Needed: A Comma between Liberal and Democracy31 October 2022
Consider the power of a comma. In a letter to the European Union on 29 May 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May wrote that “Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe.” With the comma, this statement might have been true. But how about without it? We need democratic values that are liberal, but do we need Liberal Democracy?
My Oxford Dictionary lists various definitions for “liberal”, the first two diametric opposites: (1) “favoring individual liberty and limited government involvement in economic affairs”, (2) “favoring…a significant role for the state in matters of economics and social justice”, and (3) “open-minded, not prejudiced.” Many eminent liberals and conservatives alike believe that we can have all three—liberal markets, liberal societies, and liberal minds—this they call the “free world.” Conservatives, in fact, believe we get them in sequence: liberating our economies liberates our societies which liberates our minds.
In other times and places, especially to get past autocratic regimes, Liberal Democracy worked, more or less. A rising tide of economic growth did raise many boats. Now, however, the yachts on top are swamping the dinghies below, as avaricious private interests use their power to dominate their workers and customers, and especially our governments. In the United States, the great Liberal Democracy, the Supreme Court legalized bribery by opening the floodgates to private donations in public elections. Many economies have thus become liberal to the point that they are undermining democracy and closing minds. The enterprises are free, but how about the people?
Globally, liberal markets empower corporations, which are restricted by no countervailing power. There is no substantial global government to speak of; indeed, the most powerful international agencies—the WTO, IMF, OECD, and World Bank—are cheerleaders for this economic form of globalization. This has enabled global corporations to ride roughshod over national governments, for example, by forcing them to keep reducing taxes on private wealth. Thus starved for funds, these governments have had to cut social services while turning to regressive forms of taxation, such as sales taxes, which has further squeezed the very people already brought to their knees by other practices of globalization, such as the weakening of unions and job security.
As a consequence, a new tide has been rising in the world—of populist governments elected by angry, frustrated people. Anything but Liberal Democracy. Populism may be worse, but it does express a somewhat justified outrage. Even the British recently challenged Liberal Democracy by turfing out a new prime minister intent on cutting taxes for the rich, in the name of that bogus rising tide.
Hence the time has come for that comma, to liberate our minds and our societies from that oxymoron called Liberal Democracy, in order to rethink democracy—or maybe just to remember that it is about free people, and the governments that represent them, above free enterprise. For my perspective on how we might proceed, please see RebalancingSociety.org.
© Henry Mintzberg 2022.