The Values And Institutions Of The Democratic Tradition
From "The Western Democratic Tradition " by LJM Cooray (c 1985)

The tradition has evolved. The products of unplanned evolution tend to defy definition or the extraction of conceptual underpinnings. The following is a list (with overlaps) of the original values, institutions and ideas which constitute the tradition:

the working out of a balance between liberty and restrictions on liberty,

freedom subject to a significant but narrowly defined role for government;

the evolution of values and institution;

free elections;

representative democracy;

political and civil liberties;

the right to personal freedom;

the right to freedom of speech and expression;

private media ownership;

economic freedom and property rights subject to limited and essential government regulation;

equality of opportunity (not the same as equal opportunity);

the family and family ties;

a system of limitations, checks and balances on authorities exercising government power

the wide diffusion and distribution of private power;

the wide diffusion and distribution of both public and private power

moral values playing an important part in society, law and government;

respect for law and authority

a constitution which provides for areas of power and limitations on powers of executive and legislature;

a legal system which recognises the importance of:

  1. The supremacy of law, which means that all persons (individuals and government) are subject to law.
  2. A concept of justice which emphasises interpersonal adjudication, law based on standards and the importance of procedures; designed to check abuse of power.
  3. Controls on the exercise of discretionary power by each organ of government;
  4. The doctrine of judicial precedent.
  5. The common law methodology, involving evolution of legal principles in the context of real disputes (as distinct from "reform" law which originates from philosophical ideas and concepts).
  6. The principle that legislation should be prospective and not-retrospective.
  7. An independent judiciary.
  8. The exercise by Parliament of the legislative power and restrictions on the delegation of unfettered discretionary power to the executive.
  9. An underlying moral basis for all law.

evolutionary change and reform, springing from and in tune with, community values and aspirations (as distinct from intellectually or ideologically motivated change)

individual responsibility

honesty and personal integrity

discipline including self discipline

private property, subject to essential government regulation

the profit motive and competition

the commitment of the individual to productive work

the recognition and encouragement of productive work, risk taking, initiative, innovation and enterprise, the entrepreneurial spirit and the sense of adventure

responsible elitism based on merit

concern for the genuinely poor and underprivileged;

toleration, respect for opposing views and pluralism within the context of a set of values shared by a significant majority

respect for individual liberty;

the critical spirit based on evaluation;

common sense

respect for moral and ethical values, the spiritual dimension and Christianity.

There are many interconnected causes responsible for the rise of western civilisation. The overriding perspective is that it is a system which at one time combined freedom with responsibility. A set of evolved values and institutions struck a balance between liberty and order, between the role of government and the role of the individual, between liberty and licence, between liberty and responsibility. The balance between liberty and responsibility is the key to understanding the western system. Restrictions on liberty operated through law and also through a system of social sanctions. The law and social sanctions were influenced by liberal thinkers. Christian principles and values (similar to the principles and values of other world religions) also moulded the law and customs of an evolving western civilisation. Liberal ideas and Christian principles were important in the evolutionary development of the balance between liberty and responsibility. A balance existed once upon a time but no longer.

An analysis of some of the key facets of the tradition involving a comparison between the old order and some of the reformist challenges to that order, follow. This analysis is sketchy and superficial because of limits of space and the width of the subject matter. The analysis is preceded by a brief focus on the reform ideas which markedly influenced the tradition in the 20th century.