Classic Liberalism & Democracy

By Rick Kelo

This article is a second tid-bit of Classic Liberalism.  You can view the other articles in this series here:


The great question which in all ages has disturbed mankind, and brought on them the greatest part of those mischiefs which have ruined cities, depopulated countries, and disordered the peace of the world, has been, not whether there be power in the world, nor whence it came, but who should have it.

John Locke, First Treatise on Government, §106



Hooray!  Everyone loves democracy right?  What does Classic Liberalism say about it?  Certainly a lot considering it inspired & formed most of the modern Western representative governments.  The answer to Classic Liberalism’s position on Democracy hides within the question, “why did Liberalism originally create representative government?”


Prior to representative governments, the European nations had monarchies and most of those were absolute monarchies.  The monarch was a God among men, above the law.  Men like Robert Filmer defended this form of Absolutism, and liberals like John Locke bashed it.  In fact, Locke’s entire First Treatise on Government is a systematic destruction of the monarchy.

Liberals opposed absolute sovereignty on two main grounds.  The first is that a legitimate government must be based upon the consent of the governed.  Secondly, man has certain inalienable rights that no government can infringe.  Those two issues lead us to the big question in political philosophy: not whether political power should exist, but under what conditions political power is justified.  Who has the right to exercise this power and to what extent?


Classic Liberals oppose absolute sovereignty.  In fact, Liberalism came into existence over that very issue over 300 years ago.  Look closer at the full title to John Locke’s First Treatise: “The False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer, and His Followers, Are Detected and Overthrown.”

So, does it matter whether absolute sovereignty is in the possessorship of a king, or a representative body, or the people?  Of course not.  If the 20th century showed the world anything it is that people can vote themselves into total bondage, and did so in Nazi Germany and a great many other nations.

The liberals of the first half of the nineteenth century correctly foresaw that liberty in this ‘positive’ sense could easily destroy too many of the ‘negative’ liberties that they held sacred. They pointed out that the sovereignty of the people could easily destroy that of individuals. Mill explained, patiently and unanswerably, that government by the people was not, in his sense, necessarily freedom at all. For those who govern are not necessarily the same ‘people’ as those who are governed, and democratic self-government is not the government ‘of each by himself, but, at best, ‘of each by all the rest’. Mill and his disciples spoke of ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and of the tyranny of ‘the prevailing opinion and feeling’, and saw no great difference between that and any other kind of tyranny which encroaches upon men’s activities beyond the sacred frontiers of private life.

~ Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 27


Putting something to a 51% vote is not sufficient to legitimize immorality for the Classic Liberal.  In other words it is just as illegitimate to have unlimited sovereignty controlled by a mob as it is unlimited sovereignty controlled by a crown.  That is because certain rights are inherent to humanity and cannot be voted away.

You cannot vote away your free will or your ability to reason.  Therefore, a Classic Liberal will tell you that a huge body of people cannot vote to establish a state religion and outlaw every other religion.  Even if every member of society but one votes in favor of it, that law is still illegitimate because no one can transfer their ability to reason for themselves.  Even if every single person in society voted in favor of such a law it would not be legitimate because those people cannot deed away their moral agency or the ability to reason of every future person who later becomes a citizen of that society.

Inalienable rights (like freedom of thought) can never be transferred to government.  This is one restriction Classic Liberalism places upon representative governments.  It is the same restriction Liberalism placed upon Monarchy before it.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

~ The Declaration of Independence