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Liberalism and Democracy: Marriage of Convenience? Constitution of Liberty by F. Hayek

Friedrich_Hayek_portraitThere are numerous critics of Hayek’s theory of minimal state and his justification of social and economic inequalities in the name of progress of civilization. He also claimed that social redistribution was wrong because redistributing taxes from the rich to the poor is a violation of individual liberties. In other words, he was a proponent of minimalist state and minimalist social protection. For a reason, Margaret Thatcher praised Hayek for his powerful critique of socialist state and based her policies on thinker’s theory. Nevertheless, Hayek offers very interesting vision of the relationship between liberalism and democracy, which deserves deeper analysis.

In Part I of The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek defines freedom as independence of the arbitrary will of others (12). The most desirable condition of individual is a state where coercion is reduced as much as possible in the society, although it cannot be eliminated completely. In free society, certain system of law is needed to maximize personal liberty.

Hayek offers interesting view on relation between liberalism and democracy. While liberalism is concerned with limitation of coercive powers of all governments whether democratic or not, for democracy the only limit to government is opinion of the majority. Liberalism fears totalitarian power, while democracy is afraid of authoritarian power. According to Hayek, democracy does not exclude totalitarian power and on the other hand, authoritarian power might allow individual liberties (90). Further, liberalism is about what law owns to be and democracy is about the manner of determining what will be the law. Liberalism accepts democratic method of majority rule for making decisions but it argues it is not an authority to determine what that decision ought to be. For dogmatic democrats, the will of majority is always positive thing and it expresses the interest of all. However, liberalism claims that not all decisions made by majority are good (91). One might refer to Hayek’s distinction between individual liberty and political liberty (13). Individual freedom means the individual sphere where no one have a right to interfere. However, someone might use political freedom to become a slave of other (14). Hayek’s argument might be illustrated by the problem of many democratic countries, among others Poland, where the government claims that since they gained the support of majority they have a right to rule democracy according to their own plan. Consequently, they govern in arbitrary way and diminish importance of free institutions that stand on their way.

On the other hand, liberal and democratic traditions agree that if coercion is required this is majority that should decide about it, but they disagree on the range of the state action that is to be guided by democratic decision. Dogmatic democrat does not see the limits of rule of majority, while liberals argue there must be limits to it. Those limits should be long- term principles (3). Momentary act of majority will is not of main interests of liberals but wider agreement on common principles that majority decision derives its authority (93). Further, for dogmatic democrats common sovereignty is unlimited and unlimitable. However, for liberals acceptance to follow the same rules is indisputable condition for free society because people become society not by giving themselves laws but by following the rules.  Therefore, common principles are the limit to the power of majority and there is no legitimate power over them (93).

For Hayek, there is always a danger of unlimited government in democracy. However, democracy needs to create protection system for individual liberty. Democracy should be the means not the end, and its limits must be determined in the light of purpose it wants to serve (94). Hayek argues that there are several reasons why democracy is justified. Firstly, it is the only way of peaceful change that people have discovered and because democracy is able to secure the individual liberty. Democracy protects individuals from coercion of other individuals but coercion of the collective constitutes different problem. Therefore, it should be stressed that democracy might secure individual liberty but does not make them certain. Hayek then explains that liberty can be preserved when majority makes it its careful purpose (94). Hayek refers to Constant’s claim liberalism is the systeme de principes by saying that liberty should have similar status in democracy, it should be supreme principle for all permanent arrangements (61). However, Hayek claims that sometimes coercion is necessary to secure the correct rules of conduct and smooth run of the society (56). Liberty might be infringed in temporary emergencies. Nevertheless, continuous infringements destroy freedom.

Hayek agrees that the government should be guided by the opinion of majority. However, this opinion must be independent from the government. Therefore, there is a need for wide sphere of discussion in which independent opinion of majority can be formed. In democracy, it is possible that “any minority opinion may become a majority one (95). It is desirable to allow the few to stand against majority because “gradual experimental change” can take place. People given the opportunity to observe different rules are provided with chance to select most effective one for themselves (56). Because of those opposition by some there will be progress in knowledge and understanding (95). Hayek agrees with Tocqueville that democracy is the only effective method of educating the majority because democracy is process of forming opinion (94). It is a fact that democracy not always gives power to the wisest people but still it might be a good system because it is dynamic rather than static. Moreover, while temporary achievements of democracy might be shadowed by other systems, in long run we can see the benefits of democracy (95).

 On the other hand, Hayek warns that the rule of majority is in fact against the principle thought which civilization has developed and might lead to stagnation. Also, democracy might lead to results that people do not desire. In other words, this is an illusion that majority always knows better (97).

