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Democracy Means Big Government 12/05/2005

The dust is settling after a hard fought election campaign. But was it a model of liberal democracy in action, or a further erosion of our freedoms? A new report published by the Policy Institute says that modern democracy inevitably leads to high taxes and red tape – whichever political party is in power.

Taking Liberties, by Craig Smith, a research fellow at Glasgow University, says that Western democracies have in-built incentives for politicians to tax, spend and generate ever more legislation. Last week’s UK general election was a case in point - all the main parties advocated a rise in government spending as a proportion of GDP.

In order to win elections, political parties must offer the majority of voters benefits at the expense of a minority – hence the rise in taxes as a percentage of national income since the advent of universal suffrage. Meanwhile, increasingly professional politicians must justify their existence by passing more and more laws and regulations.

The problem is that “modern democracy has acquired a legitimacy of its own” says Smith. Originally designed as one of many checks on the power of the executive, elections have “undermined those very liberties they were designed to protect”.

“Many take it for granted that a democratic majority in general elections, or even just in parliamentary votes, confers legitimacy on a government and its actions”, says Smith. The current government won just 37% of the vote but few would question its legitimacy because of its Commons majority.

But “liberalism and democracy are not the same thing and often oppose each other”. As a result, this process “erodes individual freedoms and material and moral self-reliance”.

Smith goes on to say that the Scottish Parliament is a classic case in point. Created on the swelling tide of modern democracy, it has few checks on its actions. Of the 62 bills passed in its first term, “only two appear unambiguously to have extended individual liberty.”

Smith concludes by calling for new constitutional checks on the powers of politicians. The paper is available in full from the research & publications page of this web site.
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