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Liberal democracy: a path to nowhere

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The idea of liberal democracy contains an internal contradiction that ensures its own demise. Liberalism, in its contemporary manifestation, stands for the rights of the individual to determine her own actions even when those actions have traditionally been seen as lacking in virtue. Thus liberalism, as I have discussed before, champions the often infantile destructive choices of a person simply because it is their choice and choice, as we know from the Liberal Party, trumps all. We thus all have the "right" to indulge in negative freedom, a kind of freedom that has been pilloried throughout history. We can be as self obsessed, as avaricious, as mean and as power hungry as we want and expect no criticism.

Democracy, on the other hand, promotes the will of the majority over the individual. Thus a democratically elected government may act with force against criminals, demand taxes, and keep the peace. This contradiction ensures that liberalism will undermine democracy and democracy will undermine liberalism.

While it may be hoped that an equitable balance between personal freedom and public duty will produce a civil society, the tenets of liberalism turned libertarianism will always tend to undermine such a balance.


Liberalism and democracy are associated not because they are inherently compatible but by historical accident. While democracy has been around in the West for some time, liberalism is a latecomer that grew out of revolutionary Europe, the destruction of the aristocracy in France and the alienation of the Church from the public square.

Add to these influences the Enlightenment's champion of the autonomous reasoning self and post-modern relativism and we find a world that will not accept that the human universe is marked by properties that we ignore to our peril.

For democracy to function we need a common psyche that recognises the good for society and we need voters and politicians to be aware of that good. In other words democracy requires a community of character that is trained in the virtues. Without this we get the mindless free-for-all that ignores truth telling and a deep understanding of the human condition.

Donald Trump is the direct product of liberalism that refuses to understand that there is a grain that runs in the human universe that we go against to our peril. He is the ultimate nihilist that denies any common direction for humanity. It is ironic indeed that he has received the presidential nomination from a party that has historically seen itself as supporting traditional values. It is even more bizarre that conservative Christians from "fly over America" rally to his call. This is a sign that liberalism has eaten away at the traditional bases for the understanding of the virtuous life.

There has been a long tradition of opinion that bemoans the failure of the Church in Australia and links this failure to the failure of public morality. I have never thought this to be a useful line because it reinforces the idea that the office of the Church is to make us good, to teach us how to be moral agents. This message misunderstands the centre of Christian faith, that baptism initiates us into a community of faith who are freed from the death dealing powers of the world and the self so that they may be truly human as Jesus was truly human.

Morality is not the starting point in this scheme, it is the product of a transformation of the self that finds itself capable of living in love and harmony and justice. There is no new morality without a renewed person.


The critique of the Church in our time is that it pretends to offer moral certainty, to be the moral watchdog of society. Liberalism will have nothing of this since it enthrones the choosing person as the centre of action. Liberalism is antagonistic to any authority outside of the self.

It is unfortunate that the argument about Christianity in recent times has been centred on the old Enlightenment tropes of the nature of nature. This is a misunderstanding of what the "invisible" is. According to militant atheism, the invisible stands for the existence of the supernatural for which there can be no evidence, only blind belief. This is understandable since, while Protestant denominations after the Reformation moved away from the supernatural, the Catholic counter-reformation kept its interest as the insistence on evidence of proven miracles for the canonisation of saints bears witness.

But to be a "secretary of the invisible" (thanks to J M Coetzee) is not to support belief in the miraculous, but to be aware and receptive to the human realm of the things unseen, of love and pride and error and loss and hope etc. These are not measureable and observable things but they are the things that make our lives possible or impossible.

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This essay was inspired while reading Milbank and Pabst The Politics of Virtue. Post-Liberalism and the Human Future

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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