Against Liberal Democracy (as a Methodological Presupposition for Political Philosophy)


(This post is in some ways a continuation of Eurocentrism and Philosophy: Expanding the Canon is Not Enough.)
Political philosophers writing about international distributive justice, war, migration, and much else often resort to the strategy of explicitly restricting their audience to those who share the values and perspective of liberal democracy. This strategy may appear to reflect a welcome modesty about the scope of argument and an acknowledgement of diversity by not presuming to speak for everyone. In reality, it introduces prejudices and biases that ought to be resisted.
As is often the case, this strategy owes much to John Rawls. In Political Liberalism he sought to formulate a liberal political account of justice that could be accepted by people with different reasonable comprehensive doctrines. A “reasonable” comprehensive doctrine is one that provides a worldview and a conception of the good, but is sensitive to evidence and argument. On Rawls’ account, the category includes many religious views, but excludes religious fundamentalism. One function of invoking “reasonableness” is to avoid engaging views that don’t share some of his basic assumptions about justice.
Later, in The Law of Peoples, Rawls distinguishes between “well-ordered peoples” and the rest of the world. “Well-ordered peoples” include liberal democratic peoples and decent peoples (which include but are not necessarily limited to “decent hierarchical peoples” who are not democratic but have some mechanisms to give members a say in governance). The rest of the world is composed of outlaw states, societies burdened by unfavorable conditions, and benevolent absolutists.1 Well-order peoples would agree to the same Law of Peoples; presumably, the others would not.
What could be objectionable about assuming liberal, democratic values?
First, this methodological assumption comes with a Eurocentric (understood to include the United States and other rich, Western countries) bias. The paradigm of liberal states among political philosophers is represented by the United States, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and the values they espouse, not India, Mongolia, Uruguay, or South Africa. Restricting the models of liberal democracy to a Eurocentric paradigm risks not actually considering liberal democratic values, understood broadly, but rather putting forward liberal democratic values as filtered through particular cultures and societies.
A different risk is that invoking liberal democracy illegitimately assumes that people in other states hold different values. It is hard to explain the rise of liberal democracy over the last 100 years without the assumption that people around the world aspire to a say in how they are governed and recognize the value of many basic rights. Furthermore, denying other people’s aspirations to self-rule and to basic liberties and economic rights makes it easy for intellectuals to advocate imposing US or European rule abroad.
Second, what exactly is a liberal, democratic state? Is it an ideal that some states (but not others) aspire to or can we gain insight into its nature by examining actual states?
If we appeal to legal documents and espoused values, we find that with few exceptions most states endorse some version of human rights and democracy – i.e., they profess to be liberal democracies. Even North Korea – many people’s candidate for authoritarianism – has a constitution that guarantees human rights and professes universal suffrage.
Of course, many states merely pay lip service to human rights and democracy. This isn’t as helpful for marking off liberal democracies from the rest as might seem, though. No state, liberal democratic or otherwise, lives up to its professed values. For example, the United States and Western Europe have substantial groups of people who have been disenfranchised and marginalized on grounds of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class, institutionalized sexism, historical and ongoing violent intervention in other states, etc.
One strategy is to move from describing actual states and their practices to describing the values that animate the people in these states. Surely – the retort goes – liberal democratic states (or the majority of people within them) affirm certain values, even if they don’t always live up to them? Liberal democratic states’ illiberal practices and policies can be rejected by showing that they’re incompatible with professed liberal principles.
Even if this is true (and I suspect the matter is more complex than this), this strategy risks judging the West according to its aspirations and condemning the rest according to their practices.
Third, many issues of global justice are not and cannot be “solved” by powerful Western states (this view is a source of considerable harm). If this is true, we cannot be justified in assuming liberal democratic values (if these are in fact contested). This creates a dilemma: either the values we endorse must have a universal (or at least much broader) scope or they will not be endorsed by parties whose cooperation is necessary.
Fourth, the strategy of assuming a liberal democratic perspective unduly limits political philosophy’s potential interlocutors. The tribe of political philosophers is parochial and prone to biases of privilege and of limited life experience. By invoking liberal democratic values at the outset (and stipulating what these are), we risk endorsing views that mainly attract people who already agree with us in many fundamental ways. This threatens to turn political philosophy into a conservative discipline: instead of speaking truth to power, it reaffirms what the powerful want to hear.
Finally, invoking liberal democracy is unnecessary. Though we need to make assumptions about values are necessary to analyze or to criticize any policy and practice, we do not need to claim that these values come from a particular source or part of the world. Instead, we can put forward values in the hope that they will attract widespread assent. Freedom and democracy, for instance, are universal human values, not the idiosyncratic preferences of a few.
If people from some areas or cultures balk at our assumptions, let’s ask why. To suggest that they reject them simply because they reject liberal democracy is to refuse to engage with their perspectives and arguments. It is to artificially confine political philosophy to geographical and ideological borders.
1Rawls does not make any efforts to explain why he adopts this five part taxonomy or which states fit into it – indeed, instead of discussing an actual “decent hierarchical people” he invents a fictional Islamic State, raising questions about the validity of his political sociology.

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