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Liberalism, Democracy, and the State: Reclaiming the Unity of Liberal Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Liberal political thought has fractured into “classical” and “modern” camps. This division is rooted in differing reactions to the rise of capitalism and democracy, which are institutional outgrowths of liberal principles, unanticipated by its seminal thinkers. Both “classical” and “modern” liberalism are led astray by classifying liberal democracy as a kind of state. But democracies are not states; they are selforganizing systems. When the nature of this error is grasped, a more coherent liberal vision emerges, where the key tension in liberal society is between selforganizing systems and instrumental organizations. Possibilities in public policy take on new dimensions as well.

The world we know is largely the institutional outcome of liberalism's political triumph, first in the West and increasingly worldwide. Yet today liberal thought is deeply divided against itself and, in this division, often unable to comprehend a world in many ways its product. This division grows primarily from tensions between two liberal institutions: liberal, or representative, democracy and the market, and also from the near universal failure of liberals to grasp democratic government's unusual systemic character. Tensions between liberal democracy and the market are central issues, whereas the character of democratic government receives far less attention. Yet how the first issue is evaluated depends in part on understanding the last. Liberalism has strengthened the intellectual, legal, economic and political status of individuals within society, emphasizing equality of status for all people.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2001

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I would like to thank Duane Oldfield, William K. Muir, Robert Hawkins, Walter Nicgorski, and two referees for their helpful comments and suggestions, all of which helped improve this paper.

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