In one of his articles/books, Yuval-Noah-Harari argues that liberal democracy might be obsolete if human agency is greatly reduced by technology:

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

If I understand correctly human agency is closely related to free-will:

(..) human agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined.

However, I do not understand why liberal democracy is in peril if human agency is reduced. By ensuring free elections humans, the result should theoretically reflect the votes of all people regardless of the amount of "agency" involved.

Is there a political theory that connects liberal democracy to the concept of "free-will"?

Question: Does liberal democracy require a significant amount of free-will in order to function?

  • 1
    I would guess that freewill is unnecessary for democracy, but a fuller understanding of the forces that guide human decision making could potentially render democracy an inefficient and/or unnecessary social structure. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 17:49
  • 1
    Not sure how to make a properly-scoped answer (or if that's even possible) but one angle to lok at this is for example Big Data/AI predictive systems that judge people (parole systems are already in existence, other Minority-Report style stuff isn't that far off - think China's use of technology in its recent social currency and policing).
    – user4012
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 18:58
  • 2
    The Asimov story Franchise is somewhat related to this
    – paj28
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 21:17

5 Answers 5


Democracy does not require free will because the existence of democracy does not prove the existence of free will. A set of computer programs could be programmed to execute choices through voting where they cast their votes based on their circumstances and then all honor the result. No one would argue the computer programs are not executing a decision through voting "democratically" or that the robots have "free will", so on its surface it seems that democracy does not require free will.

It is entirely possible that human beings don't have free will. In such a case we could still have democracy. However, if there was an understanding of the exact process that humans used to decide their vote, it would logically be potentially possible to cut out the middle man and put in place exactly what the people would have voted for anyway without them voting.

Another way that the lack of free will could challenge democracy would be if people's choices were purely the product of their environment or circumstance. If that was the case their environment or circumstance could be manipulated to coerce their voting behavior (we call this in everyday parlance "advertising"). In this case, again, it is possible that the democratic system is thus somewhat redundant to the process of simply convincing everyone to go along with things. As technology and understanding of psychology become better it is conceivable that there would exist methods that could be tailor made to convince each and every individual in society.

Whether this level of understanding of human decision making is likely is a different question, and whether the article's criticism of this potential circumstance is valid is also a different question.

  • Hi Magnus, you raise some interesting questions. I understand your question that human beings may not have free will. Will we ever really be able to know the answer to the question, free will or predetermination? Maybe we might not have free will, but maybe we need the perception of it. Otherwise, we might sit and twiddle our thumbs all day... Just something to think about.
    – Karlomanio
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 21:01
  • @Karlomanio It is an interesting question, and I'd be happy to discuss the topic of whether we have free will elsewhere, but it's outside the scope of this particular question, and likely outside the scope of politics.se, but philosophy.se might be more accepting of that topic. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 21:04
  • Couldn't a "set of computer programs" be considered equivalent to a single, larger program with multiple subroutines that contribute to its decisions? Is that really a democracy?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 21:59
  • @Barmar We can physically separate them onto different hardware and have the programs communicate through whatever medium we want, even having them create paper ballots and reading them with an optical scanner if that resolves your concern? Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:06
  • 1
    The author of the paper apparently takes the position that humans actually do have individual free well, while automation doesn't regardless of how we count the devices. If we let the automatons take over, we're giving up our votes to their collective programming.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 22:37

I disagree with the assumption of the article that technology takes away our free agency. I think that technology provides more avenues for our free agency and many (maybe too many) ways to express our opinions and desires. It certainly gives us more time to think about how our lives could be better and compare ourselves to others who may have more or less than we do.

I would agree with the assumption stated above that democracy does require free agency or free will. If humans had no individual free will or agency then there would be no need to express an opinion and no need to mediate conflicts because government could be an automated system that we would make requests to. We would then go about governing ourselves using algorithms programmed to certain situations. An example is the book, 1984 by George Orwell. Technology rules their lives and free-thinking is discouraged and persecuted.

As a sidebar, I think that the greater danger to democracy is not lack free agency, but lack of personal responsibility. Everyone paints him/herself a victim and blames others for his/her problems instead of taking ownership for the part that put him/her in that position. Lack of personal responsibility is, in my opinion, a greater danger to democracy today.

