Is Political Liberalism Antidemocratic?

Imagine that you live next to a beautiful forest. When you look at it, you feel a deep––almost spiritual––connection to the natural world. And you feel protective of the various animals that live and thrive there. Luckily, your neighbors feel the same way, so you are confident that the forest will be preserved.

Some parts of the forest are owned by a private company. One day, you wake up to the news that they are preparing to build a chemical plant there. You are outraged: this will surely ruin the natural beauty of the forest, and the animals cannot live there anymore.

Your representatives in the local legislature agree. A significant majority votes in favor of making the forest a protected wildlife area (while offering an above market value price for the land to the private company to compensate them for their losses). They cite two reasons in favor of doing so. They want to protect the natural beauty of the forest, and the habitats of the animals.

If we add some additional real-world complexities like zoning and due process requirements, this seems like a perfectly ordinary course of events. Democratically elected officials accurately represented the wishes of their constituents. They followed the appropriate procedure and used comprehensible reasoning in support of their decision.

But what about the private company? Wouldn’t they want to dispute the decision? Indeed, wouldn’t they want to say that it was impermissible for the state to act as it did?

If so, we would need some way of resolving the dispute. The question in cases like these is: how do we assess whether the local legislature acted permissibly or not? For political theorists, the question is typically resolved by appealing to a theory of legitimacy. There are many definitions of legitimacy, but one widely accepted view is that a decision is legitimate if it is permissible to enforce it. A simple example of something most people would consider an illegitimate decision would be if a single council member tried to decide for herself to enact the policies. Her simply saying that we should do so-and-so does not mean that it permissible for the state to do it.

It is harder to determine when decisions are legitimate. Many liberal political theorists believe that legitimate decisions must be democratically made. Among so-called political liberals, it is commonly also thought that the reasons cited in favor of political decisions must have a certain quality. When representatives of the state make a decision, they must appeal to reasons that every reasonable citizen could somehow endorse or share. Otherwise, the decision is illegitimate. Perhaps the most prominent political liberal, John Rawls, suggested that this entails that public officials should not appeal to their own ideas about what makes life worth living when they made decisions. Instead, they should appeal to political values and ideals like freedom, fairness, and equality.

Rawls, however, argued that the requirement to provide public reasons only came into effect when the most fundamental political questions were being debated. Questions outside the so-called basic structure of society can legitimately be resolved by putting things to a vote. And so, according to Rawls, what happened in the story above would have been perfectly permissible. The private company has no grounds for complaint.

In ‘Is political liberalism antidemocratic?’, I argue that some of Rawls’s followers would have difficulties accepting this conclusion. They subscribe to Rawls’s quite demanding idea of what it takes for a reason to be public, but they also believe that the requirement to give such reasons extends to everything that the state does. Since natural beauty and wildlife preservation are not political values––they are tied to specific ideas about what makes life valuable––it would be impermissible for the state officials to act as they did. Consequently, the implication for political liberals like Jonathan Quong seems to be that the state acted impermissibly

Even if there is some ambiguity about what, precisely, Quong means when he discusses legitimacy, any interpretation seems to me to severely circumscribes the democratic process. Either, legitimacy for Quong is a purely moral notion. Illegitimate decisions wrong some citizens, and do not generate binding moral obligations for compliance, but nothing follows institutionally from this. Alternatively, we might think that illegitimacy also entails that some state institution should be empowered with the authority to overrule illegitimate decisions.

The first interpretation would entail that the state does not have a moral right to stop the private company from building the chemical plant, and that citizens have a moral right to resist the decision.  It is certainly the case that Quong at least takes this to be an implication of illegitimacy. And this seems to be undemocratic. It is reasonable and commonly accepted that democratic decisions must impose binding obligations on those they target. Democratic decisions that do not impose obligations of compliance consequently lack the kind of quality that we normally expect from democratic decisions. It would entail that the private company is not obliged to comply with the order to stop building the plant. If so, precisely the thing that the legislators want to follow from their decision, does not follow.

On the second interpretation, we should read Quong as saying that illegitimate decisions should be overturned by some institutional mechanism. If this is the right interpretation, the implication is that the decision to stop the building of the plant must be ruled void. This is straightforwardly undemocratic, because the legislature then cannot democratically make the decision it wants to make.

Of course, Quong might say that it is more important that public reasons are offered than that the will of the majority is enacted. But this clearly is an antidemocratic thing to suggest, at least for those who have conventional views about democracy.

Quong’s political liberalism remains one of the most impressive statements of the view. However, the upshot of my argument is that to ensure its continued value and relevance as a guide for liberal democracies, the appropriate role of democratic decision-making in the theory must be re-examined.

This blog piece is based on the article “Is Political Liberalism Antidemocratic?” by Henrik D. Kugelberg, forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, Volume 84, Issue 4.

About the author

Henrik D. Kugelberg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford University. You can read more about his work here, and reach him on Twitter: @henrikdku