Liberalism, Democratism and Authoritarianism

Thursday,  January 02, 2009

By Nonoy Oplas

December 30 is called "Rizal day" in the Philippines to remind the country of the day of execution of the national hero by the Spanish colonizers a little more than a century ago. Rizal did not lead the revolution against the Spanish colonizers who have been ruling the country for more than three centuries already, but he was a top caliber intellectual whose writings and books inspired many Filipino revolutionary leaders at that time.

In periods of foreign occupation and colonization, launching a political movement for national independence and collective freedom was easy because the enemy – the foreign conquerors – were very clear. Thus, launching an anti-Spanish, then anti-American, then anti-Japanese colonization in Philippine history was a bit easy. What was difficult was launching a successful armed uprising as colonizers always have military superiority.

In periods of internal tyranny and local dictatorship, however, launching an anti-authoritarian movement is difficult because not only are there more enemies – the local tyrants, they are also more established locally and are of the same skin color and genes as the oppressed. Police and military harassment is also more extensive.

In periods of no explicit dictatorship but nonetheless extensively corrupt administration, launching an anti-corruption, anti-authoritarian movement is even more difficult as the enemy because the culture of corruption is less tangible compared to say, abusive and imposing armies under a dictatorship. Also, the culture of corruption tends to be "democratically dispersed" from national to local bureaucracies, and from the Executive to Legislative and Judicial branches.

So various political parties vying for political power and control of the State would position themselves as advocating for democracy and good, non-corrupt government. And almost all political parties, old or new, would consider themselves as "democrats" to hopefully get political acceptance and support from many voters and citizens.

The challenge to competing political parties that consider themselves as democrats, is how to distinguish themselves from other parties, aside from the political personalities that head them. So the liberals would call themselves as "liberal democrats", the nationalists as "nationalist democrats" or "Filipino democrats", the welfarists as "social democrats". Some would add religious adjectives and call themselves as "Christian democrats", "Muslim democrats", even "Evangelist democrats". Even the communists in the country fighting against "imperialism and feudalism" would call themselves as "national democrats".

So what do those political adjectives and ideological labels signify? For instance, what is "liberalism", "nationalism, "democratism", "authoritarianism"? How are they different from each other? One very important test to define and to differentiate these and other political concepts and/or ideologies, is how and where they would put liberty in their scheme or vision of a social order.

Authoritarianism and its cousin ideologies or practices (totalitarianism, dictatorship) have deep-seated beliefs that people are irrational and are not capable of personal and collective improvement if left on their own. A strong and enlightened political leadership can guide and navigate the energy and resources of people towards achieving a particular social ideal and political order as envisioned and decided upon by the authoritarian political leadership. In short, liberty is concentrated in the hands of the few political leaders and people, as individuals or as a collective, will be stripped of a big portion of their liberty and freedom.

Democratism despises the above idea because of the great danger that it will lead to abuses and large-scale corruption that can push a society towards economic underdevelopment and political persecution and tyranny. Thus, the political will of the majority over the minority, the desire and aspirations of the many should prevail in society. In short, collective liberty should prevail over individual liberty.

Liberalism, while it shares with democratism in rejecting authoritarianism, does not believe that individual liberty should be sacrificed at the altar of national or collective liberty in many cases. The primacy of individual liberty and responsibility is at the heart of this political philosophy. Now, will liberalism later morph or evolve into authoritarianism because of its rejection of the dominance of the collective over the individual?


Not a bit. The big difference between liberalism and authoritarianism, despite their shared belief in not bowing to the "will of the majority" at all times, is that the former does not prescribe coercion, whether by the individual or the collective, over other people. There is deep belief in the principle of subsidiarity, volunteerism and the role of civil society, and non-role of big and intrusive government in the lives of people.

The big danger of "majority rule" and democratism, is the use of coercion by the majority to pursue their desires and aspirations. For instance, if the majority will desire socialism or expensive welfarism to legislate and institutionalize social equity, then this will result in large-scale confiscation of the income, savings and liberty of the hardworking and efficient people, the tax money and resources to be distributed to the majority. And a big portion of the majority can afford to be lazy and irresponsible because even if they will not work and drink everyday, the State will assure them of "quality" health care, housing, education, nutrition, and so on.

So if hard work is to be penalized by high income confiscation and laziness is to be rewarded with endless subsidies, society will see less work and more irresponsibility. And this is a perfect formula for social stagnation if not disorder. Pretty soon, democratism and "majority rule" can slowly morph into authoritarianism.

Liberalism or whatever political philosophy that promotes individual liberty and responsibility, and despises the use of institutional and political coercion to attain certain social ideals, is the best antidote to authoritarianism and its silent and creeping ally, democratism.

Bienvenido "Nonoy" Oplas, Jr. is President of the Minimal Government Thinkers, Inc.,a think tank based in Manila, Philippines