Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy

Liberal universalism is not the same as claiming that everyone is a liberal or that communities around the world contain a subconscious liberalism simply waiting to be unearthed.

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liberal universalism

It is often claimed, as a matter of criticism, that liberalism is universalistic, the implication being that it is naïve and not aware of the reality that many communities around the world reject liberal rules. This abstract charge finds its concrete expression in the criticism that the liberal West has irresponsibly exported mass democracy – said to be a liberal value – to every community around the world, and this has had undesirable consequences.

This is the second in a series of five articles addressing common conservative assaults on South African liberalism. The links for all articles in the series appear at the bottom of every article.

Liberal universalism

That liberals regard liberal rules as universalistic is not denied, although those who subscribe to liberal nationalism might disagree. But two things need to be understood about this acknowledgment.

The first is that liberal universalism is not the same as claiming that everyone is a liberal or that communities around the world contain a subconscious liberalism simply waiting to be unearthed. Instead, liberal universalism is the claim that every person in every community has an inherent right or entitlement to be free, regardless of the values held by the community into which they were born. Stated differently, perhaps in more palatable conservative language, liberalism requires that there always be a right to opt out. The universalism, in other words, is the recognition of a universal rule, not a universal sentiment.

The second thing to appreciate is that liberal universalism hardly stands alone. Many forms of so-called “conservatism” also have a universalist nature. Communitarian conservatives appeal to a universal rule that every community is different and must be allowed to make its own decisions. The conservatives Ernst Roets and Ernst van Zyl in a constructive debate against myself and Hermann Pretorius also appealed to a universal rule against “imperialism.” Every ideological conviction at some level of abstraction appeals to universal rules – contemporary conservatives in the school of Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen, for some reason, wish to hide their universalism, whereas liberals do not mind it.

Well-meaning and morally committed conservatives are just as universalistic as liberals. While they might not believe their cultural preferences are universally applicable – a view liberals share deeply – they do believe there are certain imperatives above those cultural preferences that regulate the “rules of the game,” as it were. The difference between liberal universalism and conservative universalism is that liberal universalism is more localised/particular and conservative universalism is more generalised/removed. The liberal regards the individual, the most local unit, as the primary subject of the rules of the game; whereas the conservative (in particular the communitarian) regards the community – however arbitrarily defined – as the primary subject of the rules of the game.

Another thing to appreciate, which relates more to the content of liberal universalism than to the nature of universalism, is that liberal universalism is not a worldview that will displace the cultural or even civilisational mores and practices of anyone. Ernst van Zyl, in a more recent conversation with Daniël Goosen of the Vryheidstigting, made this common misrepresentation – that is, to talk about liberalism so vaguely without reference to what it in fact requires.

In addition to making the same mistake mentioned above (i.e., regarding liberal universalism as meaning “everyone is a liberal”) and below (on democracy), Van Zyl also implies that somehow so-called “classical liberalism” is a “system” – implying a worldview with at least a cultural content – that must displace something else. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what liberalism by nature is.

Liberalism does not impose any positive content, only a negative rule: that those who wish to be left alone ought to be left alone. In other words – taking the example of Afghanistan that Van Zyl utilises – there is nothing in liberalism that would stop the 40 million Afghans from freely practicing every cultural and religious rite or value they hold dear. All that liberalism requires is that those Afghan individuals or communities that opt out of those values, be allowed to do so. In other words, liberalism stands against – not for, as Van Zyl implies – the imposition of cultural or civilisational values, which is something Van Zyl’s employer in AfriForum is a great champion of in South Africa.

One must also remember that the opposite of universalism is the hugely problematic relativism. Relativism holds that there are no absolute truths; other than this one, perhaps. Rape might be wrong in the West, but if it is an accepted cultural practice somewhere else, on what basis is the West to judge? To impose such Western sentiments would be cultural imperialism and would violate those other communities’ self-determination.

In this respect, Van Zyl makes the relativist case as well. There are certain societies that burn innocent people – what is to be made of this situation? The liberal universalist’s answer, Van Zyl argues, is that those societies must be forced to stop the practice. This is correct. Van Zyl adds, however, that this is precisely what is “wrong” with liberal universalism. The fact that liberal universalists would use force to stop the burning of innocents is the problem.

Relativism is as inconsistent as it is morally dubious. Committed liberals would not mind being labelled as “imperialistic” (no matter the inappropriateness of the term in this context) because of their absolute and universal rejection of rape and other forms of violent imposition, like burning innocents. It is not that rape and burning innocents is incompatible with Western culture or sentiment, but that rape and burning innocent deprives the victims of those actions of their self-determination – precisely the ability to determine their own values.

