For the purposes of this question, let me (loosely) define:

  • Democracy = situation where the government is chosen by the population (using some ‘reasonable’ voting rule)

  • Liberal state = state which allows individuals to make their own personal choices (e.g. what religion to follow, how to dress, what sexual practices to engage in, etc.)

Notice that, for the purposes of this question, I am not bundling democracy into the definition of a liberal state. Moreover, we can easily imagine a state that is highly liberal (on my definition) but autocratic.

Empirically, there seems to be a strong (positive) correlation between liberalism (as defined here) and democracy. [Equivalently, there is a correlation between illiberalism and autocracy.] Question: what explains this correlation?

Of course, one can think of various answers to this, e.g.

  • People like liberal freedoms; people tend to get what they want more in democracies (than in autocracies); so democracies have more liberal freedoms

  • For democracies to be stable, election results need to be accepted even by those who voted for the losing side. This is much harder in an illiberal state since the consequences of having a government that you don’t like are much more severe.

Is there a ‘canonical’ explanation favoured by the political scientists who have thought about this?

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    It´s important to define, what is meaned by democracy. If ony liberal democracy is defined as democracy, there always been a corelation. So the definition of democracy is very important here.
    – convert
    May 24, 2022 at 10:01
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    Nevertheless, we do need a definition of liberalism. If we go with wikipedia, liberalism is based on consent of the governed which would make democracy a prerequisite. Do we consider capitalism to be an essential part of liberalism or do we allow for left libertarian ideas of communal ownership which might curtail individual economic freedom but maintain high levels of individual political and social freedom?
    – xyldke
    May 25, 2022 at 6:39
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    The concepts of "liberal state" as described in this question have absolutely nothing to do with the meaning of "liberal" in "liberal democracy". I can imaging an Islamic liberal democracy where almost every adult can vote (regardless of religion), they can choose between vibrant opposing viewpoints, and the loser willingly concedes. However, all parties agree on restrictions on how to dress and on sexual practices. May 25, 2022 at 10:16
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    I’ve asked the same question, with a similar distinction between democracy as a form of government, and liberalism, permitting the subjects of government much freedom. But this observation is not obviously true to all, e.g. @jessica. Perhaps a first step would be to determine if there is such a correlation. Q: is it reported in the political science literature? Not the theoretical literature, but the empirical literature. Q: should we start filling in a table whose rows are society/time, columns particular freedoms, with cell values being checkmarks or degrees thereof?
    – Krazy Glew
    May 28, 2022 at 0:37
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    @RobbieGoodwin the 'equivalently' holds if you assume that democracy and autocracy are opposite ends of a scale, and likewise for liberalism and illiberalism. To see this formally, one can check that a non-zero correlation between X and Y implies a non-zero correlation between k - X and k' - Y, where k and k' are arbitrary constants.
    – afreelunch
    May 31, 2022 at 15:22

9 Answers 9



It seems simple when you say it, but a large number of both political philosophies and means of rulership do not incorporate personal choice to any meaningful degree. Before the advent of Greek democracy, most Eurasian societies simply assumed that political systems must be hierarchical with limited to no vertical mobility and that one's choices within one's social class were subsumed and predetermined by the needs of the collective.

In part, this was due to external factors like technology: when your survival as a collective is honestly threatened by one bad choice, society can't allow you to make meaningful choices. It's only once society has the ability to store surpluses to ensure future survival and use technology to make up for past mistakes that individual choices could even be fathomed.

So it ends up being the same paradigm that births both of these ideas: the idea of an individual having 'rights' goes hand in hand with the idea that an individual can make non-obvious political decisions in that both of these are a luxury that can be afforded by those whose societies are comfortably above subsistence. Until that point, hierarchical collectivism is the only sustainable model.

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    Related : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_liberty
    – xyldke
    May 24, 2022 at 13:39
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    was there vertical mobility in greek (athenean) democracy? I remember one prerequisit to be elected was to be rich.
    – lalala
    May 25, 2022 at 18:52
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    "survival as a collective is honestly threatened by one bad choice"... It reminds me of Brexit
    – Miguel
    May 25, 2022 at 18:53
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    @lalala Baby steps. You most certainly had to be rich, but how you got your wealth had a great deal more flexibility. So while most elected officials inherited their wealth, some earned those million sesterces within their lifetime.
    – Carduus
    May 26, 2022 at 12:52
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    @Miguel, exactly according to the author, this was not a question of survival at all. The UK could afford it, by the virtue of living 'comfortably above subsistence'.
    – Zeus
    May 27, 2022 at 0:27

The concept of democracy predates liberalism by at least a couple of thousand years. Aristotle spelled it out in his "Politics", but the idea of democracy (or rather polity, the virtuous form of rule-by-citizens) was clearly something he was describing and categorizing, not something he invented.

