(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 8 March 2017.)


Discussions over whether the pan-democrats should nominate and vote for establishment candidates in the Chief Executive elections have been intense. Last week an overwhelming number of them nominated John Tsang and Woo Kwok-Hing. Subsequently the pan-democrats decided to cast all their votes in favor of the candidate with the highest public poll standing. This is a major break with their past as it backs away from populist democracy and represents a significant step towards liberal democracy.


Ever since the Enlightenment embraced the idea that all men are politically equal as the foundation of political life, there have been these two views of democracy centered on ideas about liberty.


Liberal democracy is a political arrangement designed to protect individual liberties. It sees government as the primary threat to individual liberties because of its monopoly over the use of coercive power, and politics as a matter of conflict and resolution.


Liberal democrats are very concerned about the oppression of minority interests by an elected majority. They want the power of government limited through constitutional constraints, a free press, and the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers.


Importantly, they also want to limit the powers of government through free, open and competitive elections with independent political parties – the purpose of which is to preserve the vitality of individual liberties and pluralistic diversity in society, rather than with electing a ‘good’ official that embodies the ‘general will’. For the liberal democrat, if the electorate elects a ‘bad’ one there is always the next election.


Populist democracy, on the other hand, is a political arrangement for realizing what the ‘people’ want. The fundamental notion goes back to the French philosopher Rousseau’s famous ‘general will’ as a social contract of the incorporated people. Unlike other philosophers of his era, Rousseau felt the advance of civilization and the formation of property rights had corrupted people and destroyed the equality that existed among men when they lived as ‘noble savages’.


He sought a radical reconstitution of society through mass political participation to restore this equality.


Rousseau believed a government elected by universal suffrage embodies the ‘general will’ and has a mandate to rule that has moral standing and is precious because it is the expression of the collective will of the incorporated people. Its decisions must be implemented, and citizens must all obey its laws.


Populist democratic politics is obsessed with implementing the ‘general will’ of the people to end injustice, but is almost silent on how to prevent power from corrupting once it has been captured. The corruption of power is the primary concern of liberal democratic politics, hence, Lord Acton’s famous dictum, ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’.


Minority interests are not a concern either of the popular democrat because if each citizen votes only in the common interest, and not for diverse personal and private interest, then by implication genuine minority interests are incorporated within the ‘general will’.


Put this way, it is possible to see how populist democracies can turn into tyrannies.


The late Professor Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University, Nobel laureate in economic sciences, dealt a devastating blow to the ‘general will’ concept through his research into social choice theory. Arrow proved it is impossible to get a community-wide consistent ranking of alternative choices even when every individual makes consistent choices.


The implication of Arrow’s result is that the concept of the ‘general will’ is an empty one. If the ‘general will’ cannot be made coherent, then what is left of Rousseau’s idea is merely a work of consummate rhetorical skill, a prolonged sleight of hand in which the most questionable concept is carefully hidden behind magnificent flourishes of prose. Only liberal democracy survives the Arrow test as a coherent theory of democracy because it does not require election outcomes to embody the ‘general will’ with moral standing, it only needs elections to be genuinely competitive.


Politics in a liberal democracy does not rule out forming coalitions with strange bedfellows. Indeed, if it advances the cause of preserving liberty and protecting pluralistic diversity, it is both necessary and desirable. And if such coalitions of convenience turn out to be misguided, it is poor strategy not moral ineptitude.


The decision of the pan-democratic coalition to nominate and vote for establishment candidates to enhance competition in the Chief Executive elections has been criticized by radical populist legislators as strategizing and betrays the principles  pan-democrats has always stood for.


This populist political sentiment pitches principles against strategy, but it is a false and contrived dichotomy because the ‘principles’ are in fact merely a strategy adopted in previous Chief Executive elections when the pan-democrats had much fewer votes in the Election Committee. As the situation changes, so must the strategy. And if the new strategy fails to achieve its goal then there is always redemption at the next election.




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