Much later in their conversation, Van Zyl argues that liberals only tolerate “liberal communities”, and that any deviation from liberal rules would entail (presumably State) force to place those communities back on the reservation. The thing is that a “liberal community” is nothing more than a community that does not impose its values on those who have opted out. There is no such thing as a liberal cultural content: Liberalism is nothing but a (small) set of rules of the game.

Relativists, in this context, should make up their minds: Do they want cultural communities to determine their own values without imposition, or are they fine with cultural communities imposing their values? Conservative relativists would claim they espouse the former and condemn liberal universalism of the latter. But it is precisely liberal universalism that is dedicated to bringing the latter to an end – liberal universalism seeks to give every community the maximum freedom to self-determine for itself, not for those who opt out of its values.

Liberalism’s universalism recognises that any individual, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, is entitled to the very same freedom to self-determine. To a liberal, it would be improper to tell Person A, because they were born in Paris, France, or Parys, Free State, that they are entitled to have their property rights respected, but tell Person B, because they were born in Kinshasa, Congo, or Pyongyang, North Korea, that they are not. This would be (unjustifiably) arbitrary. Person B could, of course, choose to never acquire property, or adopt the communal conceptualisation of property rights that exists in their community, but they could also choose not to adopt that conceptualisation. Their community (outside of its own legitimately acquired property), and certainly their government, would have no rightful authority to stop them from opting out.

It is also strikingly convenient that the Hazony and Deneen-conservatives – conservative relativists – always find themselves in free societies. They claim liberty for themselves, and use that liberty to its fullest extent. Even more striking is that in South Africa, where these conservatives form part of a small minority of people, they nonetheless (conceptually) place their ability to self-determine in the hands of whatever happens to be the majority of the community. Taken to its conclusion, these conservatives in South Africa would find themselves quickly swamped and their freedom undermined.

Mass democracy

This takes us to the next aspect of the conservative criticism of universalism: mass democracy. Mass democracy is regarded by conservatives as a practical expression of the abstract value-system of liberal universalism. Daniël Goosen, in the previously-mentioned conversation, argues that only democracy is compatible with liberalism.

This is quite jarring. Liberalism and democracy are not related, except insofar as they recognise the individual as the primary subject of the rules of the game. Most political systems, in any event, incorporate both liberalism and democracy (and other ideological convictions like conservatism) to varying degrees.

I realise it is an uphill battle to divorce mass democracy from liberalism, but it is a battle I gladly fight and a hill I happily die on.

Friedrich von Hayek, perhaps one of the greatest liberals of the previous century, was resolute in his opposition to democracy, at least the way we understand it today. Hayek spent much of his intellectual energy on finding ways to keep democracy out of the economic decision-making of free people and their enterprises. One critic even went so far as to call Hayek an “authoritarian liberal” for his trouble.

It is true that the West has over the last century exported mass democracy around the world, but it is entirely unclear why this is associated with liberalism. Burkean conservatism, and Marxian socialism, are just as Western as Lockean liberalism. Why is the Western exportation of democracy not then identified with conservatism or socialism? Liberalism – with free-market capitalism as its economic dimension – is perhaps the West’s greatest contribution to human civilisation, but it is not the only one.

Liberalism prefers those political models that serve liberty the best. In some respects, democracy has fit this task. But at no point has a centralised democratic order fit this task, and certainly no South African liberal worth the name has supported centralisation. Centralisation will be explored in the next article of this series.

Liberalism and democracy have very different political-philosophical roots, despite agreement about the individual as the primary subject. To repeat, liberalism’s basic value proposition is this:

Every individual, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, is by right entitled to freely make decisions about their own affairs, including their proprietary affairs. No other person – outside of their property or agreement to the contrary – by right, may interfere in this reality without consent. Government, within the liberal worldview, exists to protect this reality – in other words, government must ensure that no person interferes uninvitedly or fraudulently in the affairs of another.

It must be plain why democracy and liberalism are not necessarily bedfellows.

The idea that a large enough group of people can vote (or decide) away the liberty of the individual, or even that of a community, is poison to liberalism. This is why constitutionalism is a quintessentially liberal idea when it comes to the State, and to this day remains perhaps the most universally adopted liberal institution in human history.

Constitutions have always existed, but the idea that government power must be subjected to law in the same way ordinary legal subjects are subjected to law, was a liberal contribution. Humanity still benefits from this to this day, even though the constitutional enterprise has its marked imperfections and failures.

