Democracy Demoted, Displaced By A Better Bet: Liberty

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad , by Fareed Zakaria. W.W. Norton, 286 pages, $24.95.

Addressing reporters at the Baghdad airport last month, Deputy Secretary of State Paul Wolfowitz declared: “I’m here to understand what is needed to complete the transition to a government and society of, by and for the Iraqi people.” He was echoing remarks posted on April 10 on the CNN Web site: “Our goal in Iraq is a democratic Iraq that truly respects the wishes of the people of Iraq.” Though in his online comments he insisted that Iraqis should “pick their leaders freely,” he added: “Our only criterion is that [the chosen leader] not be a Baathist killer.”

The contradiction is not subtle. Obviously, the Iraqis aren’t picking their leaders freely if the Americans have a veto power in the event the winner happens to be a Baathist killer. Is the Bush administration being insincere? Many have accused it of this, and worse. But, in fairness, Mr. Wolfowitz was expressing a conundrum that has always existed at the heart of democracy. The election of a Baathist dictator would, in one sense, be a democratic result: The people would have spoken. But it would surely be a Pyrrhic victory for democracy.

This conundrum is not simply the stuff of political theorizing. Many millions of people will be affected, in Iraq and elsewhere, by the way the world thinks about the problem. After all, now that the great socialist experiments have been discredited, democracy is the sole solution trotted out by politicians and academics alike, the answer for each and every nation, First World, Third World and anything in between. Now is democracy’s moment. Thus, while the right and the left disagree passionately-even viciously-over American policy in Iraq, one listens in vain for a voice questioning whether democracy is indeed the right path for Iraq. And what do we do if a popular vote in Iraq does indeed produce a Baathist dictator, or a Shiite leader pledging a fundamentalist government? Do we continue to argue for free elections?

In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria has a lot to say on this question. His book arrived in April-perfect timing, except that at that particular moment, the public was fixated on the ins and outs of battalion strength and the combat capabilities of the M-1 Abrams tank. Now that most of the fighting is over and the enormity and difficulty of the task ahead has begun to sink in, when we hear Mr. Zakaria say that “theory often bangs into reality,” the words truly resonate. The book should begin to make its worth felt, both with policy types in Washington and with serious-minded general readers.

The Future of Freedom is an interesting mix of history and political philosophy. The superb first chapter, itself worth the price of admission, traces the history of human liberty from the literal separation of church and state brought about by Constantine’s move from Rome to Byzantium in A.D. 324, to the peculiar geography of Europe that prevented uniform state conquest, to the various, often violent, counterbalances of power-like that between feudal lords and kings, or Catholics and Protestants, or, later, the English Parliament and English monarchy-that allowed liberty to form in the cracks. It’s a story so convoluted and unlikely that it leaves a reader with a sense of bewildered wonder that the broad freedoms of Western society exist at all. Of course, any good cheer at our fortune is tempered immediately by what this story says about just how difficult it will be for states like Iraq that are now poised to attempt the transition to democracy-and for what it says about the dangers still confronting Western democracies.

It’s not by chance that in a book about democracy, Mr. Zakaria begins by talking about the history of liberty. Democracy and liberty, though sometimes used interchangeably in political discussions, are imperfectly related, and it is liberty that is Mr. Zakaria’s true subject. Indeed, his central contribution is to distinguish between the two concepts-which is to distinguish between process and substance.

Many people get tripped up on this point. Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, identified a similar confusion. He was struck by the parade of tolerant students through his classes; tolerance seemed to be the preeminent American value. But as a value, tolerance (which is also more process than substance) always raises the question: tolerance of what? The dilemma became sharp, Bloom noted, in introductory anthropology classes, when students had to stretch their tolerance to embrace primitive societies whose defining feature is an implacable xenophobia.

So it is with democracy. To say that people should have the vote doesn’t answer what it is they should vote for. Mr. Zakaria’s point is that when we speak of democracy, what we mean is not just-or even primarily-the suffrage of the people. Rather, we mean other things: the rule of law, an independent judiciary, protection of minority and individual rights, separation of powers, autonomous civic organizations, a free market, a written constitution and more. His preferred term for this sort of system of government is constitutional liberalism.

The opportunity to vote does not guarantee democracy, and may even be counterproductive. What a state needs is to develop the institutions and habits that will enable democracy to take hold. If the vote were enough, places like Ghana, Tanzania and Kenya would be well on their way. Mr. Zakaria notes that in the 1950’s and 60’s, intellectuals and scholars embraced the new rulers in these states, who were holding elections and saying all the right things about the people’s power-and then these fledgling democracies degenerated into disastrous dictatorships. Meanwhile, certain East Asian and Latin American regimes were criticized as reactionary. Mr. Zakaria chides, “It should surely puzzle these scholars and intellectuals that the best-consolidated democracies in Latin America and East Asia-Chile, South Korea, and Taiwan-were for a long while ruled by military juntas.”

Mr. Zakaria is not necessarily advocating military juntas, but he is making the case that getting a democracy to take hold is exceedingly difficult, and that it requires stability and restraint, not to mention a sufficient gross domestic product. He warns of the dangers of zealotry in populism, while pointing out the beneficial effects of such elements of a stable society as an educated ruling class and tradition-bound civic organizations.

The danger of zealous populism leads him back to the West at the end of the book, where he identifies disturbing trends in the world’s mature democracies. In passages reminiscent of Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense (1995), he writes about the referendum revolution in California, and other instances of turning away from traditional authority in favor of popular voting to determine political questions. What appears unobjectionable on its face begins to sound, in his telling, very troublesome. Some of the structural elements that historically have been important to liberty’s flourishing are now being altered in potentially devastating ways.

Mr. Zakaria is making an essentially anti-populist argument, and he’s brave to make it. He won’t escape the charge of elitism. It’s easy enough to say that only vested interests of some sort could be against a vote. It will be suggested that Mr. Zakaria has an ax to grind. The irony is that the sting in that charge owes quite a lot to the destructive fetishism surrounding the idea of democracy-exactly what Mr. Zakaria is doing his best to expose.

So how should the United States proceed, now that Saddam Hussein has been deposed? The early talk of six months for an Iraqi government, or some sort of vote, has become talk of one to two years. After reading The Future of Freedom , one favors a slow transition. The economy must be on its feet, and it’s important that voting not become an unthinking airing of ethnic and religious divisions. The verdict? Something like five years of coalition control-anguishing thought-before the process of democracy is put to the test.

A former editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and current editor of Newsweek International, Mr. Zakaria has appeared on numerous public-policy television and radio shows since the beginning of the war. He appears to be pulling his punches, speaking in the seductive tones of self-determination and democracy, talking of a relatively short transition period. It’s not hard to guess why: For the most part, the public has not had the benefit of reading his book, and it’s tough to fight democracy’s moment-especially in the space of a sound bite.

Jonathan Tweedy, a lawyer who worked for the Federal Court of Appeals, writes about politics and law.