(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal 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. This is a major break with their past as it backs away from populist democracy and represents a significant step towards liberal democracy.


Why is this so? And what is liberal democracy? How is it different from populist democracy?


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


Features of Liberal Democracy


Liberal democracy is a political arrangement designed to protect individual liberties. In particular, it sees government as the primary threat to individual liberties because of its monopoly over the use of coercive power. Hence, liberal democracy wants to limit the powers of government through free, open and competitive elections with independent political parties. The protection of the private property rights of individuals is seen to be a central element in preserving individual liberties and limiting the power of government.


Isaiah Berlin calls this type of liberty ‘negative’ liberty. It is the liberty of the individual to be free from restrictions and to choose his own life as he pleases, provided that its pursuit will not harm others – what John Stuart Mill calls the ‘no harm principle’. These political ideas were also advanced by Adam Ferguson, John Locke, Adam Smith, Voltaire and James Madison, and they influenced the American constitution.


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.


Liberals also hope that shifting coalitions of minorities may limit the oppressive power of majority coalitions so that individual liberty can be preserved. The defining characteristic of politics in a liberal democracy is choice through competition. The importance of elections is the power to sanction officials through political competition. Government power is checked by the threat to throw officials out of office at the next election.


Politics in a liberal democracy therefore is about conflict and its resolution, with the driver being competition through the ballot box. The outcome of elections is not considered precious because the electorate can elect a ‘bad’ official or fail to choose a ‘good’ one. The purpose of electoral competition is to preserve the vitality of individual liberties and pluralistic diversity in society.


Features of Populist Democracy


Populist democracy is a political arrangement for realizing what the ‘people’ want. The ‘people’ is a collective concept: It is the people incorporated, the sovereign body.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 political participation to restore this equality. For him, political participation creates equal citizenship in a moral and collective body, which is the sovereign. Rousseau is the father of socialist and anarchist thinking that still exists to this day.


Liberty in Rousseau’s conception is not the liberty of an individual, but the participation of all citizens in a popular election to express the ‘general will’ of the ‘people’. Isaiah Berlin calls this type of liberty ‘positive’ liberty because it seeks to realize a common purpose. Liberty, Rousseau says, is obedience to a law we have prescribed for ourselves.


An obvious question is about minority interests – what if different individuals happen to ‘will’ different things? According to Rousseau, if each citizen votes only in the common interest, and not for diverse personal and private interest, then by implication there are no genuine minority interests that are not incorporated within the ‘general will’.


Under populist democracy, the oppression of minorities is not conceptually possible because there can be no genuine minority interests. From the point of view of the oppressed minority, this is tantamount to justifying their oppression by saying it does not exist. Violating the liberties of individuals in the name of the ‘people’ is entirely acceptable and legitimate because it is the duty of citizens to obey the ‘general will’. Obeying the law is therefore an exercise of their liberty.


Another question is about how we can know the ‘general will’. The assumption is that it is expressed through free and fair elections based on majority voting by universal suffrage. A government so elected embodies the ‘general will’ and has the mandate to rule – a mandate 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.


Put this way, it is possible to see how populist democracies can turn into tyrannies. The political arrangements of a liberal democracy – constitutional constraints, a free press, and the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers – could become stumbling blocks to effective and immediate implementation of the collective will of the incorporated people. Limiting the power of government would mean limiting the liberty of the collective ‘people’.


Rousseau is completely silent about how the politics of government should take place or be constituted except that there should be popular elections through universal suffrage. But once a government or a political leader has been elected, there is a risk of tyranny because that government or leader will be seen to embody the ‘general will’ and have moral and precious mandate. Indeed, the sad legacy of populist democracies is that they often end with tyranny and human disaster.


Implication of Arrow’s Theorem


The late Professor Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University, Nobel laureate in economic sciences, dealt a devastating blow to Rousseau’s concept of the ‘general will’ through his research into social choice theory. Arrow proved it was impossible for society to consistently rank its preferences over a set of alternatives using any voting rule even when every individual in society was able to do so.


Arrow’s Theorem can be illustrated using a simplified example with three persons (Person A, Person B and Person C) who each have three choices (Choice X, Choice Y and Choice Z). Their preference rankings are assumed as follows:


Person A:       X > Y > Z


Person B:       Y > Z > X


Person C:       Z > X > Y


If we ask persons A, B and C to choose between X and Y there will be two persons that will vote for X to be the winning choice using a simple majority rule. Next, between Y and Z there will be two persons that will vote Y to be the winner. Finally, between Z and X there will be two persons that will vote Z to be the winner.


As a consequence, the society’s preference ranking of the three choices 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 every individual is making consistent choices.


