YOUTH VOICE: Democracy and Individual Liberty

Posted on May 10, 2012 by


Democracy poses a real danger to the concepts of individual liberty because of its central concept: i.e. for a government to rule by a majority through a free vote.  To have a majority, is to have public consensus on an issue above 50%.  Without unanimity, however, there will always be a minority with a marginalised voice, which led Alexis de Tocqueville to famously describe “the tyranny of majority” (Heywood 2004, p 231).  In this essay, I will analyse the extent to which democracy dictates individuals’ lives and whether there are suitable alternatives other than democracy to enhance individual liberty.  However, an analysis of Australia’s political system, explaining the concept of liberal democracy and how it works in today’s society, must first be conducted to understand what role the government takes in ruling our lives.

Australia’s political framework revolves around the concept of liberal democracy.  Analysis of the meanings of liberalism and democracy will find an inherent tension between these core concepts (Parkin 2010, p 4). In democracy, governance is determined by the majority, whereas, liberalism emphasizes the need for government-control only for public matters (Parkin 2010, p 3).  Democrats argue that the government should govern in the interests of the people via the ‘mandate’ given to them when elected to parliament.  There is a real emphasis on public interests in democratic ideas.  Liberals argue that to preserve individual freedom, government should not interfere in private life, and that government is a necessary evil, to make sure society runs smoothly (Vromen, Gelber & Gauja 2009, p 31).  Liberal democracy, therefore, is “a relationship that is both one of mutual necessity and a source of tension or antagonism” (Beetham 1992, p 40-41).  Finding an appropriate point on the democratic spectrum in which governmental policies and individual freedom benefit each other reciprocally would be desirable.  But finding this point, as will be detailed, is nigh impossible and, therefore, requires lengthy debate as to what is the best alternative.

Resolving conflict democratically relies on the implementation of majority rules (Heywood 2004, p 231).   However, as soon as the majority view dictates, minority ideas are often discarded destroying individual liberty (Heywood 2004, p 231).  Julian Assange’s current bid for the Australian Senate is due to his desire for more liberty in Australian politics, which he claims has betrayed “the rights and interests of the people” (Dorling 2012).  These rights and interests of people are at the forefront of political debate today, due to the government only having the mandate of the people, via a couple of independents.  This makes it very difficult for governance to be in the interests of all people, as just under 50% voted for the opposition, whose ideas and policies are often opposed to the government’s.  Therefore, there is a large minority whose individual liberty may be imposed on by a government that does not share their views.

This can be seen in the recent outcry over indigenous hunting of protected turtles and dugongs in the Torres Strait Islands (Elks & Owens, 2012).  “One person’s cruelty is another’s inherent right to hunt when the interests of animal welfare and indigenous native title clash” (Elks & Owens, 2012).  There is legislation under the Native Title Act allowing for hunting of endangered animals, for personal use (Elks & Owens, 2012).  But the question being asked is whether or not minority groups such as the indigenous population should be allowed to continue hunting protected animals.  The idea central to liberal discourse is that individuals should be allowed to do what they want as long as it does not affect anyone else (Vromen, Gelber & Gauja 2009, p 29).  Therefore, there should not be any interference in such matters, as it is not directly concerning another human being.

If democracy threatens liberty in liberal democracy, then surely liberalism, as a system of governance, would be beneficial in protecting and maintaining individual liberty.   However, liberalism in itself is also a threat to individual liberty, because of the idea of wealth equalling power (Beetham 1992, pp 43-44).  Wealth obtained through perfectly legal means can wield political and social influence over others.  Take for example Clive Palmer’s participation in anti-mining tax and anti-carbon tax rallies.  Swan has lambasted Palmer for complaining about higher taxes and the influence he can wield via his wealth: Palmer has been running full page advertisements in national newspapers (Martin & Robotham 2012).  His motives are often driven by purely personal agendas and his ideas are deliberately misleading and/or exaggerated to sway public opinion.  For people who are less educated, this propaganda may unfairly influence or persuade individuals to take a certain course of action, thus destroying individual liberty.  Therefore, it would also be appropriate to argue that liberalism is a threat to individual liberty.

It is nigh impossible to find a system of governance that allows complete individual liberty, because the idea of absolute liberty for all citizens is paradoxical.  Individual liberty implies one can do what they want, when they want.  However, all actions will directly or indirectly influence others, thus possibly diminishing other people’s ability to have individual liberty.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau described democracy as a means in which humans have freedom, when they obey the laws that they created (Heywood 2004, p 229).  Democracy is the best form of governance because of its ability to find the closest point at which individuals all have liberty, without unduly influencing others.

NOTE: This piece was submitted for assessment in the first year undergraduate subject Australian Politics: Government and Society at La Trobe University Albury-Wodonga.


  • Beetham, D 1992, ‘Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Democratization’, Political Studies, vol. 40, special issue, pp 40-53.
  • Dorling, P 2012, ‘Assange: what I’ll do in the Senate’, Age, 27 March, viewed 27 March 2012,
  • Elks, S, Owens, J 2012, ‘Outcry as hunters’ cruelty exposed’, Weekend Australian, 10-11 March, p 7.
  • Heywood, A 2004, extract from chapter 8: ‘Democracy, Representation and the Public Interest’ in Political Theory: An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillian, Houndmills, Bassingstoke, pp 220-32.
  • Martin, P, Robotham, J 2012, ‘Mining magnates hit back at Swan’, Age, 5 March, viewed 27 March 2012,
  • Parkin, A 2010, ‘Understanding liberal-democratic politics’, in Woodward, D, Parkin, A, Summers, J (eds.), Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, Pearson, Frenchs Forest, NSW, pp 3-24.
  • Vromen, A, Gelber, K & Gaujer, A, 2009, ‘Liberal Democracy in Australia’ in Powerscape, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, pp 21-43.


Max Humphries is a first year Bachelor of Arts student studying at La Trobe University in Albury-Wodonga.  He has a passion for political and international affairs, with a strong interest in Europe and Russia.  Max is also interested in modern history, in order to fully understand how current political ideology has been affected by the past.  He also has a strong ideas on the asylum seeker/refugee debate, and in his final year of school, made a documentary on refugees who had come to the Albury-Wodonga region. 
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.