Liberalism versus populism is an old intellectual debate with modern links to William Harrison Riker (1920-1993, professor of political science and intellectual founder of positive political theory) and also relevant to present-day Hong Kong politics.


Let’s consider Hong Kong’s electoral process. Many observers and participants expect the development of democratic politics inHong Kongwill inevitably and necessarily lead to a rise in populism. They expect that Hong Kong’s positive non-interventionist policy approach and commitment to limited government will inevitably give way to populism as our election system continues to evolve towards universal suffrage at all levels (district councils, legislative council, and chief executive). I do not doubt the wisdom of these observers and participants, but I believe that this is not logically the likely outcome. Rather, as shown by IsaiahBerlin, populist democracy leads logically to tyranny, not freedom. After all, Hitler was popularly elected, and so was Mussolini.


Judging from the campaign promises of candidates in the district council and legislative council elections, one can already detect an inescapable populist streak. Will the race for the office of the chief executive five years from now also be highly populist? Are the ideals of liberalism on the way out and those of populism on the way in for a government that has a formidable, but somewhat jaded, reputation for being limited?


Riker was a visionary scholar and intellect who developed methods for applying mathematical reasoning to the study of politics. By introducing the precepts of game theory and social choice theory to political science, he constructed a theoretical base for political analysis. He laid the foundations of a positive political theory that was amenable to predictive tests and experimental, historical, and statistical verification.

Riker saw democracy as both an ideal  and a method. The two are assumed to cohere, but there are two interpretations of how they cohere: the liberal interpretation and the populist interpretation. Democrats of all persuasions agree that participation built on the act of voting is the focus of democracy. But democrats interpret voting in different ways. What does it accomplish? What does it mean? The sharp dispute on these questions can be summarized in these two views—the liberal or Madisonian view and the populist or Rousseauistic view.  Riker, for his part, applied his methods to come down in favor of the liberal view.


In the liberal view, the function of voting is to control officials, and no more. James Madison, who is the original American spokesman for liberal democracy defined a republic as a government that derives all its power directly or indirectly from the people, and is administered by people holding office at their pleasure, for a limited period, and during good behavior. The popular vote is the first requirement of a democracy as it ensures participation and equality. The second requirement is election and limited tenure, which are intended to ensure liberty.  ForMadisonthese two requirements complete the definition of liberal democracy. He said nothing about the quality of popular decision, whether good or bad.  InMadison’s view, the danger for liberty lay with government officials who might deprive citizens of liberty or fail to act as agents of the people. In either case, the liberal remedy is the next election. That is all that is needed to protect liberty.


The replacement of officials is, in the liberal view, the only available instrument to address threats to liberty. The liberal fear is that the force of government can easily be deployed against citizens to make them support unpopular policies that officials believe necessary. Lord Acton’s claim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely speaks to such fears. The liberal hope is that officials will be restrained from such behavior out of fear of the next election. The defense of liberty lies in the discipline of elections.


The other part ofMadison’s concern was a fear of tyranny by the majority, in which officials acting for a majority created in the last election will persecute the minority.Madisonhoped that such oppression would be minimized by the fact of shifting majorities, so that a future majority might throw out of office the officials who oppressed in the name of the former majority. He therefore stressed the value of having diversity in the electorate.


The dominance of entrenched special interest groups and their influence in the process of public decision making has been recognized by many observers of politics. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement speaks to a fear of tyranny by special interests. While this source of fear was not well appreciated at the time ofMadison, it has become an important part of the study of political science and liberalism today.


For the populist, liberty is the product of the participation of the citizen in the social contract. The fundamental notion goes back to French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. The social contract creates a moral and collective body that is the famous “general will”: the will of the incorporated people, the sovereign. The “general will” is the objectively correct common interest of the incorporated citizen.


The way to discover the “general will” is by consulting citizens. The “general will” is computed accurately if each citizen votes only in the common interest, not a personal or private interest. The tally of these votes by real people regarding the common interest brings one to the will of the great artificial person, the sovereign, the embodiment of the “general will”. Individual liberty is the participation of the citizen in this sovereign.Liberty, Rousseau says, is obedience to a law we have prescribed for ourselves.


In the liberal view, since voting generates liberty simply by restraining officials, there is no need to treat the output of government as the precious embodiment of liberty itself. Indeed, for the liberal, law is no more than the decree of legislators or judges, accepted by citizens. But in the populist view, participation in rule making is necessary for generating liberty. The rules thus made must be respected as right and proper because they embody that liberty. Were they not respected, liberty itself may vanish. This means, for the populist, law is precious and elevated.


