Does Classical Liberalism Imply Democracy?

Ethics & Global Politics, Vol. 8, 2015, doi: 10.3402/egp.v8.29310

21 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2014 Last revised: 12 Dec 2015

Date Written: July 7, 2014


There is a fault line running through classical liberalism as to whether or not democratic self-governance is a necessary part of a liberal social order. The democratic and non-democratic strains of classical liberalism are both present today — particularly in America. Many contemporary libertarians and neo-Austrian economists represent the non-democratic strain in their promotion of non-democratic sovereign city-states (startup cities or charter cities). We will take the late James M. Buchanan as a representative of the democratic strain of classical liberalism. Since the fundamental norm of classical liberalism is consent, we must start with the intellectual history of the voluntary slavery contract, the coverture marriage contract, and the voluntary non-democratic constitution (or pactum subjectionis). Next we recover the theory of inalienable rights that descends from the Reformation doctrine of the inalienability of conscience through the Enlightenment (e.g., Spinoza and Hutcheson) in the abolitionist and democratic movements. Consent-based governments divide into those based on the subjects' alienation of power to a sovereign and those based on the citizens' delegation of power to representatives. Inalienable rights theory rules out that alienation in favor of delegation, so the citizens remain the ultimate principals and the form of government is democratic. Thus the argument concludes in agreement with Buchanan that the classical liberal endorsement of sovereign individuals acting in the marketplace generalizes to the joint action of individuals as the principals in their own organizations.

Keywords: Liberalism, inalienable rights, charter cities, startup cities, James Buchanan

JEL Classification: B15, G34, J54, K31, L20, P13

Suggested Citation

Ellerman, David, Does Classical Liberalism Imply Democracy? (July 7, 2014). Ethics & Global Politics, Vol. 8, 2015, doi: 10.3402/egp.v8.29310, Available at SSRN: or

David Ellerman (Contact Author)

University of Ljubljana ( email )

School of Social Science
Ljubljana, CA


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