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The Problems of Liberal Democracy and Property

The term ‘liberal democracy’ has been around for a long time, and it is presented as an ideal system, which it may well be. A Canadian academic explains, however, that there are systemic faults with the concept as it is associated with property ownership, which is problematic.

Canadian academic Crawford Macpherson who died in 1987, pointed out a fundamental flaw in liberalism. On this ‘Brave New World' program, our guest, Dr. Ian McKay elucidates: "Crawford Macpherson saw that in the foundational thought of liberalism which he identified with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, there was a blatant contradiction, because many of their themes stressed the value of property. They even perceived property as being the precondition of being a real individual. So, power and rights and freedom were not really for everybody if they were for people who owned property. In the case of John Locke, even property in slaves. So, what we take to be liberal traditions from that period were very much conditioned by this question of property. And that for Macpherson was a fundamental consideration. He calls the complex of ideas around that: ‘possessive individualism' and that became the trademark that people remembered about him long afterwards."

Host John Harrison asks if ‘liberal democracy' is in fact an oxymoron. Dr. McKay says that not necessarily, but the combination of these two words is very difficult. "The word ‘liberal' is actually used to qualify the word democracy….We are all enthusiastic about liberal freedoms, freedom of association, freedom of religion and speech, and we are not discounting these in any way, they are liberal achievements. But what we would say is that all of these achievements are put at risk by the untrammeled rule of property. That goes to the core of Macphersonian insights: you can't have them both running full tilt at the same time. Democracy must take precedence…"

"Macpherson really liked the words of John Stuart Mill in the middle of the 19th century, he liked all of the people who idealistically hoped that liberal traditions could be transformed, they were accessible to everyday people. He was by no means keen on writing off that tradition. But what he observed was that if you really want to save that tradition you have to save it from itself. You have to put serious limitations on the rights of property… Macpherson really looked into what property means, why is it right for me to own something and you not to own something? If my great grandfather ceded some land, why should I have untrammeled use of it and exclude everyone else? Macpherson looked into these questions very deeply, and perhaps we should too."

In the 1950s and 1960s we did see an attempt to resolve the situation. The ‘softer liberalism', with the application of welfare programmes, union regulations, public education, free healthcare systems in some countries, did go some way to address this flaw in liberal democracy. Dr. McKay says: "This did serve to improve the situation and those restraints on untrammeled property arose from society and people saying that we can no longer prosper under these conditions. People observed that not only did this system drive the world economy into chaos in the 1930s, but also it meant that they had to spend more and more of their time devoting themselves to material survival, and basically signing over their powers to other people. Macpherson calls that ‘the transfers of powers' and what he meant was that in a supposedly liberal democracy so much of your time is spent doing things that you wouldn't choose to do. During ‘soft liberalism' at least people had a margin to develop their true individuality, to be themselves, and weren't under the direct control of market forces… but admirable as it was, it never got down to the basic problem, that you had to rethink property right down to its fundamentals."

On neoliberalism, Dr. Mckay says: "I think it constitutes an extreme makeover of the liberal order, making actual democratic governance more and more difficult… The individualism that we are sold in this system is in many ways a grotesque caricature of humanity. This is a very abbreviated form of what human beings can accomplish. Human beings are in infinite takers of stuff and doers of things, not developers of their own abilities, talents and capacities…" Macpherson was an enlightenment optimist and he thought that after the 1960s and 1970s, the world was getting better and better but actually, after the neoliberal revolution, it went in exactly the opposite direction.

"He was often labelled a Marxist which was odd because he wasn't working with the usual Marxist tool kit. He's actually asking new questions in a new provocative way. Those labels have become dated; I think Macpherson was actually beyond them. That's why I think there will be a 2stst century revival in Macpherson, he is not easy to typecast, I would call him a liminal thinker; thinkers that are going to speak really directly to a new generation that is coming up."

The whole conversation about liberalism is perhaps becoming topical because of the environmental situation. "I see a direct connection between Macpherson and the politics around the contemporary climate catastrophe. So much of which derives from the untrammeled rights of people, property holders to do what they will with the planet's resources. The mass of devastation that will ensue if anything like a 5% Celsius increase happened across the globe will be enormous. So, I would say that the property problem is now endangering human beings themselves. If you want to address that problem, well-meaning discourses and conventions are all very well, but until you get down to the core reason of property you haven't addressed the fundamental dynamic of the crisis…"

Dr. Mckay says that experiments are being carried out around the world to work out a new way to handle property, and that it will be the task of the next generation to put these experiments together in a new, planet-transforming model. You could think critically of Macpherson, that he left his successors with a lot of work to do, but he was an optimist and a certain optimism is indispensable today to encourage our ability to change the script is indispensable today."

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