On what grounds have liberals supported democracy

EDEXCEL 

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS 

UNIT 3B: LIBERALISM AND DEMOCRACY 

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1. On what grounds have liberals supported democracy?
Democracy is rule by the people. Its `liberal' features are reflected in a network of internal and external
checks on government in order to protect citizens against the state and guarantee liberty. Therefore,
democracy in most of the western countries takes place through a system of regular and competitive
elections, universal suffrage and political equality.
Classical liberals defended democracy on the basis that it was found on consent. John LOCKE
developed a limited theory of protective democracy which argues that voting rights should be
extended to the well educated, who could then defend their natural rights against government.
According to Locke, if government can possess power through taxation, then citizen are fully entitled to
protect themselves by controlling the taxmaking body.
The idea that franchise should be expanded to the illiterate and those who pay taxes was supported by
James Mill. He believed that the central virtue of democracy is it promotes personal selfdevelopment
in individuals. By participating in political life, citizens enhance their understanding, strengthen their
sensibilities and achieve a higher level of personal development. Thus, democracy can be seen an
educational experience.
BENTHAM developed the notion of democracy as a form protection for the individual into a case for
universal suffrage. Utilitarian's have argued that individuals will vote so as to advance or defend
their interest. Bentham believed that universal suffrage is the only way of promoting the greatest
happiness for the greatest number.
However, liberals also have an ambivalent view of democracy. Liberalism places great stress on the
protection of individual's rights while democracy emphasise on collective control. Classical liberals thus
saw democracy as threatening or dangerous. They reflected the ideas of Aristotle and Plato who viewed
democracy as a system of rule by the masses at the expense of wisdom and property.
The central liberal concern has been that democracy can become the enemy of individual liberty. This is
because `the people' does not signify a single entity but rather a collection of individuals and groups
opposing different opinions and opposing interests. `The rule of the 51%' is a concept used by Alexis
de Tocqueville who described democracy as `the tyranny of the majority'. Individual liberty and
minority rights can thus be crushed in the name of the people. The democratic solution to this conflict
would be the will of the majority or greatest prevailing over that of the minority.
Modern liberal's theories about democracy focused less on constant and participation and more on the
need for consensus in society. Pluralist theorists have argued democracy is the only system of rule
capable of maintaining stability within complex and fluid modern societies.

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