I was watching the swearing-in of the new Bulgarian government in July this year and it brought me to think about liberal democracy. I started writing this then, but I think it is even more applicable today.
When John Stuart Mill formulated a consistent theory of liberalism still used today, he was examining the development of democracy in the USA and in Great Britain. It is no great surprise that he speaks about liberty as being personal, as focusing on the individual. The famous harm principle states that each individual should be free to do as they wish as long as they do not stop another from doing the same. It is the role of the government to interfere when this principle is breached. Therefore, the government has to defend an individual whose rights are impaired by the actions of another individual.
Anyone who has heard of Thomas Hobbes knows the other principle of government: we come under a social contract by giving up a piece of our unlimited freedom to a sovereign, who will in turn protect us from people who wish to harm us. Again, the sovereign is the one who protects the individual.
These two theories brought me to think about liberal democracy in Bulgaria. Let’s start from the election process: we all go to vote for a party, which has selected individuals in our respective voting sections. We therefore send an individual in parliament, who becomes part of the sovereign who is supposed to protect the individuals. Yet, no one really knows who is supposed to protect the particular individual interests of a person in a particular region. For comparison, in the USA, each state has its own governor, who they can appeal to for the protection of their interest. At this moment in time, I do not know who I can appeal to for the protection of my personal interests in the Bulgarian democratic system.
What is the point of this you might ask? I am trying to point out that there are TWO aspects of liberalism: freedom and individual. Most people think it’s only the first aspect which is important, but that is not true. Without the second aspect, the first is meaningless. The result is that the Bulgarian parliament with its party politics does not reflect the democratic liberalism it says it does. When we hear the political leaders speak about their party supporting or opposing decisions, that is a one-man decision imposed on a group – something which J.S. Mill might call tyranny of the group over the individual. My message to the new politicians? If you disagree with the party majority because you believe you are defending the people of the region which elected you, then you should follow your personal convictions.