All Commentary
Friday, July 2, 2010

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

What Is the Real Goal of Democratization?

Modern political discourse often treats democracy as if it were synonymous with liberty. In The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria aims to refute that facile notion and reinvigorate the distinction between the two. As Zakaria puts it, pithily: “The execution of Socrates was democratic but not liberal.”

Zakaria’s book is an extended brief against the fetishization of democracy, and it’s exceptionally well-argued. The author echoes the great classical liberals in arguing that democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Liberty, as Lord Acton said, is our highest political end. What we’re after—in developing countries and in our own country—isn’t a system where anything goes, so long as the majority decides. On the contrary, what we want is, first, liberty and law, and then and only then, majority rule. After the rule of law is established, the political process will, and should, open up. But to imagine that “all we need is free elections” is to fundamentally misconceive the problem of democratic development.

One of the more interesting sections of the book discusses the relationship of economic growth to participatory institutions. As a country gets richer and develops a middle class independent of the state, the prospects that its political process will open up are enhanced. Zakaria cites social-science data showing that, historically, when a country has passed $6,000 in per-capita income (in today’s dollars), its chances of successfully maintaining democratic institutions are virtually certain.

Wealth matters—but not just any kind of wealth. In fact, as Zakaria shows, wealth derived from natural resources can impede liberalization and the transition to democracy. Such unearned riches can be a curse, he explains. In autocracies without an independent source of wealth in the form of natural resources, the government has an incentive to provide a framework of neutrally administered laws that facilitate wealth generation, which can in turn provide revenue for the state. The independent middle class that emerges, in turn, has an incentive to hold the state accountable. But in “trust fund states” like Nigeria or Saudi Arabia, the governments have a ready source of revenue, and less incentive to liberalize.

With all that in mind, Zakaria proposes several countries as “the most likely prospects where democracy, if tried, could over time become genuine and liberal”: Romania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, and Iran. (Although Iran is an oil state, Zakaria includes it because “it has always had a strong non-resource-based economy as well.”)

You’ll notice a conspicuous omission from that list—Iraq, which Zakaria in a recent speech half-jokingly called “our 51st state.” What’s surprising, then, is how sanguine Zakaria is about our current quest to transform Iraq from a bureaucratic despotism into a commercial republic. In a passage drafted before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Zakaria writes, “Were the United States to dislodge Saddam and—far more important—engage in a serious, long-term project of nation-building, Iraq could well become the first major Arab country to combine Arab culture with economic dynamism, religious tolerance, liberal politics, and a modern outlook on the world.”

Yet Iraq fails most of the preconditions Zakaria outlines for successful transition to a liberal, democratic regime. It’s a trust-fund state, lacking an independent middle class. It has a level of literacy (58 percent) that’s low even for the Arab world. Unlike postwar Japan and Germany, it’s really three countries rather than one—fragmented among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. And even within subnational groups Iraqi society is unusually tribal. As John Tierney has reported in the New York Times, half of all marriages in Iraq are between first or second cousins, and nepotism is seen “not as a civic problem but as a moral duty.”

Throughout The Future of Freedom, Zakaria treats liberalization and democratization as an incredibly subtle, complex, and contingent evolutionary process. What’s surprising, then, is that, when it comes to Iraq, he proceeds as if liberal institutions are the product of conscious design, easily transferable from one country to another by force and fiat. The rest of the book gives readers little reason to be sanguine about the prospects for turning Iraq into a liberal democracy.

Despite Zakaria’s unreasonably optimistic take on Iraq (a view from which he seems to have backed off recently), his book is a welcome reminder of what we should really be after when we talk loosely of “democratization.” His aim is not simply a political system in which everyone has a vote and a voice. It’s a system in which the most important matters—the security of life, property, and civil rights—are not subject to a vote at all.

  • Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute. His research interests include executive power and the role of the presidency, as well as federalism and overcriminalization.