  • 2
    +1. "infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals [...] eroding human agency" - I also disagree. Technology will not erode us - we will willingly erode ourselves. That's the problem and it's our fault.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 2:00
  • I agree with your theme but I must amplify that the base of this thinking is assuming that all people (in the liberal democracy) are interchangeable. This is naïve. Human nature has not changed, there still exist the doers, the clerics, the warriors, the elites and the peasants in the same basic proportions as throughout human history. What technology has changed is that everyone can be louder. Example: it is easy to conclude that people are dumber after the tide pods episode, what actually happened is less than 10 people filmed themselves, it's just that everyone heard them Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 14:17

I would argue that all liberal democracy is based on the concept of free will, but will use the US Declaration of Independence to illustrate my point

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Does not "Liberty and the pursuit of happiness" imply, 'free will'?

How about the phrase:

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" Thomas Jefferson borrowed this phrase from the 'Father of Liberalism' John Locke and the 'consent of the governed' implies free will.

We can also easily establish the principle of free will expressed in several of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights as well, one example:

The 1st clause of the 1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

this phrase is dependent on the notion of 'free will'. There are several other examples of free will contained in the Bill of Rights.

So yes the Founding Father's political theory connects democracy and free will and that connection is vital to it's existence.

The entire point of the Founding of America was the idea that all 'men' are endowed with certain rights and among them is various aspects of 'free will' and the democratic component of the US government is dependent upon free will and the exercise thereof.


Short Answer: NO.

Defining Liberal Democracy from this link.

Simple definition of free agency: The ability to act or do something.

Simple definition of free will: The ability to choose what to act.

Based on these definitions, free agency is absolutely critical to democracy. It is essentially part of the definition of democracy.

You can think of free will applying before free agency can. In that free will is the thought before the action, so the will enables the agency.

Here is where I argue that only the appearance of free will is required as long as free agency exists.

All that people need to see is that others are able to freely act. The interface between you and others is free agency. We are unable to read minds, so free will is much harder to determine. Regardless of if it exists or not, the agency, or ability for someone else to act upon their own volition is what democracy requires.

Technological advances can and do impede on human agency. These are facts of life that has been accepted for millennia. Certain drugs can temporarily and completely eliminate agency. Calling it anesthesia changes perspective on it. I doubt there is a future where humanity will submit to the technology they created and forfeit agency.

One interpretation of not having free will is that you are the composition of all of the properties of all of the particles and forces applied to you. Or, in another sense, if scientists can recreate your exact particle and energy composition with all possible properties identical, they will be able to create someone exactly like you with the exact same thoughts as you. This clone would be identical in every aspect, to memories to predictive thoughts. Would this be a problem for democracy? I don't think so.


Question: Does liberal democracy require a significant amount of free-will in order to function?

Yes. That is the entire point of democracy. You, the individual, is responsible for your own free-will. That free-will of yours establishes - and actively does democracy - in order to maintain your own individuality within that body politic; your liberty to express your free-will. You are responsible for your own part in maintaining the democracy and interaction with other humans that have formed the democracy. When an individual in a democracy defers their responsibility to another human or entity, they cease to exercise their own free-will and thereby decrease their contribution to the body politic as a whole. Democracy is not static, the system of self-government requires individual action to sustain the entire commonwealth.

You are "free-will" and "liberal democracy".

  • 5
    This answer seems all over the place, rambling on about topics that seem only tangentially related to the question at best. It also makes an appeal to something it calls "the human element" which I can't help but feel is undefined and an appeal to an unjustified or unsupported feeling of human exceptionalism. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 19:43
  • 1
    @magnus.orion The link at the question is all over the place, and makes unsubstantiated claims. The point is that the concept of democracy is about the individual. Don't eat GMO food. Don't use a "smartphone" at every waking moment. If you do eat chicken (2600 chickens are slaughtered for food each second/52 billion a year) understand that at the current growth rate of the poultry industry even producing grain to feed a 50-day chicken is unsustainable and if you protest, protest by saying "no". Else, don't complain. At the root is always the human, which technology (man-made) cannot replace. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 19:47
  • 5
    It may do so, it may not. But that doesn't change my criticism of your answer or your reply to me. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 19:50
  • 1
    @magnus.orion The "human element" is the physical manifestation of the individual human being. The question deals with "free-will" and "liberal democracy" as if they are mysteries, out there somewhere, dependent upon someone or something else, not the individual who is contemplating their environment and their repsonsibilities. The answer says: you are "free-will" and "liberal democracy". If "technology" would somehow subvert one's own free-will, that individual has toppled their own individuality, and their own democracy. Am aware of the tendency of humans to engage in criticism. Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 20:01
  • 2
    Everything below the line break is completely irrelevant to the question. Remove all that and you honestly have a decent answer IMO. And I love how you say "am aware of the tendency of humans to engage in criticism" as though you aren't also human yourself.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Jan 3, 2019 at 6:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .