Democracy and freedom

Most people believe that there is an intimate relationship between ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. Indeed, it is largely assumed that democracy possesses the capacity to promote, protect and further strengthen basic human freedoms.

Thus, the freedoms of assembly, speech, expression and opposition are essential in order for elections to be meaningful. The argument is that checks and balances inherent in democratic systems prevent excessive abuse of power and arbitrary oppression while guaranteeing rights and entitlements to citizens.

However, there are numerous debates on the extent to which various types of freedoms should be included in definitions of democracy.

For example, the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter offered a classic ‘minimalist’ definition of democracy as a system ‘for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’.

Similarly, the political scientist Adam Przeworski argues that democracy should be primarily viewed as ‘a system in which parties lose elections’.

Others argue that definitions of democracy ought to refer to more substantial freedoms. A key feature of democracies, argues the political scientist Robert Dahl, is ‘the continued responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens’ and the extent to which the government can be held to account for failing to adequately respond to societal demands.

Thus, democracy, according to the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, is a complex and ‘demanding system’ that cannot be equated with the ‘mechanical conditions’ of majority rule.

And while regular elections, and respect for the results of such free and fair events, are important, Sen argues that democracy ‘also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussion and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment’.

It should be relatively clear that freedom can exist without democracy, but not vice versa. While minimalist understandings of democracy highlight the selection of rulers or policies, freedom entails the ability to engage in particular behaviours or articulate opinions without interference from the state.

Even among democracies, it is more likely that liberal democracies will allow greater freedoms to its citizens than countries that are categorised as being democratic using minimalist criteria. Some basic freedoms provide a sound base for a process of democratisation which may be subsequently followed by an expansion of individual rights.

Accordingly, two sets of issues are crucial. First, certain basic civil and political freedoms are a necessary precondition for meaningful contestation and participation in a democratic process.

Second, substantial individual and societal freedoms —and the degree of enjoyment of initially granted civil and political freedoms—may result as democracy is consolidated.

Hence, the linkage between democratic governance and its ability to promote human rights and freedoms provides a strong justification for the general preference for democracy over other forms of government.

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