Limits to Liberal Democracy


Gorbachev reflects on the cult of personality, current political situation in Russia, media freedom, and other geo-political issues in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  On the state of democracy in Russia: 

I think any extreme is flawed. There are some that say the government must not in any way interfere with the forces of the free market, and others who go as far as saying we need to revert back to a planned economy. Neither option will help us. I think we should follow a social-democratic course, like many countries do. Social democracy stresses the importance of human and civil rights, which is very important. I think this movement is important in that it takes into account Christian values, as well as the values of freedom, democracy and justice…. I think that in our country, as a country in transition, it is inevitable that some freedoms are impinged on and that some mistakes are made. But I am convinced that our president is not trying to install any sort of authoritarian rule.

On passing a measure that allows the President to appoint governors rather than having them elected:

However, in one of our talks, President [Putin] said, “I’ve heard that you disagree with my approach.” I said, “Yes, if you needed certain mechanisms by which you would exert influence over the governors, then you could have simply expanded your own authority over this element of government.” He replied that the influence of mafia groups and other such elements is so strong that elections become buyer-seller situations. This was bad, he continued, because you can’t have democracy and fight crime and corruption if criminal elements are able to infiltrate the ranks of the government in such a way.

Whether you agree or disagree with what Gorbachev says, he touches on a very important topic.  That topic is one of whether there must be some limits to liberal democracy.  Economists like F.A. Hayek argue that democracies should exist to protect individual freedoms – that’s what democracies are all about in his view and coercion by government (or citizens through government) is unacceptable.  Further, James Buchanan has argued that there must be some constitutional limits to democracies to prevent violations of citizen’s liberties.  See his recent piece on general amendments to the constitution that must be put in place to safeguard natural liberty.  On the other hand, we have situations such as the one in Russia, where coercion seems to be, at least on the surface, a viable solution in the case of abandoning the elections of governors.  It must be noted, that the majority of the Russian public, according to polls, did support the decision to institute an appointment system for choosing governors – and many have voiced publicly the frustration over the corrupt nature of regional elections.  It remains to see, however, if appointed governors [and their administration] are any less corrupt than elected governors, as even President Putin himself has admitted that corruption is rampant in Russia within government.   

I tend to stay on the side of Hayek, Buchanan, and the likes, yet I also recognize that it is impossible to operate in the extremes.  The question I always struggle with in this debate is – “where do you draw the line?”  Once you substitute liberty with some coercion, even if you have reasons to do that an in the short-term you can see some benefits of such an action, what prevents you from substituting liberty with some more coercion again?  Thus, through such small and insignificant substitutions you may find yourself on the completely opposite side of the barricades decades down the road.  To restate the point, not all transitions are through revolutions – transitions can take place slowly over time, as we live in what Douglass North has called a non-ergodic world (a world without a solid underlying structure that constantly evolves over time).  Who do you draw the line? Comments welcome.