For liberalism, democracy controls power of coercion as long as it constrains individual only by general rules (101). However, liberty might be in danger because of rulers that majority choose to implement its directions (101). The arbitrary powers those agents have pose a threat to individual liberty. Once the government is given wide coercive power in particular cases, the democratic assemblies cannot control it anymore. The duty of majority is to determine the means how it should be employed because otherwise the government will do it arbitrary (101). Consequently, framework of institutions, moral rules and values give the structure to work within that prevents from abusing liberties (57).

Further, Hayek pays attention to the role of politicians in democracy. Politicians should not be pioneers of new ideas. What they should do is to act within framework of principles and to observe what the largest number of people want (97). In political sphere, opinions are result of slow evolution of ideas that come from thinkers. They provide guidance for politicians and people. He agrees with Mill that thinkers contribute to interpretation of past experience and spread of new ideas (98). For that reason, they cannot be bound by the opinion of majority; their duty is to show the possibilities and consequences and to offer policies that majority has not thought about yet (100).

To summarize, Hayek offers concise and clear explanation of the differences between liberalism and democracy and clarifies how democracy can be compatible with liberty. He is not against democracy because it provides the rule of law that is conductive to liberty. He recognizes that democracy allows the change, for example, of ineffective government. However, he shows distrusts towards majority rule and emphasizes that the danger is the government equipped with unlimited power. Hayek’s vision includes instrumental approach to democracy. The final end is individual liberty and democracy properly understood can be the power to protect it. His arguments lead to the conclusion that democracy must aim to provide security for liberty, otherwise it will lead to slavery.  Hayek has also instrumental approach to politicians, who should have pure administrative role. We can see relevance of his argument to the situation in Western democracies, where politicians claim to be the leaders of innovation and progress.

Hayek claims that in some situations the government has a right to use minimum coercion. In emergency situations infringement of liberty might be justified. However, the author does not elaborates on this matter. He does explains what he means by “emergency” situations that coercion might be used. Hayek leaves me with the question what exactly justifies use of coercion and what part of individual liberty can be compromised?


Hayek FA (1978) The Constitution of Liberty. London: The University of Chicago Press.


8 thoughts on “Liberalism and Democracy: Marriage of Convenience? Constitution of Liberty by F. Hayek

  1. Great analysis that gets to the heart of the problem with Hayek’s philosophy: once you allow that in principle the government sometimes has a right to use coercion, the libertarian system falls apart. Because then government officials will always make the case that circumstances are sufficiently dire to justify the use of coercion for whatever they want to do.

    For the libertarian ideal to “work” (and by that I mean not immediately fail) you need to have a government that simply does not have the power of coercion. (Albert Jay Nock argued for something like this in “Our Enemy, the State”)

    But then the question becomes:if a government is so weak it can’t do much of anything, why bother to have it at all?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting analysis of democracy and Liberalism. I say we need a blend of the two to make things work in government. Hayek’s thought on not using the rich man’s taxes to pay the poor got me thinking. The poor should be empowered and not just pampered in order to be able to fend for themselves but it’s important for the rich to gladly give to taking care of the poor. We are all humans who need help at different levels. Where I come from they say if you don’t empower the poor you can not peaceably enjoy your riches. The handicapped poor will come stealing from your estate. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As Tocqueville said people are unable to select wise representatives. That is why some philosphers stress it is so important to limit coercive power of the government.
    I think Hayek ‘s answer to your question would be that the aim is to have government limited in power and its main role should be administrative. Only then the individuals can practice their rights and freedoms.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I understand your point. Hayek had very controvercial view of social and economic inequality. He claimed that the poor should accept their conditions because history did show that these are the rich that change the world we live in. In other words, the poor should accept their hardship for the sake of development and progress. How strange is his argument: rich cannot sacrifise their liberties but the poor should accept their inferiority!??


  5. “Redistributing taxes from the rich to the poor is a violation of individual liberties”

    Hmmm… Whose liberties? The liberty to not pay taxes vs the liberty to die… the liberty to get a poor education… to have limited life opportunities…

    Sometimes equality increases liberty (for the less powerful side of society).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I share your criticism. Hayek claimed that the rich should not share their material wealth with anyone because they cannot take responsibility for other people’s failures. In fact, Hayek did not care about less fortunate part of the society. He argued that the rich bring progress and development and the poor should accept their inferior position, if they are unable to change it. In material terms, equality did not exist for Hayek. However, in the light of the law, both the rich and the poor, were equal.
    Hayek was a controversial philosopher and many elements of his theory are highly problematic.


  7. Thank you for this. I confess I haven’t read Hayek. (God so many books so little time) but I totally subscribe his definition of Freedom. “Arbitrary” drives me nuts. And it is rising. When United Airlines kicks an old gentleman form his seat and drags him down the plane aisle, that is Arbitrary for you.
    Majority rule? See Brexit. Crowds are very susceptible to manipulation, hence very vulnerable to demagogs. (Athens fell because of the latter).
    Maybe we should change (some of the) majority rules? > 60% in some cases?
    Food for thought.


  8. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the autthor. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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