Liberal Voices. On the quality of Spanish democracy

Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, María Blanco and Carlos Rodríguez Braun

The Rafael del Pino Foundation organised, on 23 September 2021, the live dialogue through entitled "Liberal Voices. On the quality of Spanish democracy" in which Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, María Blanco and Carlos Rodríguez Braun spoke.

Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo holds a PhD in History from Oxford University. She is a member of the Partido Popular for Barcelona in the Congress of Deputies of the Kingdom of Spain and has been director of the International Area of the FAES Foundation. In 1996 she obtained her BA in Modern History from Oxford University with honours and was made an honorary senior scholar at New College. In the same year she began her doctoral studies at Oxford University under the direction of the Hispanist and Prince of Asturias Award winner, Sir John Elliott. In 2000 he obtained his doctorate with a thesis on politics and reformism in the Spanish Monarchy in the 17th century. It was published by Oxford University Press in 2004 (Politics and reform in Spain and Viceregal Mexico. The life and thought of Juan de Palafox, 1600-1659) and translated into Spanish in 2011 (Juan de Palafox, Obispo y Virrey; Ed. Marcial Pons). After obtaining her PhD, Cayetana joined the newspaper El Mundo as editor of the Opinion section. She was an editorialist, columnist and Head of Section. During those years she also worked as a political analyst on the radio. In September 2006, she made the leap to politics, joining the Partido Popular as Director of the Cabinet of the Secretary General. In 2008, Cayetana was elected as a Popular Party Member of Parliament for Madrid. During the 9th legislature, she held the position of Deputy Spokesperson of the Popular Parliamentary Group, with responsibility for the Legal-Institutional area. In the general elections of November 2011, Cayetana once again won a seat in the Congress of Deputies for Madrid, where she has been Vice-President of the Joint Committee for the European Union and member of the Constitutional and Justice Committees. She also served as head of analysis for the Partido Popular in Madrid. In early 2012, Cayetana joined FAES Foundation as Director of the International Area, a position she held until January 2016.

Carlos Rodríguez Braun is an expert in economic thought and liberalism with international recognition for his publications and conferences. This Spanish-Argentinean PhD in Economics is characterised by combining academic rigour with a desire to disseminate information. He is a member of the National Academy of Economic Sciences of Argentina and Professor of History of Economic Thought at the Complutense University of Madrid, and combines the publication of books and academic articles with collaboration with the written and audiovisual media. He is a reference and opinion maker on economic, political and social reality, as well as a defender of globalisation and liberalism. As a journalist, he has been director of España Económica and deputy director of Cambio 16 and of the television programme El Valor del Dinero on La2. He is currently a columnist for La Razón, Expansión, Libertad Digital and participates daily in Onda Cero Radio. He has published articles in prestigious journals such as History of Political Economy, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought or the Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, and he is also an evaluator and sits on the advisory boards of scientific publications in Spain and other countries.

María Blanco holds a PhD in Economics and Business Studies from the Complutense University of Madrid and lectures in Economic History and Institutions at the CEU-San Pablo University. She combines academic teaching and research with the dissemination of liberalism in various media. She is the author of Las tribus liberales (Deusto, 2014) and Afrodita desenmascarada (Deusto, 2016), and co-author of Hacienda somos todos, cariño (Deusto, 2020).


On 24 September 2021, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised a dialogue entitled "Liberal Voices: on the quality of Spanish democracy", with the participation of Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, PP MP for Barcelona; Carlos Rodríguez Braun, Professor of History of Economic Thought at the Complutense University of Madrid, and María Blanco, Professor of Economic History and Institutions at the CEU-San Pablo University.

Carlos Rodríguez Braun recalled what his mother used to tell him when he asked her about Peronism. His mother told him that people get the governments they deserve. Ever since democracy began, there have always been people who have been worried about its results. The Marquis de Condorcet was a democrat, a revolutionary, a liberal, he believed that society had to be reformed. He was in favour of educational reform, secularism, he drafted a constitution, he supported women's suffrage, but he was with the Girondins. In 1793 he was imprisoned by these proto-democrats. From then on they realised that there was some problem with this thing of translating people's preferences into political power. They put him in jail and he died in jail.