Liberals, in other words, are constitutionalists. This means that to the extent that liberals embrace democracy as a framework to protect liberty, they embrace constitutional democracy. This does not simply mean a constitution and a democracy, but a democracy wherein the liberty of the individual (whether alone or in association with others) is protected from uninvited majoritarian interference.

This guarantee of liberty can never be as absolute in practice as it is in principle, because we are dealing with human beings, but it is a substantive guarantee that has worked remarkably well in those states that have truly put their mind to implementing liberal democracy. South Africa, too, has benefited from this over the last several decades, although this does not deny that that system is in the process of collapse.

Conservatism, on the other hand, is quite often simply democratic – often hidden under terms like “civil virtue” or “responsible citizenship” – and regards limitations upon the “community’s” ability to make decisions as anathema. The community, understood to mean the majority of that community, or the leaders recognised by the majority of that community, decides all issues. In this respect, conservatism is far more democratic than liberalism is, and modern, so-called “national-conservatives” do not shy away from admitting to this. One of their main lines of attack on both liberalism (in the form of courts enforcing individual rights against the democratic will) and progressivism (in the form of legislatures deferring to executive agencies and experts) is that the democratic right of a given nation to self-determine is undermined.

In other words, democracy is not something that must be laid squarely, or even largely, at the feet of liberals. It is simply incorrect, then, to just lay the export of democracy at the feet of Western liberals rather than Western conservatives.

But for a supposed constitutional democracy like South Africa to be successful, requires the people who live under it make it work. We have had varied successes with this in South Africa, but the ultimate reason why constitutional democracy is falling apart today is because liberals, moderates, and conservatives, abandoned their posts. Conservatives have decided to blame liberals and the Constitution for this, as if the Constitution could ever enforce itself, without looking in the mirror. Liberals, for our part, have blamed the government, also without looking in the mirror. The truth is that broadly everyone except the socialists have dropped the ball, allowing the “democracy” to in some cases almost entirely do away with the “constitutional.”

This failure, by both liberals and conservatives, will be addressed in the final article of this series.

Liberalism, far from being about mass democracy, is the political philosophy that proposed limitations upon government power of whatever nature. Democracy itself was a limitation upon the power of the monarch, but this did not mean liberals conceived of democratic government as without limitations, as conservative communitarians often do. Liberals would jump upon any viable opportunity to limit government power further than is currently achievable under modern democracy.

Article 1: Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy

Article 2: Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy

Article 3: Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History

Article 4: Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? 

Article 5: How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa

In this article

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  1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

    Excellent article! I know I edited it, but had to give it another read. Splendid!

  2. Rory Short Reply

    The basis of my position is that when humankind evolved into consciousness each individual now had the opportunity to choose how they responded to the events impacting them and with that went taking responsibility for those choices. That is the hard unalterable reality of conscious life. Any philosophy which does not accept this reality is defective.

  3. Helgard Muller Reply

    A lot to potentially engage with here, but I will stick to a couple of general opening remarks and then provide some separate comments for the rest of the piece.

    (1) Definition of liberalism. I want to make two points. One about the actual definition used and second about the implications.

    (i) Liberals are concerned – well with “liberty”. Let’s say that is the normative starting point. The burden is on those that want to restrict liberty to justify it according to liberals. (State of nature, Veil of Ignorance etc starting point) Of course this is where it gets interesting, because closer reflection and examination gives liberalism it’s “colour” or different strands.

    I am not going to go into a long discussion of the different strands of liberalism – but we need to at least acknowledge the two main departing points on liberty – negative and positive liberty. I think there is a lot to say about Republican liberty – but let’s stick to the main debate.

    You do a good job of capturing negative liberty (justification for coercion / interference in your actions). This is the conception of liberty that classic liberals like to emphasize. Positive liberty (ability to act), however, has a very long tradition of its own (Rousseau / Mill) and you could argue gradually from the late 19th century gain more prominence and is today a significant component of “modern liberalism”.

    (ii) Implication of definitions of liberalism. First to conclude on the theory side of things. I love the conclusion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Given that liberalism fractures on so many issues — the nature of liberty, the place of property and democracy in a just society, the comprehensiveness and the reach of the liberal ideal — one might wonder whether there is any point in talking of ‘liberalism’ at all…”

    The point being that there really is no commonly agreed “right or wrong” liberalism or at least that the debate is not settled. Philosophers still argue and thinkers / activists still pick a definition / strand that they prefer. There are however important general differences and implications of “liberty” as a normative departure point – that sets it apart from other political ideologies / traditions. Intra-liberal disputes not withstanding – it still has a lot to say…

    Again, there are many departure points to take from here relevant to the South African “liberal” discourse…Not least of all the type of liberalism that will be attractive will also depend on the social context and how it aligns with it…

    Most relevant for this debate is the strong emphasis on negative liberty throughout the article…

    However, I want to briefly also sidestep to another that I think is important for the bigger liberal project in South Africa. It is harsh – but I think mostly a realist appraisal of the impact and consequences…

    The liberal project in South Africa will pay the price for associating too closely with libertarians and libertarianism.