This seminal result is called Arrow’s impossibility theorem. It proves that a consistent community-wide preference cannot be uncovered from individual preferences that are consistent. This is a devastating result for the populist theory of democracy because if preferences have cycles then it is not possible to know what is the people’s will.


Rousseau’s ‘general will’ becomes incoherent unless everyone in society has identical preferences. But if this is the case, politics as conflict and resolution becomes irrelevant.


Arrow was by his own admission a socialist even at the age of twelve. He did not set out wanting to wreck Rousseau’s legacy. On the contrary, he was trying to find a method of aggregating individual preferences to obtain a social ranking of alternatives for government to plan an economy with rational methods. Naturally, he was profoundly disappointed by his own findings. Even until the late 1970s, he remained committed to the socialist cause and only reluctantly resigned to being a social democrat in his mature age.


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. The ‘general will’ is therefore an empty concept. Yet every now and then it resurfaces in societies deeply troubled by inequality and resentful of elites, often used by those who aspire to become elites themselves.


If Arrow had been successful in finding a method for aggregating individual preferences into coherent social preferences, then politics as conflict and its resolution would cease to exist. Socialist utopia would then be implemented by rational social planning methods undertaken by popularly-elected governments.


The myth that politics would cease to exist under socialism or communism was also exploded by revelations from those who worked in the communist bureaucracies of the Soviet Union – the rational planning that prevailed was in practice political bargaining across ministries and bureaus. Politics did not cease to exist, but simply took another form.


Arrow’s result is hugely significant because it reveals the true nature of politics and why it cannot be eliminated. Politics is about the resolution of conflict. It is the art of manipulation to resolve conflict in one’s favor. Politics is the art of the impossible.


In the example above, the final choice of X, Y or Z depends on which pair-wise set of options is presented first to the electorate for voting. For example, if you want Z to be the final chosen outcome, then it is essential to present the pair X and Y in the first round of voting. This would defeat Y and leave the pair X and Z to be voted on in the second round. The defeat of X is then ensured. Politics is about manipulation to set the voting agenda to achieve one’s preferred outcome.


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. Liberal democratic politics is about constructing political institutions to protect liberty and pluralistic diversity from those who wield power, so that unending conflict can be resolved again and again, election after election.


Populist democratic politics is about implementing the ‘general will’ of the people that seeks to end politics through a radical act of mass political participation to end injustice, but is totally and naively silent on how to prevent power from corrupting once it has been captured. That is why populist politicians often become tyrants when they are in power because they imagine themselves as embodying the collective will of the people.


The Pan-Democratic Vote


At the stage of nominating candidates for the Chief Executive elections, for the first time there were voices in favor of voting for establishment candidates in order to enhance competition in the electoral outcome. Some legislators criticized these voices as betraying their constituencies because the establishment candidates cannot represent the principles the pan-democrats stand for and had promised to their constituencies.


Legislator Eddie Chu summarized that view when he spoke in support of Leung Kwok-Hung’s unsuccessful bid for popular support to stand as a Chief Executive candidate, “We are here to declare the basic principles of the democrats, our practice. But we have factions, some belong to the ‘principles faction’, some belong to the ‘strategy faction’. I rather like the term ‘principles faction’, and want to ask the people, now that we hear the voices for ‘strategy’, do we still care about ‘principles’?”


This populist political sentiment pitches ‘principles’ against ‘strategy’, but it is a false and contrived dichotomy. The ‘principles’ Leung Kwok-Hung and Eddie Chu stand for are in fact merely practices that were adopted in previous Chief Executive elections when the pan-democrats had much fewer votes in the Election Committee. The previous practice was therefore the ‘strategy’ appropriate for that period.


As the situation changes, so must the ‘strategy’. Even the noble claim to stick with ‘principles’ could also be interpreted as another ‘strategy’ by the radical left in the pan-democratic coalition to push their populist political goals.


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.


Left-wing populism is deeply suspicious of Hong Kong’s capitalist market economy – a two-systems arrangement upheld by the Basic Law – which makes the pan-democrats partners of convenience in a political coalition fighting for universal suffrage – an arrangement promised in the Basic Law. The coalition strategy that unites the pan-democrats in their struggle for universal suffrage will have to evolve over time.


We have to thank Professor Kenneth Arrow for laying bare the logic of why populist democracy is an impossible task. His analysis accounts for why there is political strategizing through agenda manipulation and control and coalition formation with odd partners of convenience. And why this does not present a moral dilemma for liberal democratic practice, whose purpose is not to promote ‘positive’ liberty, but to preserve ‘negative’ liberty. Indeed political strategies and coalitions will necessarily change with political circumstances.  And if the new strategy fails to achieve its goal then there is always redemption at the next election.





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