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Liberalization is a process that reduces state control over the lives of persons subject to the authority of a state. It may have both economic and political dimensions. Economic liberalization reduces state intervention in the marketplace. Political liberalization expands individual liberty and rights, including the right to speak freely against state authorities and to organize with others to oppose those authorities. Economic and political liberalization may or may not go together. Political liberalization may or may not lead to democratization, which also enables a broadly inclusive electorate to unseat an incumbent government.
The concept of liberalization must be understood in the context of liberalism, the dominant modern political philosophy. Liberalism first emerged in the 17th century as a challenge to the notion that monarchs had God-given, absolute authority. Thomas Hobbes defended absolute authority but grounded it not in divine will but rather in the hypothetical agreement of the subjects to yield entirely to a sovereign their natural rights to defend life and property.
John Locke rejected Hobbes’s argument. While agreeing that governmental authority is indeed grounded in the consent of the governed, Locke held that people would leave the state of nature and set up a commonwealth only if they could thereby protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Rather than cede their natural rights to a sovereign, the people became the sovereign by virtue of the social contract through which they established the commonwealth. Monarchs were no more than magistrates who could be removed by the sovereign people if they failed to protect natural rights.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in turn, rejected Locke’s emphasis on individual rights, returning instead to the Hobbesian concept of ceding natural rights to an absolute sovereign. But Rousseau also rejected Hobbes’s idea of a sovereign separate from the people. He envisioned the whole people, acting together, a radically democratic polity in which individual rights had no place. Locke’s liberalism was thus bracketed by two absolutisms.
Liberalism after Locke remained committed to protecting individual liberty, but it left behind the conventional device of the social contract. From the late 18th through the 19th centuries, liberals developed the idea of utility, or usefulness, as the central tool for discerning the good. Jeremy Bentham produced the most systematic formulation of utilitarianism as a means of judging what is good and bad. Adam Smith developed the quintessential defense of the free market as the best way to maximize productivity in the economic sphere. John Stuart Mill, the most influential liberal of the 19th century, elaborated utilitarianism as the foundation for a classic defense of individual liberty as well as for the enfranchisement of workers and women in a representative government.
Liberalism began with the project of defending individual liberties against encroachment by the state. The American Declaration of Independence is a classic statement of that sort of liberalism. Increasingly, though, liberalism was also concerned with the growing problem of democracy. The American Constitution, taking the form of an explicit contract among the people to set up a government, is just as concerned with protection from majority tyranny as it is with guarding against individual or oligarchic despotism. And John Stuart Mill, for all his advocacy of expanded suffrage, feared the tyranny of an unenlightened mass.
Liberalism thus betrays a fundamental tension. It denies God-given or traditional rank and privilege and posits the equality of all persons, yet enshrines a free marketplace that leads inexorably to capitalism and growing inequality of power and of wealth. Political liberalism presumes equality and opens the way to democracy but fears the threat to liberty posed by majority rule.
Liberalization, then, should be seen as movement toward liberalism, complete with the contradictions and tensions we have just explored. Its contemporary usage in political science may pertain either to the adoption of economic policies that reduce state intervention or to the opening of political processes to broader exercise of individual rights and liberties.
One major controversy concerns the extent of the association between economic and political liberalization. During the 1980s and 1990s, advocates of the Washington Consensus (the set of economic policies to be implemented by government in countries that are in a situation of economic crisis and recommended by international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of them based in Washington, D.C.) expected that adoption of stringent economic liberalization (i.e., neoliberal-ism) would lead inevitably to political liberalization and democratization. This expectation was supported by the strong historical correlation between capitalist economic development and political democracy.
Nevertheless, recent evidence on this issue is far from conclusive. The heyday of the Washington Consensus did coincide with a substantial wave of democratization during the same period. On the other hand, a good case can be made that stringent economic liberalization imposes severe stresses on the society and thereby challenges the incumbent government. Many of those incumbent governments in the 1980s and 1990s were authoritarian; implementing economic liberalization tended to increase opposition and bring pressure for liberalization and eventual democratization. However, in other cases, such as the newly democratic Russia in the 1990s, economic liberalization promoted renewed movement in an authoritarian direction.