The philosophy of Liberalism came into its own in the 16th century, and was mainly concerned with securing the property rights of a newly powerful and wealthy commercial/industrial commoner class against the predations of established aristocracies. One of the arguments they needed to counter in developing this philosophy was the assertion that monarchical and aristocratic rule was essential for a secure and well-ordered society. They turned back to Aristotle and revived the notion of democracy as the appropriate form of government for empowered citizens. There were several different takes on the nature of democracy during this period: from Hobbes Leviathan (in which people chose to implement an oppressive government to keep their own worst natures in check) to Rousseau's Social Contract theory (where citizens effectively contracted with each other to produce a mutually acceptable civil society) to Locke's and Smith's nearly anarchic laissez-faire societies. In the 19th century there was a strong reaction against the political and social impacts of industrial capitalism, which threatened to subvert democratic establishments into de facto oligarchies, that led to the rise of socialism and Marxism. This forced capitalist thinking to hone in on a particular form of agonistic Liberal representative democracy that denied the social and political constraints called for by social Liberalism.

In short, the archaic notion of democratic governance was build into modern liberalism, and reified into certain political ideological forms, in the course of convoluted struggles over both property and human rights.

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    That, if you will allow me, was an uncommonly succinct and to-the-point history of the term "liberal", at least up to the late nineteenth-century. But I couldn't understand the final sentence of your middle paragraph. I tend to avoid the word "democracy" altogether, if I can - because a) it is contested and b)too tied to human emotion. I also avoid "liberty", "equality" or "fraternity" for much the same reasons. A better way of describing what we have in modern western countries, in my view, is "representative government" or if necessary " elected representative government".
    – WS2
    May 24, 2022 at 23:18
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    Hobbes was born in the late 16th century - as the Spanish armada was approaching I believe. Leviathan doesn't recommend democracy - that was a dirty word. (At least I don't think it does). The most important thing for Hobbes was a "sovereign". Without a "sovereign" to rule over us we would simply be in a "state of nature" - in which life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". A sovereign could be anything - a monarch, a parliament etc. And that's the important point as the Tudor dynasty comes to an end and rumblings of parliamentarianism begin.
    – WS2
    May 24, 2022 at 23:26
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    @WS2: You should reread Leviathan. Hobbes was part of the Liberal movement in the sense that he believed the 'sovereign' was something that should be instituted by the people for their own benefit. As such, it is still technically a form of democracy (rule-by-citizens), albeit one in which people recognize their own animalism and see the wisdom in oppressing their worst selves. Hobbes is sometimes interpreted as pro-monarchist, but his work is more subtle and nuanced than that. May 24, 2022 at 23:32
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    @WS2: I don't recall if that specific word appears or not, though I'm quite certain Hobbes had read Aristotle. But words are less important than forms here (think about how many odd regimes style themselves as 'democratic', e.g. the DPRK). Hobbes was clear that he thought people should create and consent to a self-repressive form of government; he was not a fan or arbitrary or imposed authority. That consent implies something akin to democratic consensus. May 24, 2022 at 23:56
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    @WS2: Apologies if I sound snippy, but the 'appeal to dictionary' strategy always bugs me. Words follow history, not he other way around. May 25, 2022 at 17:19

It has been pointed in the comments that one needs to define clearly democracy and liberal state. Moreover, in order to speak of correlation we should consider examples where one of these two is not present - otherwise we end up correlating liberal democracy with liberalism... with predictable result.

Democracy is not necessarily liberal
While it is true that most modern democracies are liberal democracies, this has not always been the case, and manifestly so. Athenian democracy was not a liberal one, for several reasons:

  • The majority imposed its will on the minority (to the detriment of this minority rights)
  • Only privileged could vote (only men, and certainly not slaves)
  • The representatives were selected by drawing straws, rather than by voting

Note that restricting voting rights to a certain group of population (only men, only landowners) has survived in some places well into the XIXth and even XXth) century.

Liberalism is not only social liberalism
Liberalism originally was inseparable from economic liberalism, reflecting both social and economic transformations in the late XVIII-th and XIX-th centuries. In other words, liberalism is closely associated with capitalism, although in modern American parlance it is mainly confined to social sphere, while in Europe it is used more in its economic meaning. One should not mix in here neo-liberalism, which is a much later economic ideology.

