Fareed Zakaria on the Tension Between Democracy and Liberty

BY CARL L. BANKSTON III

In earlier posts, I’ve expressed my scepticism about the possibilities for any system of government that Americans would recognize as democratic emerging from the social upheaval of the nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Fareed Zakaria’s 2003 book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad raises interesting questions about democracy and democratization, asking, in particular, if there is a tension between democracy and freedom  that requires a delicate balance.

The idea that democracy and freedom are not the same thing is a fairly old one. The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the 1835 book Democracy in America, was interested in the question of why American democracy had not led to dictatorship, as it had in his native country. Part of de Tocqueville’s answer was that effective democracy must rest on an existing social and legal system that is consistent with popular rule and that prevents majorities from becoming tyrannical. Fareed Zakaria restates this line of reasoning in contemporary terms, and he extends it by arguing that even in relatively successful democratic nations, such as the United States, there can be too much democracy.

Zakaria identifies the present period in history as a democratic age. He points out that more nations than ever before create governments by popular vote and that the support of the people has become the only basis of political legitimacy in much of the world. The age is also democratic because the broad masses of people have more cultural and economic power than in previous times, as well as more political power.  The word “democracy” has acquired the connotation of something that is always good and always desirable and that will always tend to produce free and just societies. Our news media suggest, for example, that the problems of former Communist societies or of authoritarian nations can be cured if only sufficient democratization can be achieved.

As Zakaria sees it, democracy is not the universal solution. He is not opposed to popular rule, but he does see difficulties with the direct rule of the people. Democracy, he maintains, only maintains individual liberty and works properly when it works within a regulated system of elected representatives with limited, legally defined powers.  Further, protections of individual liberty must generally be created first in order to establish a workable liberal democracy.

Fareed Zakaria

He begins to support his argument with a quick and rather breathless look back at the history of human liberty. He argues that liberty in the Western world does not spring from Greek democracy but from the split between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire, which eventually freed the Roman popes from imperial control and made the popes competitors with the secular rulers of Europe. Liberty, then, began in the space created by the struggle between church and state.  Other struggles, between kings and nobility and between the Catholic Church and Protestantism, expanded this space. Conflict limited the powers of central authorities and this led to greater personal freedom.  Capitalism pushed the cause of individual liberty further by eroding the powers of monarchies and feudal aristocracies and by putting in place a system based on individual and property rights.  While this history might seem peculiar to Western Europe and North America, Zakaria asserts that it contains a pattern that may be applied elsewhere. However, he contends societies must first achieve economic liberalization, with strong protections for property rights, and only afterwards move toward popular rule.

There are at least two conditions for the development of liberal democracy in Zakaria’s view. A country must not only have attained a decent standard of living, it must have attained this through trade and industry and not through the sale of abundant natural resources. In fact, natural resources may often be a disguised disadvantage for nation, an easy source of riches that prevents the development of an active and involved middle class. In addition, a nation must have a strong government that can enforce the laws and regulations necessary to protect the property rights and freedoms needed for efficient markets. Zakaria disagrees with those who see government land reform as denial of property rights. Instead, he maintains that land reform moves the ownership of land away from feudal landlords, who merely hold titles, and to those who actually work the land. This can set the stage for industrialization.

Zakaria devotes a chapter to the problem of democracy in the Islamic lands of the Middle East. This chapter will probably draw the attention of many readers because of the American occupation of Iraq and stated U.S. Government intentions to establish democracy in that nation. The author maintains that the general absence of liberal democracy in the Middle East is not a consequence of a cultural contradiction between Islam and liberty. It is also not a consequence of property, since many of the region’s problems are results of sudden wealth, particularly in the form of oil.  Islamic fundamentalism, as a challenge to liberal democracy, has been caused by the failure of the political institutions of the region to face rapid social and economic changes.  Zakaria’s prescriptions are economic and political reform. Among the economic reforms, he would seek to lessen the region’s dependence on oil as a source of unearned wealth. He offers the example of the African oil-producing nation of Chad, which was required by the World Bank to deposit its oil revenues in an offshore bank and spend all but a fraction on investments and building up national infrastructure. Without the source of money, the government will have to encourage its citizens to engage in constructive and profitable activities in order to provide tax revenues. The major political reform he recommends is the encouragement of constitutionalism. He identifies this as systems of checks and balances that will prevent any part of a government or society from gaining excessive power over other parts. Zakaria does not say who should enact these reforms or how people in the West can or should nudge the Middle East toward capitalism and constitutionalism.