    This flirtation with libertarianism at the IRR, DA and even Solidarity movement is not only puzzling but will lead to several own goals. It is easily and for good political reasons the least popular manifestation of liberalism…Again, I don’t want to get into a discussion on this here in the context of this article. (I am more sympathetic to some libertarian economic arguments)

    Suffice to say – it shows – that this is a libertarian writing about the much bigger tradition of “liberalism” and struggling hard most of the time to think like I “big tent” liberal or actual political liberal…

    (2) Conservatism. I made the point and several others in your first article, but you should not confuse say Van Zyl with conservatism or the conservative tradition…I would like to see you take on the actual arguments of the big and prominent conservative thinkers and philosophers…(More on this later because I think you get a lot wrong here as well that could have been avoided if you took some of my tips…)

  4. Helgard Muller Reply

    Okay, let’s get into the arguments. Universalism.

    Again, the liberal tradition is actually split on universalism. But…I think you are correct that at least some prominent liberal thinkers did not think that liberal values will apply universally to all political communities. So for the sake of this debate – liberal vs conservative – let’s accept this position.

    The real rub when it comes to conservatism is not if they accept universal values…It is that for conservatives even a universal rule (itself drawn from social experience) would rub up against social experience, tradition and practice – getting its specific “colour”. This is the attack against political rationalism or universalist rules – reason cannot prescribe something that it not rooted in experience and embedded in the social. (Again a lot here to get into – but you can read Oakeshott or even Hume specifically about reason vs practice)

    So what this means is that the “particular” circumstances matter – called “particularism” – a main pillar of conservative thought. Abstract principles or rules cannot be applied to specific circumstances. Conservatives are not external world skeptics – but skeptical about theoretical claims of reason in politics and ethics. They are not irrational either just believe most of the reasons we act are based in prejudice or habit / practice rather than reason. The epistemological claim here is about how values are accessed in practice. Values like freedom are interpreted in a concrete fashion (socially embedded).

    Getting back to your arguments:

    (1) It doesn’t matter that conservative thought contains some element of universalism because the emphasis is on particularism and skepticism towards its universal application. The conservative can accept freedom is valued or should be valued as an universal principle – but how that is expressed in practice and politics will depend on the specific society…We see this even in the West among its different “liberal orders” and liberal politics.

    I understand the imperialist line of attack in this context. That if you think liberal values apply and should apply similarly to all societies you would be tempted to engage in neoconservative / neoliberal nation building and interventionism. I also tend to think other aspects of liberalism – its belief in progress and human secularism play a role at least in the arguments of Hazony – if I recall…

    The straw man liberal universalism vs conservative liberalism is easily blown away. I don’t find your argument here plausible at all. The whole idea of starting with an individual and abstracting him out of society with rights derived from some original state / behind a veil / international human rights law – is surely the definition of generalised and removed? Conservatism is actually – particular and local – because it deals with individuals as socially embedded in society with traditions, practices and institutions?

    That liberalism is value neutral and merely a negative political (rules of the game) philosophy falls flat against post-liberal, communitarian and dare I say “real” world experience. Again, I think you are conflating an idealist notion of “negative liberty” with how the liberal tradition has evolved in theory and in practice. The modern liberal tradition has been far more open to “positive liberty” – specifically in modern forms of liberal theory – but important in the practices of liberal societies.

    I think it is impossible to understand the modern culture wars and identity politics without understanding the role of progressive liberalism (positive liberty to act / be what you want) and free market liberalism (social change / disruption acceptable price for economic “progress”) that encourages hyper individualism, is neutral at best about social institutions / solidarity and doesn’t see any function that cannot be taken over by the market…But this is a long debate on its own…

  5. Helgard Muller Reply

    (2) Conservatism = Relativism. Conservatism imo “properly” understood has a substantive element to it. Practices and actions not organically embedded in society (including change) are not conservative. Society is a living tradition. Authoritarian societies don’t respect organic change or practices. It sets the rules from the top – it is not a “living society”. Revolutionary societies tend to impose a rational ideology from the top and throw away tradition and practice, unless they are more like the English revolutions and American independence that were rooted in tradition and practice (including the revolutionary change).