Two outstanding examples of rapid economic development strongly suggest that there is no association between economic and political liberalization. Singapore has had a vigorous capitalist economy since independence while maintaining an authoritarian regime with relatively low levels of repression but no serious challenge to the regime. And China, since the death of Mao Zedong in 1978, has seen a hugely successful economic liberalization coupled with maintenance of authoritarian control by the Chinese Communist Party, with no significant political liberalization.
A second issue concerns the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The earliest democracies (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) all went from political liberalization to democratization over decades. The same may be said about some later-emerging democracies, such as Costa Rica, South Korea, or Taiwan. Even in these cases of successful democratization, liberalization was sometimes used by incumbent rulers in attempts to reduce pressure for democratization, as in Costa Rica in the 1940s. Where democratization was successful, it was often in spite of such prophy-lactic liberalization.
There have also been successful cases of prophylactic liberalization—notably Mexico and Botswana. Mexico arguably had the most successful authoritarian regime of the 20th century, with one ruling party (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) in power for more than 70 years. The regime used repression when it had to, but fundamentally, the party’s survival depended on a faqade of regular elections, which were invariably won by the PRI without egregiously obvious fraud, and substantial freedom of speech and press. Only toward the end of its rule, from 1988 to 2000, did it become obvious that the party had to use fraud and coercion to win. It was at that point that the PRI finally lost the presidency to an opposition candidate.
A similar pattern may be seen in Botswana, which was long cited as Africa’s most successful democracy (until the South African transition to majority rule in 1996). As in Mexico, the same party has ruled the country for decades (since independence in 1966), but it operates through a regime with regular elections and substantial political liberties. In Botswana, the ruling party keeps winning because there is simply no viable opposition alternative. Fraud and repression play a smaller role here than in Mexico, but Botswana is still a one-party-dominant, liberalized regime and not a full-fledged democracy.
A final issue concerns the variables that promote or retard political liberalization. A substantial literature on transitions from authoritarian to democratic regimes focuses on the conditions of liberalization. A key question is the balance between internal and external pressures. An authoritarian regime that faces no organized internal opposition is extremely unlikely to liberalize, much less democratize. On the other hand, an opposition that is strong and unwilling to compromise with the regime may lead the latter to dig in and refuse to liberalize. As Adam Przeworski formulated the problem, liberalization is most likely when there are powerful regime elements that incline toward liberalizing reforms as a means of keeping power, while powerful opposition elements favor negotiating with the regime for liberalization, hoping that greater political openness will lead to democratization. An inclination toward reform may result from deteriorating economic conditions or other chronic problems that render the authoritarian regime less secure. In such a situation, regime reformers will favor liberalization as a prophylactic against democratization, while opposition moderates will see it as a step toward democratization. Each side may well think it has deceived and used the other, but they can nonetheless agree on moves toward liberalization.
Liberalization may also be a response to external pressures. Samuel Huntington showed that there have been three major global waves of democratization since the early 19th century, separated by periods in which democracy was in retreat. The waves were powered by great power policies in favor of democracy as well as political contagion from neighboring countries. For example, the Third Wave, running from the 1970s to the 1990s, saw the United States and its European allies strongly pushing for democratization of authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1980s and in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Facing such pressure, even authoritarian regimes that did not face powerful internal opposition were nonetheless constrained, at a minimum, to liberalize.
In conclusion, liberalization is a movement toward either economic or political liberalism, enacted by an incumbent government. Economic liberalization is typically enacted under outside pressure, with the hope that a relatively unfettered market will benefit all, even the least advantaged. Political liberalization may respond to internal pressure or external pressure and is typically enacted in hopes of heading off full-fledged democratization. More often than not, however, liberalization opens the way to democratization.
- Howard, M. M., & Roessler, P. G. (2006). Liberalizing electoral outcomes in competitive authoritarian regimes. American Journal of Political Science, 50(2), 365-381.
- Huntington, S. P. (1991). The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Kleinberg, R. B., & Clark, J. A. (Eds.). (2000). Economic liberalization, democratization and civil society in the developing world. London: Macmillan.
- Monshipouri, M. (1995). Democratization, liberalization and human rights in the Third World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Przeworski, A. (1991). Democracy and the market: Political and economic reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Simmons, B. A., & Simmons, Z. (2004). The globalization of liberalization: Policy diffusion in the international political economy. American Political Science Review, 98(1), 171-189.