Marxist view is that economic system is inseparable from the social one, that is capitalism in economic sphere goes in parcel with social liberalism. Marx himself waxes about the progress and liberation that liberalism/capitalism brought to many nations - abolishing slavery, aristocratic rights, and feudalism. He then goes on to criticize the financial dependency that capitalism/liberalism brought into human and social relationships, logically concluding that a better society can be neither capitalist, nor a liberal one.

In modern popular political discourse it is often presumed that one can have a society that is socially liberal while economically not capitalist - I don't know, if this view is grounded in any serious philosophical work, and if anyone could recommend some reading on the subject, I am a taker.

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    Good point about the dual and somewhat contraditory meanings of liberal. In Australia the main right-of-centre party is the Liberal Party - quite the opposite of what Americans mean by liberal. The world would probably be a better place if the word "democracy" had never been invented - it is too contested. What we should cherish is "elected representative government". Even the North Koreans claim to be "democratic".
    – WS2
    May 24, 2022 at 23:35
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    I am not sure what the point of the first half of this answer is; it seems simply a longer restatement of the question's premise that democracy need not be liberal. Nor can I seem to find in here an answer to the OP's question, "why the correlation between democracy and liberality?"
    – cjs
    May 25, 2022 at 0:25
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    @cjs If one clearly defines democracy and liberalism, then there's bo correlation, because the two are unrelated. Any observed correlation is spirious, like between the number of pirates and the global warming. May 25, 2022 at 4:48
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    Well, I've re-read it again, and I still don't see an answer to the question "why (or even is) democracy correlated with social liberality?" You seem to cover a) that state democracy need not be liberal (as the OP already stated), b) a second, different definition of "liberalism" not relevant to the original question (which clearly stated the definition of "liberalism" he was using), c) Marxism (nothing to do with the OP) and then d) capitalism (again nothing to do with the OP). Perhaps you do have an answer buried in there, but for me, at least, your answer needs a rewrite to bring it out.
    – cjs
    May 25, 2022 at 7:35
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    My point is merely to let you know what's wrong with your answer that caused me to downvote it. This is exactly what comments on answers are for. Note that SE is not a discussion site; if you want to answer something other than the question at the top of this page, you should find or post the question you do want to answer.
    – cjs
    May 25, 2022 at 7:55

The definition of "liberal" in this question doesn't quite jibe with the typical use of "liberal" in the context of a "liberal democracy". A liberal democracy is one in which only reasonable obstacles are placed with regard to who can vote, and only reasonable obstacles on who can run for an elected position. Reasonable obstacles on voting include restricting non-citizens from voting, restricting voting to adults, and restricting citizens who are eligible to vote in an election to voting only once in that election. Reasonable restrictions on who can run for office include residency. These restrictions are not necessary. If restrictions do exist on who can vote or who can run for office, those restrictions must be "reasonable." The literacy tests that were widely used to exclude African-Americans from voting in the US were not "reasonable."

On the other hand, there are many liberal democracies that do restrict the kinds of clothing one can wear. Liberal democracies are characterized by how fair and open their elections are. In addition, in a liberal democracy, the loser in an election must be willing to concede the loss. This is key.

An alternative to a "liberal democracy" includes what Fareed Zakaria described as an "illiberal democracy". Some regard the term "illiberal democracy" to be an oxymoron and prefer "hybrid regime" instead. Freedoms are restricted to some extent (sometimes to a great extent) in an illiberal democracy / hybrid regime.

Another alternative to a liberal democracy is a pure autocracy or dictatorship. In such a system, freedoms are highly restricted. One is freely allowed to praise the autocrat / dictator. Criticism on the other hand can land the critic in jail.

One key difference between a liberal democracy and other systems is whether people tend to view those with opposing views as opponents or enemies. Compromise is possible with opponents, but not so much so with enemies.

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    I'd probably use the word "reasonable" rather than sane - but whichever word is used, I can't tell if you're stating that these are all necessary requirements for a state to be a liberal democracy, or merely common traits. If the former, then there are counter-examples; for example, Irish and some Commonwealth citizens can vote in UK elections, and stand for election too; May 24, 2022 at 14:19
  • plus there are apparently no residency requirements for candidates either. May 24, 2022 at 14:19
  • Fair enough; I appreciate the clarification. May 24, 2022 at 14:32
  • @SteveMelnikoff I don't view what I wrote as necessary restrictions/requirements, but they're definitely not insane/unreasonable restrictions. The fewer restrictions, the better, as far as I'm concerned. That said, some restrictions are "reasonable" or "sane". On the other hand, the literacy tests used in the southern US (and also other parts of the US) to restrict the voting rights of African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were not reasonable. May 24, 2022 at 14:38
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    The OP fairly clearly defines what he means by "liberal state"; if you are merely suggesting he use a different word or phrase for what he's talking about there, consider a comment on the question instead of adding an answer here. I do not see in this answer where you attempt to answer the actual question he's asking, "what explains this correlation?" (Perhaps it's the "view those with opposting views as opponents vs. enemies" bit; if so, you might want to focus and expand on that.)
    – cjs
    May 25, 2022 at 0:43

