freedom map
Fareed Zakaria’s best-seller The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad is a marvelous history of the global evolution of civil and economic versus political liberties, which exposes as myth the precept of many political scholars, and many in the Bush regime, that democracy is a precondition for a healthy economy and a stable and constitutionally liberal state.

In fact he argues the opposite: that constitutional and economic liberalism (rule of law, separation of church and state, earned and reasonably distributed wealth, as calculated by the Gini index, defensible civil liberties and especially balance of power) are preconditions for the success of democracy. Even worse, he demonstrates that countries whose wealth is natural (the oil states especially) are disadvantaged in the search for democracy, since such wealth removes the urgency to generate and distribute earned wealth (wealth generated by labour, innovation and human productivity), and worsens the temptation for autocrats to hoard power and buy off opponents.

Zakaria backs up his claims with examples from all over the world, where premature political democratization, in the absence of constitutional and economic liberalism, has been astonishingly unsuccessful and short-lived, and where dictatorships like Singapore with liberal constitutional and economic institutions thrive.

He has harsh words for America, the

advocate of unrestrained democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on elected majorities. The Bill of Rights is a list of things the government may not do regardless of the wishes of the majority. The Supreme Court is headed by nine unelected men and women with life tenure. The US Senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the world. The less formal constraints, however, that are the inner stuffing of liberal democracy are disappearing. They are all threatened by a democratic ideology that judges every idea and institution by one simple test: Is power as widely dispersed as it can be? Congress has become more responsive, more democratic, and more dysfunctional body. Or consider America’s political parties. They serve merely as vessels to be filled with the public’s taste of the moment. Americas professions have lost their prestige and public purpose, becoming anxious hucksters. The forces that guided domocracy are quickly being eroded.

I wrote before about Zakaria’s prediction that democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq will take generations to evolve successfully, and of the utter failure throughout history of any foreign occupying power to introduce constitutional and economic liberalism in an occupied territory. These states will therefore inevitably and violently decline into brutal, and illiberal autocracies, religious or secular.

Zakaria cites some remarkable data about the slow pace of introduction of democracy, even in the countries where it has prevailed the longest. In the UK in 1832 less than 2% of the population could vote, rising slowly to 12% in 1884 and full suffrage only in 1930. In the US in 1824, a half-century after independence, only 5% of adults could vote. Women got suffrage there in 1920, and blacks in the South effectively only in the 1960s.

Predicted future democracies, where there is sufficient distributed GDP per capita and sufficient economic and constitutional liberalism to sustain it: Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and, if Bush keeps out of the way, Iran. Zakaria holds the US and the IMF responsible for the failure of democracy in Indonesia, where demands for hasty, premature economic and political reforms precipitated financial disaster and led to the downfall of a flawed but functioning constitutional liberal state, raising the risk of that country becoming another Islamist theocracy.

The problem in America, Zakaria claims, is now too much democracy. The American system has been subverted, he says, by the crippling of political parties and the filling of the power void by moneyed lobbyists and organized, single-issue fanatics. He cites the fact that government-hater Bush’s spending has risen 11% over Clinton’s, ignoring the increases in defense and security spending. He quotes Jonathan Rauch:

The American government has evolved into about what it will remain: A sprawling, largely self-organizing structure that is 10-20% under the control of politicians and voters and 80-90% under the control of countless thousands of interest groups (“mischiefs of faction”). This is the heart of America’s dilemma today, and the reason the American people believe they have no real control over government [and hence why participation in the political process has dropped precipitously].

I had not realized that the US government, unlike most Western governments whose spending is largely on social services and interest on debt, spends such a huge proportion of its budget on programs that are neither social nor defense, but rather subsidies to special interest groups. Zakaria claims this tyranny of minorities extends beyond economic interests, and, for example, explains why anti-Castro forces in swing states New Jersey and Florida have sustained sanctions against Cuba that the vast majority of Americans would prefer to see ended. He quotes George Stephanopolis on how the decline of the power of political parties has changed the political process:

There is no Democratic Party. If [a candidate] wants to run, he has to raise the money, get good publicity, and move up in the polls, which will get him more money and better press. What party elders think is irrelevant because there is no party anymore. Political parties have no real significance in America today. The party is, at most, a fund-raising vehicle for a telegenic candidate.

Zakaria also takes shots at the primary system (only 18% of eligible voters participate), and points out that, in contrast to the public’s disdain for democratic political institutions like Congress, they hold three institutions – the Supreme Court, the Fed, and the armed forces, all of them undemocratic – in high esteem, because, he says, Americans admire institutions that lead rather than follow.

While Zakaria has, in my view, an overly sentimental affection for the unelected power elites of the past, arguing that they were surprisingly responsible, open and even altruistic, you have to like his view on bloggers, at the end of the book:

In the world of journalism, the blog was hailed as the killer of the traditional media. In fact it has become something quite different. Far from replacing newspapers and magazines, the best blogs – and the best blogs are very clever – have become guides to them, pointing to unusual sources and commenting on familiar ones. They have become new mediators for the informed public, a new Tocquevillean elite.

And, Fareed, sometimes we even present some original ideas of our own.

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  1. Marie Foster says:

    My primary reason for opposing the war in Iraq was that I expected that what we would end up there would be worse than what SH was doing for the people. This was purely intuition on my part though I am sure that my experiences in seeing things go downhill a lot had a lot to do with that.When I attended college in the late 1960’s one of the major emphasis in my studies was preparation for change. I think I have been resilient to it because of that prep. However, looking at just my own lifetime there is ripe evidence that change often leads to a worsening more often than it leads to improvements. And if we look just 100 years back we don’t see anything to justify the idea that democracy leads to ‘more freedom’ than other forms of government.I often think of Dr. Zhivago and the man on the train that told him that even in prison he was free. The sad truth is that most people will gladly trade freedom for bread..

