(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 26 November 2014)


It may be too early to predict political life after the Occupy movement ends. Some believe there will be further political tightening from Beijing and urgent attempts to address the deep contradictions that have piled up in society. Most fear the quality of public policy decisions will spiral downwards as political gridlock paralyzes government. Others predict the democratic movement will further polarize the community and create a fertile breeding ground for the rise of populism.


These are salient concerns. The future of democracy in our city may well hang in the balance. Even more worrying is which path Hong Kong will take. Will she develop into a liberal or populist democracy?


When the British left in 1997, the prospect of developing into a liberal democracy appeared somewhat promising. This became less certain over time as political confrontation and gridlock became a more familiar part of the political landscape.


The lack of progress in advancing towards liberal democracy has now provoked moral indignation among some quarters in our community and populist democratic ideas have germinated and are close to blooming. The Occupy movement has probably moved Hong Kong even further away from the liberal path towards a populist one.


It is timely, then, to consider the differences between these two ideas of democracy in the hope that it will help us to navigate these uncharted waters.


Democracy is a political ideal where justice is premised upon all individuals having equal rights and equal participation. Democracy is also a method for realizing that ideal through voting and elections.


Ever since democracy became a serious aspiration of people, there has been continuous tension over the best political method (involving voting and elections) to realize democracy as a political ideal. Both ideal and method must cohere if democracy is to have practical political significance.


While democrats of all persuasions agree that democracy requires equality of participation built on the act of voting, there is a very well-known and difficult problem: “one person, one vote” does not always produce good policies for everyone.

The crucial issue of contention is the treatment of liberty in the theory of democracy. There are two views of liberty: the liberal view and the populist view. Each view provides a different interpretation of the purpose and consequence of voting and elections.


They each also align with Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of coercion or interference by others, especially government, in one’s activities. Liberal democracy embraces such a view of liberty.


Positive liberty is the exercise of control over one’s own life and destiny and, for society, to collectively exercise control of society’s destiny and realize humanity’s purposes through participation in the democratic process. These purposes are deemed morally right and socially good. Populist democracy (including socialist democracy) adopts such a view of liberty.


Liberal Democracy


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 losing the next election. The defense of liberty lies in the discipline of elections.


The government in a liberal democracy derives all its power directly or indirectly from the people, and is administered by people holding office for a limited period. The popular vote is therefore the first requirement of a liberal democracy as it ensures participation and equality. The second requirement is election with limited tenure and is intended to ensure liberty.


These two requirements are the complete definition of liberal democracy. It makes no claims about the quality of the candidates chosen through elections, whether good or bad. In the liberal view, the function of voting is to control officials, and no more. The power to fire officials is the basic defense against threats to liberty.


A major challenge for liberal democracy is how to blunt majority rule so as to protect individual liberty and minority interests. Under “one person, one vote”, the threat is a serious one. The solution is to surround voting and elections with numerous restricting institutions, such as constitutional constraints, separation of powers, multi-cameralism, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, election rules, limited tenure, regular elections, filibuster rules, and other arrangements, to protect the interests of the minority and individuals.


The specific arrangements may vary from place to place reflecting local conditions and historical circumstances, but these restricting institutions are all intended to curb government powers. Limited government is a necessary condition for liberal democracy to function. These institutional arrangements are necessarily imperfect and from time to time they result in political conflict leading to either stalemate or violence.


Modern day politics have presented a new kind of challenge: the growing dominance of narrow special interests and their influence in the political process. The political gridlock we see in many democracies is a sign that the original restricting institutions to curb government power and check majority rule have now unleashed the tyranny of organized minorities.


Populist Democracy


Positive liberty is a more difficult idea to grasp. It is the freedom to do something good and right rather than freedom from interference. For the populist, a society is free because all its members together play an active role in controlling its life and destiny through participation in democratic processes. The people are free when society becomes free by doing the good and right thing. A populist democracy is free because the people have chosen their collective destiny.


This destiny is the “general will”. Populist democracy presumes that every citizen shares a common view of the good and the right, and does not have irresolvable conflicting personal or private concerns. The origin of this idea can be traced to the philosopher Immanuel Kant.


The “general will” is discovered by consulting citizens and tallying their common interests.


For the populist, the referendum becomes an ideal method and the ultimate instrument for discovering the “general will”. The “Occupy Central” movement made extensive use of public consultations and an unofficial referendum to reveal the public’s will. The Five Constituencies Referendum triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrat Legislative Councilors to force a territory wide by-election in 2010, and the current proposal by the leaders of the Occupy movement to carry out a similar action, are also examples of populist thinking.


For the populist, participation in voting generates liberty, so the output of government must be precious, for that output is liberty itself. The rules thus made must be respected as right and good because they embody that liberty. Liberty therefore is obedience to a law that the people have prescribed for themselves. It is the “general will”.


The populist ideal requires elected governments to move swiftly and surely to embody the winning election platform in law. Constitutional constraints and due processes that retard this popular mandate are seen as intolerable and the simplest solution is to eliminate them. The populist interpretation of voting justifies this elimination.


By the same token, the various institutions created in a liberal democracy to limit government powers in order to protect individuals and minorities from the rule of the majority, are no longer deemed essential in the eyes of the populist. With the restraints removed, it is easy to change electoral arrangements. For this reason populist democracies may revert to autocracies. Fascist Germany is an example.


Positive Versus Negative Liberty


In the liberal view, since voting generates liberty simply by restraining officials, there is no need to treat the output of government decisions as the precious embodiment of liberty itself. The law is no more than the decree of legislators or judges, accepted by citizens.


Liberal democracy is thus non-judgmental, respects the plurality of individual values and desires, and the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.


Berlin is more comfortable with negative liberty, but sees a psychological weakness. Since negative liberty is about not having constraints on our lives, individuals can increase their freedom by relinquishing desires that are likely to be frustrated. For example, slaves who are treated well by their masters may cease to wish to be free and run away. The human spirit is then diminished and ceases to aspire to higher goals.


Proponents of populist democracy, on the other hand, say that you cannot increase your freedom just by shrinking your desires and thereby shrinking yourself. Freedom involves being your own master, rather than someone or something else controlling you; your actions as a free person express your true self.

Populists extol people to participate actively in the political process and confront the political (and external) circumstances. Berlin claims ideas of positive liberty have been a motivating factor for many revolutionary movements, for example France and Russia.


Berlin worries, however, that the ideal of positive liberty might have its own paradox of impelling revolutionary movements to become totalitarian. Often, the leaders who adhere to positive liberty only tolerate their own conception of what is good and right, and force everyone to conform. Theories of positive liberty, or perversions of them, have frequently been used as instruments of oppression in the past. Berlin’s point is that positive liberty, which appears initially innocuous, is the root of tyranny in the 20th century.


Berlin also objects to positive liberty because it accommodates only one system of values to which all should aspire. By contrast, negative liberty sits comfortably with a pluralism of values.


Hong Kong’s path to democracy is likely to be gradual and hesitant. It will vacillate between liberalism and populism. The vast plurality of values and diversity of interests among its people can only be accommodated by a liberal system. Still, populism will have appeal in a society divided between haves and have-nots, where dreams and destinies are at loggerheads and the people desperately want to hear an uplifting narrative that can raise them above the political mess and life’s banalities.




Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958, Clarendon Press, 1959.


Building Blocks for a Narrative on Hong Kong’s Democratic Political Development (Part VII)

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