Review: The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

William Ruger

William Ruger is a Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. and a Research Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Too Much Democracy?

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. By Fareed Zakaria. W. W. Norton. 286 pp. $24.95.

Since ancient times, political thinkers have been concerned with the promise and pathologies of democracy. For Aristotle, rule of the many could be just, but only if it was tempered by the ambition and virtue of the few. More recently, the American Founders lauded the virtues of self-government while realizing the need for a constitutional system to constrain the unmediated will of the people. Today, commentators from both the left and right are far more sanguine about unalloyed democracy. Indeed, few stop to seriously examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of democratic government. Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom is a bold statement of dissent from this nearly universal democratic faith in the name of republican or “mixed” government.

Zakaria’s provocative argument is that the rise of ever more democratic means of governance in the public and private spheres has been detrimental to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness across the globe. Rather than seeing democratization as a universal panacea that can be prescribed safely without limit, he believes that we suffer today from “too much democracy.” The result has been the rise of “illiberal democracies” abroad, greater dissatisfaction with our own political system, and the overall degeneration of American society.

Of course, Zakaria is no simple opponent of democracy. He explicitly states that his work “is not an argument against democracy” but a challenge to examine its “dark sides.” Moreover, it is “a call for self-control, for a restoration of the balance between democracy and liberty.” In terms of the practice of politics, Zakaria implies that he is seeking a renewal of the republican tradition in which the people rule indirectly by delegating power to a representative government that remains insulated from the majority and thus free to govern wisely with an eye on the national interest.

Zakaria launches his case with a return to the past. He argues that the success of the West came not through rapid democratization but through the slow growth of constitutionalism, capitalism, and segments of society relatively independent of the state. These factors, he claims, laid a strong and necessary foundation for the eventual rise of liberal democracy. Moreover, he warns that democracies without such a foundation have traditionally degenerated into illiberal regimes.

Having explained the right and wrong paths to a flourishing liberal democracy, Zakaria introduces the reader to modern “illiberal democracies”—namely, states that “mix elections and authoritarianism.” He then explains why democratic processes in the absence of liberal constitutionalism and capitalism produce such states and catalogs their many troubles. Of course, this might just be a bump on the road except that, as Zakaria points out, “illiberal democracy has not proved to be an effective path to liberal democracy.” In short, quick democratization—the path to illiberal democracy—is the wrong way to pursue political development.

This leads Zakaria to examine the Middle East, where, he claims, the West should “not seek democracy . . . at least not yet.” Instead, the long-term solution is for the region’s Arab regimes to slowly liberalize, and only then to democratize. However, he does not mean “democratization” in the sense used by State Department officials. His vision is a more conservative process of political opening accompanied by the development of capitalism and the “revival of constitutionalism.” It is hard to have much confidence that such counsel will be followed in Washington, given what Zakaria claims about the United States.

For Zakaria, the global problem of our “democratic age” has not left the United States untouched. Indeed, he argues at length that many of America’s current ills—from the decline in public attitudes towards government to the degeneration of American culture to corporate scandals—have been the result of the increased democratization of all facets of life. In short, we are increasingly ruled by the many, and the results are not good. Instead of greater legitimacy and more effective government, democratization has left us with “more democracy but less liberty” and the “death of authority” such that the United States is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Zakaria’s remedy for these supposedly self-inflicted wounds is a turn (or a return in our case) to a more republican form of governance: “What we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.” Specifically, his solution is delegation. Building on examples of central banks and the World Trade Organization, Zakaria advocates the delegation of significant authority to political actors so as to insulate them from “the intense pressures of democracy.” This, he argues, would lead to better governance and increased legitimacy. In short, Zakaria’s message seems to be that governments will operate better if we take the political out of politics.

The Future of Freedom is an important book. Zakaria takes liberty seriously and privileges it over competing values, which is certainly a worthy exercise. Several positive consequences follow from the effort, two of which are worthy of mention. First, Zakaria wisely corrects the false but widely held notion that the expansion of democracy always ensures more just outcomes. For readers of Zakaria’s mentor, Samuel Huntington, this will hardly come as a surprise. But for others, it will serve as a helpful reminder of old truths. Second, Zakaria’s book provides useful cautions for those who would have the United States actively spread democracy abroad—particularly by the sword. Zakaria suggests that the simple imposition of democratic processes alone is insufficient for producing the liberal results that are ostensibly among the goals of such interventions. And even where those goods are attained, it is likely to take considerable time, perhaps decades, to reach them.

Unfortunately, not all of Zakaria’s points are as useful or compelling as these. One problem is his seemingly simple faith in the rule of elites. Of course, Zakaria is too smart not to offer the Acton-esque caveats about how power can corrupt and lead to the pursuit of “well-intentioned but foolish policies.” However, the warning sounds perfunctory amidst so much praise for elite rule. Given Zakaria’s professed attachment to republican principles, this position is quite odd, especially since such republicans as the American Founders understood very well that political institutions consist of imperfect men who are often more motivated by self-interest than the common good (or who self-servingly conflate the two).

Moreover, students of such “unbiased” elite bodies as the Supreme Court and Progressive-era regulatory agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission have their own reasons to look with skepticism on calls for greater reliance on political bodies that claim to be above politics. In the end, Zakaria trusts too much in the rule of the few. At the very least, it would have been instructive for him to expand on the inherent problems of delegating political authority and suggest ways—new or old—to mitigate them.

Another significant problem is Zakaria’s excessive emphasis on institutional structure in government. Clearly, no one should deny that institutions matter. Yet Zakaria rarely goes beyond institutions when crafting his criticisms. This is especially apparent in his concluding chapter, which is meant to serve as a guide to lead us out of our current woes. All of the institutional tinkering in the world will not solve our problems if it is not accompanied by an equally profound reformation in the surrounding culture of the country. Yet regrettably, Zakaria’s institutionalism blinds him to the crucial role of culture, not to mention ideas and education, in fostering the very outlook and behavior he believes are necessary for a nation of free individuals and institutions to perpetuate itself. Those truly concerned about the future of freedom in America cannot afford to make a similar mistake.

Copyright (c) 2003 First Things 137 (November 2003): 63-66.