It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

— Winston Churchill, November 30, 1874 — January 24, 1965

Many have elevated democracy from a mere tool to such sacredness that the absence of democracy practically guarantees worldwide scorn. Despite the popularity of democracy as a form of government, there is nothing inherently good about democracy. Democracy is a tool and like any tool, it could be used for betterment or otherwise. Keeping that in mind, democracy guarantees only one outcome: right or wrong, the majority wins.

There are many things that cannot be decided through majority vote. I vividly remember during one of my multivariate calculus classes, my instructor challenged us to a mathematical problem. After giving us reasonble time to solve it, he surveyed the class in a way a democracy would. The majority, including me, produced the wrong answer. Upon tallying the result, the instructor announced that “mathematics is not democratic.”


Perhaps, I am guilty of overusing the words “means” and “ends” to the point of banality. Nevertheless, democracy has never been the end and will never be the end. Many advocates of democracy confuse the ends and means of a society. A tool — democracy — can never be the end and there can be no question about that, especially to liberals.

While democracy has been associated with liberalism in modern times, it had not always been the case. Early liberals were suspicious of democracy; Voltaire for instance preferred monarchy instead of democracy. There were many reasons for distrusting democracy. One is the possible disrespect of individual liberty by the majority; tyranny of the majority, so to speak.

A murder is still a crime regardless whatever the masses say. Transgression of liberty is still wrong, regardless what the majority thinks.

In liberalism, participation in a society does not signal a surrender of individual rights to the society. Participation in a democracy does not translate as the participator surrendering or delegating his liberty to the majority.

The day democracy violates individual liberties is the day democracy stops being an asset and becomes a liability. By that, I am not repudiating democracy. Democracy does have its benefits. And in no way I am expressing support for authoritarian rule. Liberalism does not start from the top, be it human or a supreme being; it starts from the bottom, the people that form any state.

I am simply implying that democracy cannot be used to justify transgression of individual liberty. Therefore, a superior democracy, with all things equal, is liberal democracy. Simple majoritarianism just will not do.

12 Responses to “[1058] Of liberalism and democracy”

  1. on 23 Jan 2007 at 18:52 Zaki

    Liberalism is not really democratic. The former is about being liberal, while the latter is about majority rule. Too much freedom is bad but majority is always correct so you are wrong to say tyranny of majority. Majority cannot be tyrant as majority is group of minorities than come together.

  2. on 23 Jan 2007 at 19:12 Hafiz

    So, if a majority supported genocide, would the majority be right?

  3. on 24 Jan 2007 at 16:42 Abdullah Gul

    [Admin – sockpuppet,]

  4. on 27 Jan 2007 at 19:11 CanonD

    modern democracy embraces pluralism. Basically your post is talking about something that’s already there in democracy and you just slap the word ‘liberal’ in front of it.

  5. on 27 Jan 2007 at 19:43 Hafiz

    Modern democracy is liberal democracy. Most people nowadays when they talk about democracy refers to liberal democracy without realizing it.

    My post says that democracy by itself must not stand alone for it is tyranny. Democracy is really a concept on majoritarianism and in its pure form, has no respect of minority’s right.

    Proof: negative rights such as free speech are embedded in the constitution of all modern and real democracies nowadays. These negative rights are the core of liberalism.

    Pluralism is only possible through the guarantee of these negative rights i.e. liberalism. Without liberalism (negative rights) and within pure democracy (majoritarianism), pluralism will fail.

    Further, pluralism is the hallmark of liberalism, don’t you think so?

  6. […] Recent events had provoked outrage amid those that sympathized with the idea of individual liberty. With a stake of woods burning, BN-led government threw fuel into the fire, allowing the fire to burn more brightly than before. One of the more angering statements, to me personally, was made by a minister that had the cheek to claim that no force was used to disperse protesting crowd whereas on the contrary, clearly caught on camera, tear gas and water cannon were fired by the police. Another claim which I wish to address here concerns claim that Malaysia is a democratic country. While many understandably would like to fiercely dispute that, Malaysia is a democratic country. What it is not, in practice, strictly speaking, is a liberal democracy. […]

  7. […] to stop anybody, the state, the majority, the mob even, from robbing an individual of his liberty. Democracy by itself is useless; it has to be guided by a liberty-conscious document for tyranny of a majority is no different from […]

  8. […] to the result of the 2004 Malaysian general election, the inferiority of majoritarian democracy to liberal democracy is greatly apparent. I have repeatedly emphasized the superior of a liberal democracy to […]

  9. […] in form a tyranny of the majority. For this reason, I am never a fan of unconditional democracy. Majoritarianism is the purest form of democracy and it does not guarantee liberty. And this was demonstrated on […]

  10. […] for the protest however is more about self-interest rather than love for democracy. I have a love-hate relationship with democracy but for Myanmar, I recognize democracy as something better than the current autocratic military […]

  11. […] which guarantees negative rights. The merging of the two tools results in a system known as liberal democracy. Unfortunately, any constitution may fail under heavy populist pressure for a constitution itself […]

  12. […] With a better system, one would not have a problem to answer, if our PM resigns today, who would succeed him. In a better system, choices, if not immediately apparent, it would be soon enough. That system is liberal democracy. […]

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