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Marie: Interesting you should mention that — I just spent the day with some technology folks who admitted (Shirky’s power law redux) that your first stab at something (blog post, software release, intranet architecture) is all you get — once people get used to something, it doesn’t matter how much you improve the next version or the successor product, by then most people won’t migrate to the new one because people hate change. I’m more optimistic than you on human nature. People who trade away freedom for bread either know they’re about to die without the bread (making the freedom of limited value) or don’t know the value of freedom (because they’ve never lived without it, or, even more tragically, have never experienced it at all).

  3. silly me says:

    Regarding Blogs viability. If it threatens the powers that be, they will figure out a way to kill it. Computing’s Big Shift: Flexibility in the Chips This is just one of many technologies they can end up using to do just that, IMHO.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Just fixed the links on this post. Sorry about that — too much blogging from hotel rooms, too little sleep.

  5. Marie Foster says:

    According to Ivan in the “Grand Inquisitor” people will give up anything for the promise of bread. In his view this is how the church has maintained its authority over humans and I have to admit that I see that as well. I think that most people can clearly see how close they are to starvation (not many are savers). And once a person has actual bread they will also want spiritual bread.If one is to understand that the basis of Christianity is that Christ not only refused to prove his Godhood by coming down off the cross, but that he rejected the devil’s temptation in the desert.This is why I have been so opposed to evangelicals. They take over for Christ by providing the ‘proof’. In this way they gain the command and control of their followers. The ultimate testimony is to defend freedom even if it means dying for it. Not many wish to make that sacrifice..

  6. Marie Foster says:

    Silly, you see QuickSilver technology as a threat to Blogs? Could you elaborate?

  7. silly me says:

    The technology will allow for continuous updating of the chips through WIFI connections. So corporate american (or the government) can control what you can do and who you can do it with. (There’s also the whole concept of continously having to pay royalties to use a device. This is a direction much of corporate america wants to take us. But I digress) Certainly there will be hackers, but most people will not be astute enough to do that. BTW, I have noticed that during Google searches the number of small out of the way websites are getting much harder to locate because I get flooded with the large commercial web sites. There is not a doubt in my mind, that corporate america will figure out a way to prevert Blogs too.

  8. MAD MINSKY says:

    Maybe I’ve been out the loop too long concerning public issues, but I’ve just started reading a lot of the different blog sites and have seen some interesting views out there. I haven’t read Fareed Zakaria’s, The Future of Freedom, but the excerpt has me interested enough that I may. I’ve just finished Of Paradise and Power, “America and Europe in the New World Order” by Robert Kagan, which is a story of our destiny. It just might compliment Future of Freedom. Does anybody believe that eliminating Osama Bin Laden will put an end to terrorism, capturing Saddam Hussein will free the world of “evil doers”, replacing GWB with a democrat as president will make America less imperialistic? When I joined the Marine Corps in 1964 I was as idealistic as any eighteen year old could be, and when I got back from Vietnam 1968 and discharged I was a full blown cynic. To let you know where I am today, I regret not being healthy enough or young enough to be over in Afghanistan or Iraq today, doing what I did in Vietnam. Another book I have just finished reading, Charlie Wilson’s War , “The extraordinary story of the largest covert operation in history”, by George Crile, which is an inside view of our real government. One point I take issue with is America being referred to as a democracy, we are not a democracy by any definition, America is a republic. I believe that any nation we try to set up as a democracy is doomed to fail.

  9. Joe Katzman says:

    This is an area that has been studied extensively, by people like Theodore Lowi (“The End of Liberalism”), and later by conservatives who systematized the dynamics involved into a concept called “public choice economics.” It’s worth investigating in more detail, as it’s one of those ideas quietly shaping a lot of debates. Concepts like “regulatory capture” and the government as a non-neutral force that seeks its own form of profit underpin the neoconservative critique of liberalism, and thus far have not really been answered. On the other end, neither has describing the mechanism sufficed to banish the machine. Result: liberals defensive, conservatives frustrated, neither happy with current directions.DP: “I had not realized that the US government, unlike most Western governments whose spending is largely on social services and interest on debt, spends such a huge proportion of its budget on programs that are neither social nor defense, but rather subsidies to special interest groups.”

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    MM: The democracy/republic distinction is one that Fareed makes as well. It’s too bad that business has annexed the term ‘proxy’ and denigrated its meaning. Republicanism is essentially democracy by proxy, an ecceptance that most of us don’t have the knowledge or time to understand political issues in enough depth to make critical decisions, so we delegate that to trusted elected officials. Referenda essentially render elected officials irrelevant and unnecessary and deem them to be untrustworthy (a self-fulfilling prophecy).Joe: Thanks for the reference, which I’ll add to my reading list. Not sure I agree with your explanation of the result, but I do agree that the result is as you’ve described it, with both sides unhappy and, ironically, jealously believing the other side is getting its way.

  11. Arjun Kakar says:

    The dates of the posting above me suggest I may be very late in writing this post. Future of Freedom is an excellent book. Some find it controversial, but I see no reason for that. On should read it with an open mind and with an important took call common sence suplimented by objectivity. I also strongly reccomend all artciles and writings of Dr Zakaria. They are extremely well written, pertinent and enjoyable. Many of his critiques have quoted him as an oponent of democracy. I strongly differ o that view. Infact i am of the firm opinion that no one understands democracy quiet lik he does and if his ideas are implemented in reality we would have far more “succesful” democracies than we hav today. In his own words – Whats more important isnt whre democracy is next tried thats imporant – But where it takes root. He is an extremely remarkable man with great skills at writing. What also is amazing about him – that he displays a great degree of honesty – intellectual honesty which i what separates him from the rest (in my mind)

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