The Future of Liberty and Democracy in Europe

The following is an excerpt of the keynote address delivered by CEI President Kent Lassman at the European Resource Bank conference in Podgorica, Montenegro on April 22nd, 2017. 

We are at the crossroads of classical liberalism and liberal democracies. The classical liberal tradition calls for respecting the liberty of individuals and of conscience, the freedom to trade goods and services, and even the mobility of people.

Yet, all around us is a focus on the demos – the populist elements of our governing institutions. Each time I turn around, I’m asked about Trump and his rallies, the Trump administration, Trump foreign policy, and Trump’s relationship to our Congress. It is typically about his popular standing rather than the wisdom of his policy proposals.

In America we have recently come through a national election where clearly the two most animated forces were the socialist Bernie Sanders, who ignited the passions of the Left, and Donald Trump, a man who claimed the mantle of the Right without any conservative credentials. One went back to the U.S. Senate while the other is in the White House.

Both campaigned as populists and without clear, practical governing philosophies. Both made strong indictments against elite political leaders and institutions. However, neither of these populist candidates showed concern for the real-world consequences of their policy pronouncements. Critically, neither appealed in any way to the natural law principles that are the foundation of liberty.

And, their success has spawned legions of know-nothing copycats and acolytes.

I submit that what makes us alike are our natural rights. What holds us together, in this room as allies and in our respective nations, as we move into a wave of 21st Century populism, are the institutions of liberty.

Populism places too much emphasis on democracy without the leavening agents of classical liberalism. It is dangerous because it elevates a process, namely majoritarianism, above what we know to be the just goals of government – to secure the natural rights of all, among them life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Brexit vote is a valuable example of how a populist movement can successfully incorporate respect for natural rights. Voters rejected rule by bureaucratic fiat from Brussels and did so with one eye keenly focused on sovereignty and through adherence to the rule of law. Our British cousins did the right thing, the right way. 

Pure populists by contrast, elevate the process itself. The logical extension of this philosophy would be continuous popular votes on every new law and policy. This would be wholly compatible with Leftists of all stripes and would deny the rights to individuals in favor of authority granted to groups. It is an outlook that calls for fast, oftentimes radical, reform of society.

Some 230 years ago, America’s founders had a deep knowledge of both liberalism and democracies. James Madison studied the democracies of the past—notably, failed democracies—in Athens and Rome. He looked closely at the features of confederated leagues like the city-states of Italy and the legal structures for the semi-autonomous cantons of Switzerland. 

But his greatest insight didn’t come from the focus on democracies. It came from the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment. Among others, Madison learned from the Scottish philosopher David Hume that representation in our governing institutions can refine the popular will. A dose of republicanism cools the tempers of the most impassioned.

Madison was adamant that only men of character and virtue should serve as governing representatives. To use Hume’s phrase, “refinement of the popular will” would best lead to protection of the rights of minorities, application of the law without prejudice, and pursuit of national instead of local concerns by the federal government. He also knew, in perhaps his most famous turn of phrase, if men were angels we would need no government. 

I’ve seen many people in government and have not seen any angels. Therefore, governing institutions must both be limited, and limit the authority of any one faction.

Many of my friends look at the support for our new president and say, “This is what people want.  It must be good.” These friends see every pronouncement, every Tweet, every breach of protocol, as a nail and popular will reflected through Trump is their hammer. We can do better than that.

I’d like to remind everyone of Madison’s wry observation in Federalist No. 55.

“If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” 

Read the full speech in PDF.