We could observe that:

  • The trend is far from universal. You say that "empirically" there is a correlation, yet do not cite a source. Moreover, I doubt such a source could exist when both "democratic-ness" and "liberal-ness" are controversial concepts and there is no one universally accepted metric for measuring them.
  • There are many countries where leaders are elected by popular vote, yet many personal freedoms are restricted. Doubtless in many of these the democracy is defunct due to corruption or vote manipulation, but there seem to be some where the population at large genuinely desires the illiberal restrictions.
  • In the United States, the more "liberal" states such as New York or California can have more restrictions in some areas (eg. gun ownership, what soda you can buy, what car you can drive, how you can build your house, who you can hire). Similarly, EU countries often have more similar restrictions than non-EU. So the whole premise depends on exactly what you count as an important freedom.
  • In democratic systems, an effective strategy is to appeal to a majority. You want to give the majority of people what they want, and take care to deny only things desired by a minority. Thus a natural platform is "anything goes, except these handful of things that only a few of you want". This would appear to those in the majority as a liberalization trend.
  • The countries that "export" liberalism also export democracy and vice versa. So it could be an entirely coincidental effect, with both trends being caused by a third, latent variable (the influence of some countries on others).

So I would conclude that the question is ill-defined, the premise is dubious, and even if those two were not the case, causality is very difficult to resolve without a controlled experiment.


From a statistical angle, this correlation is weaker than it may appear. There are 195 recognized countries in the world as of 2022, which is a fairly large sample size for this sort of analysis. But these countries are not independently distributed with respect to political system. If you look on a map, you'll see that there's enormous correlation between countries in the same region with similar cultures and historical backgrounds. The effective number of samples is thus quite small. And the big confounding factor is the extent to which a country's culture and politics has been influenced by the Anglo-American system.


I would argue that liberalism benefits itself from right-owner-free citizens, and their bigger economic power. It gives it a bigger consumer pool and increases the competence (competition?). It also matches the freedom on economics and trading with other freedoms, making it kind of intuitive for a liberal to support other freedoms. I wouldn't say one needs the other (specially democracy) but maybe they make sense together.



Systems of government are about who has power. Only in a democracy is power wielded - however imperfectly and/or indirectly - by the people. In any other system that power is in the hands of a much smaller group, sometimes a few individuals.

Liberalism - individual free choice - is also about power. It's a smaller scale power than the power wielded by the state but it's still power. That power directly limits the power of the state, and in any system where the power of the state is not aligned with the people that is not stable. Those with power will always use it in ways that limit the choices of others.

  • Arguably, liberalism is about rights. It's just defending these rights may need power...
    – Zeus
    May 27, 2022 at 0:48
  • @Zeus: Yes, it is framed and secured in terms of rights. But rights are a form of power. For much of history, and sadly for much of the world today, people have limited power to control their own lives and choose their own futures. May 27, 2022 at 7:26

From a simple logical point of view;

If we take a set that contains both liberalism and democracy, then at their intersection we may find similar content. The similarity may be based on their maxims - for example, what defines duty in a democratic state or in a liberal state. Additionally, we may find similar axioms premised on choice. These axioms detail the definition of a democratic or liberal state.

Lastly, we may want to deepen our understanding philosophically. What sentences are usually composed when being pragmatic about democracy, or liberalism - do we find similarities here or do we draw on different examples? Therefore, we may want to compare between examples on their implementation and how people have reacted and built their livelihood around the concept.

Lastly, what pictures best portray a democratic state and a liberal state. We may find a few semblances in these pictures and perhaps many differences also. From these pictures, we can discern by the fact of the image, a difference or similarity.

After accumulating consistent information from pictures, spoken opinion, and analysing the concept. We may want to count how many pictures portray their similarities, and what sentences best describe how similar they are to one another, then lastly take a count on words used to describe them. From this data, we can develop hypotheses to determine whether there is evidence that the two correlate. A few examples on how this is achieved; Neural language processing to achieve the task on the sentence/words side - preferably from social-media, or from books. Machine learning techniques on image-processing to see how similar pictures of a liberal state is compared to a democratic state.

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