Although Zakaria has a high opinion of the United States, he sees the tension between liberalism and democracy in this nation, as well as in the developing world.  He cites evidence that Americans had become increasingly alienated from their political system and distrustful of it, in spite of generally rising prosperity.  His explanation, as one might expect, is that the United States had become too democratic. After 1970, Congress democratized itself by moving decision-making power away from closed congressional committees and into open committees, making government more responsive. This responsiveness meant that legislators would have to answer to their most active and informed observers, who were the lobbyists and special interests. Finance reforms, which sought to limit politicians’ reliance on a few large donors and broaden small contributions, ultimately increased the power of fund raisers and made raising money the main activity of political campaigns. Zakaria finds one of the most destructive forms of excessive democratization in the referendum system, which exists in several states, but which has received the most attention in California. The referendum system allows those who gather enough signatures to place specific issues before the voters, rather than have those issues decided by elected legislators.  California’s referendum system, according to Zakaria, crippled the state’s economic and political system by placing most of its budget outside the control of its legislators.

Zakaria’s prescription for the United States is to accept less democracy and to delegate more authority. He points out that public opinion polls identify three public institutions as particularly worthy of respect. These are the Supreme Court, the armed services, and the Federal Reserve System. The first and the third are appointed decision makers with decidedly undemocratic powers. The second is a hierarchy of authority that operates on entirely different principles from most of American society. He does not, I think, give sufficient attention to the problems posed by too much undemocratic, uncontrolled authority. Appointed judges may become unelected rulers and the Federal Reserve may become a mechanism for economic cronyism.

Zakaria may put too much faith in the ability or willingness of authoritarian governments to create the economic and political foundations for democratic societies. He cites Chile as an example of an authoritarian nation that became a relatively successful democracy.  It is true that Chile did achieve a fairly high level of economic prosperity under the government of General Augosto Pinochet and that it did establish a stable elected government after Pinochet’s rule. Chile had a long democratic tradition before Pinochet seized power, though, and it could be argued that this tradition formed the basis for the current government.

Russia and China provide Zakaria with one of his favorite comparisons. Russia, according to his argument, democratized first and only after that attempted to liberalize its economic system. China, on the other hand, has kept power firmly in the hands of the Communist Party, while creating a capitalist economy. China stands a good chance of becoming a workable democracy, while Russia is economically troubled and has been under two presidents (Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin) who have used democratic political institutions to increase their own power. There are several problems with this comparison. First, it compares what Russia is with what Zakaria believes that China might become. The future is notoriously difficult to predict, and it may well be that Russia will be a prosperous democracy in a decade and China will find it difficult to move beyond party rule. Second, one might reasonably maintain that Russia’s problems have little to do with a rush to democratization in the post-Soviet era.  These problems could be seen as the historical consequences of a backward empire suddenly plunged into rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century, torn apart by revolution and civil war in the early twentieth, and subjected to brutal mismanagement under Stalin and his heirs.  Third, by the early twenty-first century, the Chinese economy showed some signs of stalling, while Russia began to recover from the economic chaos of the 1990’s.

Although one may question Zakaria on these and other issues, the book makes some extremely valuable points.  Democracy may not be an unqualified good.  The rule of the majority does not necessarily lead to harmony and respect for minority rights. A stable and lasting democracy cannot be founded simply by holding elections. Political systems are not products of ideals, but products of concrete social and economic conditions.


Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad at Amazon.com.


Self-Educated American Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Amazon.com Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?


Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.