The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria

W. W. Norton 2003  286 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford 


With the Bush administration enforcing international “democracy” at gunpoint, Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom arrives at a fortunate moment.  Zakaria, columnist for Newsweek and former editor of Foreign Affairs, argues that unchecked democracy may be too much of a good thing.

Zakaria contends that a just political system is marked not only “by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. But this bundle of freedoms--what might be termed constitutional liberalism--has nothing intrinsically to do with democracy and the two have not always gone together, even in the West. … Democracy is flourishing; liberty is not.”

Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s who famously distinguished between the competing values of freedom and equality, Zakaria notes that pushing democracy at the expense of liberty will create more problems than it solves.  For a model of good government, we should be looking not so much at the ballot box as the judiciary: “The ‘Western model of government’ is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge.”

The first part of the book argues that good government has thrived in a society with institutions competing for power, not centralized rule.  Three grand conflicts illustrate this position: the Medieval Catholic Church versus temporal authority, the later clash between nobility and monarchy, and finally, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants that inaugurated the Reformation.  In each case government and/or the church was compelled to grant rights to citizens not on the basis of its power, but owing to its lack of effective dominance.  Liberty was ensured by extra-governmental forces.

Zakaria brands democracy unchecked by external forces “illiberal democracy,” and sees the post-revolutionary French Jacobin government as a prime example.  “Popular sovereignty took on all the glory and unchecked power of royal sovereignty,” and produced the Reign of Terror. 

Hence, for a democracy to be just, its establishment must be preceded by “constitutional liberalism,” which is “concerned with individual economic, political, and religious liberty.”  With individual rights protected from the whims of the majority, one may then permit free and open elections.  Without these protections, “as society opens up and politicians scramble for power, they appeal to the public for votes using what ends up being the most direct, effective language, that of group solidarity in opposition to some other group. Often this stokes the fires of ethnic or religious conflict. Sometimes the conflict turns into a full-scale war.”  Hitler was democratically elected using precisely these tactics, and today one can see this same pattern playing itself out among the Afghani warlords.

The most controversial element of Zakaria’s prescription for social justice may be the requirement of a certain level of earned wealth.  Citing statistics, Zakaria asserts that no democracy has survived without a per capita national income of $6000 or above.  With this as a yardstick, he measures potential nations, indicating those with or without chances at a liberal democracy.

Noting that many Gulf oil states have high per capita income and a Medieval political system, Zakaria shows that these “trust fund states” have no incentive to grant liberty to their citizens.  Unless and until a government taxes its people, the people have no grounds to demand rights in exchange.  Seemingly unlimited natural resources preclude the need for taxation; in the absence of taxes, the people have no grounds for protesting their lack of rights.

Indian-born Zakaria’s account of the Muslim states is instructive—beginning with his distinction between the Arab, Muslim, and Middle Easterner: “Of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, only 260 million live in Arabia.”  He then demonstrates effectively that the problem with Muslim states is not the power of religious leaders, but their lack of a centralized, institutional voice.  The Mosque is not the center of fanaticism, but the only outlet for social protest in states that deny their citizens liberty.

Turning finally to contemporary America, he sees danger.  “America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy.  The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty.”  He links this imbalance to several social ills, none more damaging than the supposed democratic right of lobbyists to vie for political influence.

Some will brand this book, like the recent work of Robert Kaplan, right-wing for its emphasis on the importance of entrepreneurial capitalism.  However, irrespective of one’s ideology, Zakaria’s argument is well-crafted and worthy of attention.

The Future of Freedom “is a call for self-control, for a restoration of balance between democracy and liberty. It is not an argument against democracy, But it is a claim that there can be such a thing as too much democracy--too much of an emphatically good thing.”