards citizens on merit, rather than on rank, privilege or status
  • frame rules that maximise the well-being of all or most citizens

It is generally agreed that liberal democracies are based on four main principles:

  1. A belief in the individual, based on the idea that the individual is both moral and rational
  2. A belief in REASON and PROGRESS, based on the belief that growth and development are the natural conditions of mankind, with politics the art of compromise
  3. A consensual theory of society, based on the belief that society is a kind of mutual benefit association, based on the desire for order and co-operation, rather than disorder and conflict
  4. A suspicion of concentrated forms of power, whether by individuals, groups or governments

Accordingly, liberal democracies are organised in such a way as to define and limit power in order to promote legitimate government within a framework of justice and freedom:

    Efforts are made to define and limit power, usually by means of a written constitution. Checks and balances, such as the separation of legislative, executive and judicial power, are instituted. There are conventions of behaviour and an equitable legal system to complement the political system.
    The notion of a legitimate government with a mandate/authority to rule is crucial. Governments require a high degree of popular support, derived from an electoral system that allows for popular, free and frequent elections with the highest possible franchise.
    This is achieved by the full implementation of the equitable things already mentioned so that citizens live in a climate where representative democracy prevails, tempered by constitutionalism, free elections and restraints on power, so that all citizens are treated equally and accorded dignity and respect.
    For freedom to exist, there must be the freedom to make decisions, to learn from them and to accept responsibility for them. There must be the capacity to choose between alternatives and the freedom to do what the law does not forbid. Prohibitions should exist for the general good and there should be respect for political and civil liberties. Liberal democracies often experience disputation about the appropriate role of government in economic matters, some groups arguing for a totally free market, whilst others support varying degrees of regulation and intervention.
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024