What is the problem with all this? The problem is that freedom is about limiting power and it is not clear to what extent democracy limits power. When Pedro Sánchez spoke before the United Nations Assembly, he said that power had to be increased, that the state had to be increased. This did not seem to him to be a problem. When he finished, he identified as if it were a linear overlap between democracy and freedom. He didn't think there were any problems. But there are, as Condorcet and many, many specialists in the tradition of collective choice, from Tocqueville to Antoine de Jasay to Kenneth Arrow, realised.

Time and time again, people who thought they had raised their hands and said vote can result in what is happening, that people are voting more and more and electing less and less. We keep talking about a thing called liberal democracy, but the question is a bit complicated when it turns out that these processes have given rise to hybrid systems of politics and society, of state and market, of capitalism and socialism. The question is whether this process of generalising democracy is not putting people's rights and freedoms at risk and threatening them.

The left, from the beginning, has always clung to the idea of democracy, but how is it possible for it to be so democratic and, at the same time, to be promoting an unlimited growth of power? If we vote, is it not because of us? Is it not because we asked for gestures and got gestures? Is it not because we voted for higher taxes? In all countries, people say they don't want to pay more taxes, but they pay more. The powerful would not have got away with it without some of our complicity. To some extent, we are guilty, complicit, because we have gone against the basic principles of liberalism.

We have been giving up the idea that you have to respect your neighbour, his property, his rights. We have been giving that up when we have said to raise taxes on the rich. We think we have found the way out of the labyrinth in what is a mere lure created by the powers that be, but fostered by the widespread abdication of liberalism. We have swallowed the bait that the problem is not the state, but its weakness. Something must be wrong for us to identify democracy with the curtailment of freedoms. In the end, we are going to believe that democracy solves problems without creating them. If we believe that, we will ask politics for more of it.

What matters are our ideas and our values which, in the end, lead to political choices and not the other way around, and not looking for shortcuts that are false. We can change, but first we have to change ourselves. For that we have to vote for freedom and for that we have to want it, we have to deserve it.

Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo commented that, in the 17th century, they used a word to analyse Spanish problems, which is "declination". They did not use decadence. We are in a stage of decline linked to the crisis of democracy. But everything can be improved, as long as there is the will to improve. Politics sends out signals that it does not allow citizens to see.

On the one hand, there is the banality of politics. Politics has become a mixture of Twitter, zascas and Neflix, where there are ministers who approach their work as if it were an episode of a TV series, or speeches in Parliament that turn into a Twitter thread. First you make the tweets and then you make the speeches. Journalists do it too; first the tweets go and then the column follows.

On the other hand, there is lying. Not only lies. Nowadays neither the lie nor the truth matters. There is no punishment for lying, no cost for lying.

The third is pure gestures, marketing, the conversion of politics into something purely gestural, where the substance, the ideas, the principles, the convictions are replaced by the purely tactile image. It is the tyranny of the image. Politics is dissolving into all that.

What are the two great contemporary scourges that are degrading democracy? One is something that is talked about a lot, which is the cult of emotions, of feelings, over reason, over arguments. It is a kind of faith in the subjective. The subjective is above the facts. It is a purely sentimental interpretation of democracy. Democracy is just the right to vote, full stop. But that is false.

Democracy is not simply my feelings and my convictions placed on the table of public debate, but it is a limit to power as expressed by John Adams when he says "government of the law, not of man", which qualifies the concept that this is simply voting. The huge mess that was made in Catalonia was due to the purely sentimental interpretation of democracy when people say "I feel this way, I feel independent, I feel Catalan and not Spanish and, therefore, I have the right to vote, to express my opinions freely, and this is democracy". Therefore, we must begin to do some basic pedagogy to explain what democracy really is, because now it is the virus of feelings and emotions rather than reasons.