The difference between the two views of liberty is described by IsaiahBerlinas a distinction between positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of interference by others, especially government, in one’s activity. Positive liberty is being one’s own mentor; in other words, attaining self-mastery, acting morally, and behaving righteously for the common good. These two views of liberty are at loggerheads.


For IsaiahBerlin, ideas about the “general will” are often turned into particular goals for society that people are then coerced into following. For example, a common goal in many societies is to attain some degree of egalitarianism. This means private property rights must be forcibly violated and the use of coercion to redistribute income and wealth in the name of a higher goal is not only justified, but required as an expression of the “general will”.Berlinbased his conclusions on one main example: the transformation of Kant’s notion of individual ethical responsibility by Hegel and Marx into a justification for a monstrous dictatorship.Berlin’s point is that positive liberty, which appears initially innocuous, is the root of tyranny.


The populist interpretation of voting rests on notions of positive liberty that are fundamentally opposed to negative liberty. According to the populist interpretation, the opinions of the majority must be right and must be respected because the will of the people is the liberty of the people. The populist view of voting means the common belief that democracy is simply a mere majority rule is fundamentally misconceived. It is rather a self-righteous expression of the “general will” and for this reason it is morally correct and therefore necessarily oppressive. In the liberal interpretation, there is no such magical identification. The outcome of voting is just a decision and has no special moral character.


The populist view can be seen in political groups that seek to pass pro-birth and anti-gay rights legislation and have a deep affinity with populism. For this reason, I have always believed that Mr. Szeto Wah’s opposition to gay rights and willingness to deploy the weight of the law to regulate individual sexual preferences puts him solidly in the populist camp rather than the liberal one.


Over the last century it has sometimes been fashionable for populists to dismiss the liberal fear of oppression as an anachronism. Populists believe that by reason of popular participation, democratic governments embody the will of the people and therefore cannot oppress.


Riker did not agree. He argues that the populist interpretation of voting cannot be consistent with the results of the renowned theory of social choice worked out by Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow in 1951. Only the liberal interpretation of voting can still be consistent.


To illustrate using a simplified example from Arrow (Person A, Person B and Person C) who each have three choices (Choice X, Choice Y and Choice Z). Their preference rankings are as follows:


Person A:      X > Y, Y > Z, and X > Z; or X > Y > Z

Person B:      Y > Z, Z > X, and Y > X; or Y > Z > X

Person C:      Z > X, X > Y, and Z > Y; or Z > X > Y


If we ask persons A, B and C to vote on their choices using a simple majority rule we will find that between X and Y, two persons will agree that X > Y. Between Y and Z there will again be two persons who will agree that Y > Z. Finally, between Z and X there will again be two persons who will agree that Z > X. As a consequence, the social preference ranking of the three persons yields the paradoxical result of X > Y > Z > X. This phenomenon is called the cycling of preferences. In other words, it is not possible to get a community-wide consistent ranking even though each individual has consistently made their choices.


This seminal result is called Arrow’s impossibility theorem. It proves decisively that a consistent set of community-wide preferences cannot be uncovered from individual preferences. For Riker, this is a devastating result for the populist theory of voting. It demonstrates the “general will” cannot be uncovered and shown to be consistent.  But more importantly for Riker it initiates politics is art – the art of the impossible.


The final choice of X, Y or Z depends on the sequence of which pair-wise set of options are first presented. For example, to ensure that Z will be the final chosen outcome it is important to present X and Y as the two pair-wise choices for initial voting. This would ensure that Y will be eliminated in the first round; then when the pair-wise choices of Y and Z are presented in the second round of voting, Z will be chosen. This implies that manipulation and setting the agenda are an integral part of politics.


Populist democracy cannot be achieved for the simple reason that preferences cannot be aggregated into a consistent ranking. Pretending that there is a “general will” is not only misleading, but would lead to the wrong belief that manipulated political outcomes represent elevated moral and righteous outcomes. It would lead to the type of politics that is ultimately totally oppressive.


The liberal interpretation of voting fares better. Laws and government policies are stripped of this elevated status and represent no more than public decisions. It prompts us to remove bad officials from time to time at our pleasure as the foundation of democratic politics; accept that government decisions are not always right; and be less obsessed with implementing grand visions.


For those who have a healthy passion for defending our liberties and who fear the failures of government decisions and the corrupting influence of demagogues, we must also insist that our governments be limited.

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