    A non-substantive understanding of conservatism would indeed resemble relativism or an anything goes pragmatism…

    Conservatism I think is often well captured in the word “prudence”. Further, the belief that humans are fallible and their schemes imperfect.

    Hence conservative ideas try to strike a prudent balance between pragmatism (guarding against relativism) and constructive (prescriptive) rationalism (Burke’s fancies and fashions / abstractions / utopia).

    Again, this implies conservatives can compare regimes and express value judgements. It is just that it is done through this lens of particularist skepticism. If Afghan society is happy to accept the Taliban back (fitting in naturally) and they allow a “living society” of spontaneous and unplanned practices and traditions to develop…fine. But is that the case in Afghanistan? Was that the case with US occupation and how they went about reforming institutions and society?

  6. Helgard Muller Reply

    (3) Mass democracy. It is indeed an uphill battle to divorce liberalism from democracy. At least two of the non-instrumentalist justifications for democracy rest on liberal principles – equality and freedom. In terms of practice, again it is hard to think of any liberal regime or political program that have not encouraged or promoted democracy. In part because democracy has to do with a political system of participation and not with rights / state powers (again see how the libertarian instincts sneak in here…).

    I will focus on three arguments in this section:

    (i) Hayek. I have to disagree about the characterization of Hayek for a starter, although you are correct that he tried to limit the scope of politics. Hayek was a big fan of Hume, Burke and the Scottish Enlightenment and a big opponent of rational constructivism…A big fan of organic spontaneous order against planned rationalism in politics or economics. But, Hayek ultimately in his own work could not protect his spontaneous order from politics or rational constructivism. He has to resort to anti-politics and construct a way of protecting his spontaneous order from politics or undesirable results…The difference between Hayek and conservatives is that whilst both admire its spontaneous and organic nature, conservatism doesn’t provide a doctrinaire defense of markets. If it threatens family, community and nations it needs to be restrained – something that Hayek ultimately realised in his own spontaneous order legal conception…Again for me this captures prudence and the balancing act between freedom and constraint. (In fact a Hayekian spontaneous order without constrains – like some libertarian utopias – would fall in the same camp as relativist conservatism…it has no guarantee of any outcome – again I think we have something resembling it now with liberalism…)

    (ii) A strong undercurrent of libertarianism can be detected in this section in so far there is an emphasis on attacking democracy and claiming constitutionalism is immune from politics. Again it is difficult to argue that modern liberalism has not embraced democracy and at the same time amending constitutions by extending positive rights in the name of liberty and progress. If anything has stood in the way it has been conservative prudence about amending constitutions or subjecting more and more to politics and democracy…

    (iii) Constitutionalism vs democracy and constitutional democracy. Whilst a good point, you essential concede that conservatives are right and that a constitution or political system is no guarantee against how democracy or rights get interpreted. Liberals from the start have deliberately designed political institutions / frameworks to guard against what you call mass democracy – but ultimately none of that is a guarantee. Civic virtue and values matter. Constitutions get amended and interpreted…Your concluding remarks mostly reflect poorly on liberals that though a piece of paper could guarantee liberty and still seem to think people will be convinced by good ideas that don’t hold or see useful in practice…IMO it appears conservatives are right, that you will only have a liberal society where when and where those values are embedded in the social practices and traditions of its people…It is only then that constitutions are safe and institutions work the way they are meant – to for instance advance tolerance, pluralism and protect rights. (Little was said here about political accommodation and value pluralism – again something libertarians struggle with…)

    In general this debate has traded too much in straw man and binaries. Conservatism for instance doesn’t equal collectivism. Neither does it equal some mob democracy based on fancies and fantasies of the day…

    I have tried to emphasis what the conservative political tradition is actually about – prudence, human fallibility, skeptical of rationalism, particularism and as Roger Scruton put it “imperfectionist, anti-uptopian and pragmatic – unable to appeal to any future that is not already past and present”.

    Not only do I think a lot of liberals misunderstand political conservatism but so do a lot of people that hold a conservative disposition towards specific things like religion, culture and communities….

  7. Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History - Rational Standard Reply

    […] than the charge that liberalism is somehow a democratic theory, one of the most jarring criticisms from conservative quarters is that liberals prefer the […]

  8. Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy Reply

    […] The first is that liberalism is criticised for its universalism and ostensible naivety about how Western political institutions can simply work anywhere in the world. With this is associated the idea that mass democracy is a Western political institution closely related to liberalism, and it is this idea in particular that has been exported in the name of liberal universalism. […]

  9. Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? Reply

    […] from minority to majority rule and say that they or their intellectual forebears predicted that democracy could not work in South Africa. Liberals did not listen. The conservatives’ warnings have proven true, so now […]

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