The other great scourge, which converges with this one, is the idolatry of identities. It is a contemporary evil, just as what caused the greatest devastation in the 20th century was identity, nationalism, and now it has all sorts of guises. Separatism is a force that manifests itself in different little animals. One is nationalism, which is a force that we have suffered particularly virulently over the last four decades. But there are others: radical feminism, indigenism, all these movements that seek, in the end, to segregate citizens into groups that proclaim themselves to be victims, that confront other groups in society. They are collectives that, because they feel they are victims, have the right to censor, to silence the mouths of those who think differently. This leads to polarisation, to the fragmentation of societies, and thus destroys democratic ground.

These two processes, feelings on the one hand and identity as the object, converge in this chaos into which we are plunged not only in Spain, but also in Chile, where they have entered into a constituent process solely for purely sentimental and identity-based reasons, and like so many other countries. The result is that the objective, the truth, science as the backbone, the law are destroyed.

The West is clearly retreating. What happened in Afghanistan is symptomatic of a total retreat, not only physically, but also morally, politically, intellectually. It is a West that says that its values are not worth enough to be defended within my own societies. That deserves self-criticism and a profound reaction, but there has been very little. There is a need for moral intervention that engages us with what happens elsewhere because those Enlightenment values, liberal values, are not good because they were born in the West, but because they are good in themselves and they are what enable people and societies to prosper and be happy.

That requires an attitude of courage. Freedom has an associated cost, the assumption of responsibility. This is primarily the responsibility of the citizens, who are the ones who vote. Citizens are not clients who are always right. One of the great problems of democracy today is that politicians treat citizens as if they were clients, they are always looking to see what the client wants. Because the customer is always right, they see what the customer thinks first and they go that way instead of trying to lead society, to establish what is right and to get more people behind that cause.

Finally, there is the responsibility of politics itself. The enlightened and the liberals are political 'homeless' and this is partly the fault of the citizens, but mainly the fault of politics. There is a lack of conviction and organisation around the cultural battle, which defends the most modern values against the reactionaries. Today we can draw that distinction between the reactionaries and those who defend, through reason, modernity, which is the avant-garde. This battle must be fought not only by civil society but also by politics itself. There will be no solution if politics does not also apply itself to this solution. This battle must also be fought from within the political parties, because it is from politics that this drift must be resolved. In the face of adanism, in the face of resignation, an alternative with a belligerent liberalism, because what is at stake is that from this illiberal chaos that we are experiencing, this fragmentation of societies between clashing groups, an illiberal order will emerge.

María Blanco pointed out that the state not only grows, but mutates when it sees an opportunity and occupies other private land. It mutates and takes over land that has always been private and should never have ceased to be private. Once it sets foot on it, there is no one who can take it away. Retreat is very difficult, almost impossible. Almost impossible.

The problem in our country with this growth is the trend. It is not that the people who occupy state institutions are behaving like Martians. They are doing what we all do, which is to settle in our comfort zone. The state gets entrenched in its comfort zone, digs in and picks up ground like a dog picks up ground from the sofa and ends up kicking you out.

Why do citizens have to be in politics? Are we in politics by default? In principle, representative systems need not be bad if there is protection for the citizen, if there is the rule of law that prevents democracies from becoming tyrannical democracies, because not every democracy is a healthy democracy. There are places like Venezuela where the concept of healthy democracy is trampled underfoot.

One of the biggest problems we have is that we think that once we have achieved all the tips - democracy, constitutional court, parliament, parties, freedoms - that's it, we can go to sleep, and we don't realise that institutions are like living beings, they evolve, and we have to be vigilant. We have to make sure that the constitutional court is respected, we have to make sure that the constitutional court is efficient and quick in its decisions.

For democracy to work, it is not enough to say that nothing can be done. It must be possible to do something, it must be possible to demand accountability, it must be possible for politicians who lie to be held to account, for those who steal to go to prison and return what they have stolen, for there to be no people in our Parliament with blood on their hands. Institutions that are not taken care of lose all credibility and voices start to emerge saying that democracy is useless.

Freedom is not good because it makes us richer. Freedom is good, full stop. If freedom means being poorer, losing quality of life, we lose it because it is not a value in itself. Freedom is not a means, it is an end. That is something we have not understood.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.