Liberalism, as the name implies, is the fundamental belief in a political ideal where individuals are free to pursue their own goals in their own ways provided they do not infringe on the equal liberty of others. But what are the basic principles of liberalism and liberal democracy exactly?
Firstly, there is a commitment to fundamental human rights. Human rights are rights that the individual deserves to enjoy as a human being and member of a society. They protect the individual as well as the freedom and dignity of that individual. Respect for human rights is essential to social stability and peace while human rights abuses breed resentment, hatred and unrest.
Fundamental human rights, for example, are the right to human dignity, life, freedom from slavery, freedom of religion, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of association and so forth.
The right to freedom from slavery is an absolute right that cannot be limited. But what about freedom of expression? A famous example of a limitation here is that one cannot allow people to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Doing so would cause a panic and people would get hurt trying to get out. However, liberals are usually very much against limiting freedom of expression, or censorship, because it is often used by governments to suppress people and views that differ from what the government wants people to believe or say.
Of particular importance among the fundamental human rights is the right to equality. As with other fundamental rights, there is debate about what exactly equality means. All liberals will agree that equality means there can be no discrimination. In a court of law, for example, there can be no discrimination on the grounds of race (black or white) or gender (male or female) or religion (Christian or Muslim). There are still places where, for example, what a woman has to say in a court counts only half as much as what a man has to say. This is clearly unequal treatment.
But does equality also mean that everyone must get the same salary or live in the same kind of house? Liberals will say ‘no’, but will demand that all people must have the same opportunities to improve their lives – therefore liberals the emphasize to improving education for all. Liberals, in short, believe in equality before the law and equality of opportunity.
Rule of Law
Without the rule of law, constitutions and laws are meaningless. The most basic idea underlying the principle of rule of law is that law is supreme. It is law that rules and nothing else. In a liberal democratic society, law is made through the joint decision of democratically elected representatives of the people, not by the arbitrary decision of any single individual or group that happens to possess power.
As such rule of law imposes order. You can only be punished if you break the law. Law must apply equally to all (equality under the law). If it doesn’t, law itself is arbitrary – which would contradict the principle of rule of law. Rule of law also requires enforcement of the law.
Not just the citizens, but government, officials, lawmakers must abide by the law. A key aspect of rule of law is the limitation of power so that even a democratically elected official or leader cannot abuse his/her power without facing a possible prosecution or imprisonment. Rule of law ensures such limitation of power through a required separation of executive, legislative and judiciary powers. As a result, judicial independence is possible.
Beyond equal enforcement of the law, rule of law also protects minorities against discrimination and prevents preferential treatment for certain individuals or groups. When everyone is treated equally under the law, there cannot be any special favour or discrimination imposed through law.
Rule of law, also termed “government under law”, cannot exist in tyrannies or in totalitarian states because they do not allow equality under the law and judicial independence.
The basis for these liberal beliefs is the importance liberals attach to the individual and his/her rights and responsibilities. Every single person is important. Liberals believe that people must decide for themselves and not be told what to do all the time. They must be free to lead the life they want to lead, provided that in doing so they do not limit someone else’s freedom. In other words, your right to swing your arms freely stops where you start hitting someone.
This belief in individual liberty underlies all the other principles listed already. In addition, liberalism demands tolerance of various opinions and, most difficult of all, of opinions that are different from our own. A famous writer once said: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Liberals take the idea of individual freedom and individual rights also into the area of economics. In fact, historically speaking, the concept of property rights was the very basis of individual freedom and individual rights.
Firstly, there is the principle that people can own property. At its most basic, this means that each person owns him or herself and therefore cannot be owned by someone else, that is, no one can be a slave. Such a free person can own other property: clothes, books, furniture, land, houses, cars and even ideas, so-called intellectual property.
Secondly, owners of property must also be able to come together peacefully and sell their property and buy other people’s property freely. This is only possible in an economically free environment.
Economic freedom consists of a number of ingredients, the most important being personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter and compete in markets and protection of people and property from aggression by others.
With economic freedom, consumers can choose what they consider the best for themselves while individuals are free to set up businesses or engage in lawful international trade and companies are free to compete in a fair manner.
When people are free and free markets exist, everyone benefits. The overall effect is an increase in wealth and well-being. Empirical studies show that the wealthiest countries are countries with high levels of economic freedom while the poorest states are usually those with little or no economic freedom. They also show a positive correlation in which countries with higher levels of economic freedom enjoy higher employment rates.
Governments can reduce economic freedom through high taxation and regulation which narrow the scope for individual choice and voluntary exchange. They can also undermine economic freedom by limiting entry into certain occupations and business activities.
On the contrary, a state that pursues a liberal market policy that favours economic freedom will try to keep barriers to local and international trade such as duties and tariffs at the minimum or even at zero percent where appropriate. It also treats citizens equally when it comes to trade benefits and economic opportunities.
Eventually, economic freedom and market economy benefit not only traders and corporations but also consumers. In a free market environment, producers or suppliers have to compete on quality, price and service to win customers who have the freedom to choose from a wide variety of choice.
Governments can improve economic freedom by
• Establishing legal structures that provide for the even-handed enforcement of contracts and the protection of individuals and their property against violence, coercion and fraud.
• Allowing citizens access to sound money
• Refraining from activities that interfere with personal choice, voluntary exchange and the freedom of individuals and businesses to compete.
Economies with a high level of economic freedom are called market economies.
Strictly speaking, democracy is not one of liberalism’s core values, but adding them up, liberal democracy becomes the only political system under which these values can really exist. The term is essentially the combination between liberalism and democracy. At the core of liberalism is individual freedom and protection of that freedom. Democracy alone simply means majority rule, which in practice can mean tyranny by a majority. As such, a majority could pass laws that puts ethic minorities at disadvantage.
In a liberal democracy, there are safeguards to protect minorities through a constitutional procedure and due democratic process. This means that when it comes to passing a bill, special provisions that exist for minorities must be considered. The majority cannot pass a law that benefist them but that will infringe on the rights of minorities. If they do, the latter can, for instance, appeal to the constitutional court.
A liberal democracy observes the rule of law, which limits the power of the state and ensures judicial independence. It employs a system of constitutional checks and balances to enable public scrutiny of government actions and to ensure that a government does not have absolute power to do whatever it pleases.
A liberal democracy prizes pluralism and tolerance. It sees dissent and disagreement as being normal and even as something positive. A majority might be right or wrong. If it is wrong, it is the process of open discussion and debate between people of different convictions and opinions that can put things right. Without discussion, there is no way to find out what people want and what better solutions there might be.