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Book Review

The Future of Freedom — Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad
Fareed Zakaria
W.W. Norton & Company

Future of Freedom is prefaced with a quotation involving sea-nymph Sirens who had the power of charming unhappy mariners to cast themselves into the sea to their destruction. It will be interesting to see if the meaning of this symbolism is explained.

A glance at the Notes section reveals that this book is not a work of historical scholarship. Its contribution to the debate, if any, is in its ideas and argument. The author is obviously well-read, identifying a total of 120 citations.

The theme expressed in the Introduction is that we live in a democratic age. It notes that over the last century the world has been shaped by one trend — the rise of democracy. Zakaria states that in 1900 not a single country had a true democracy. It is not explained why the United States was excluded, maybe because women's suffrage was not gained until 1928 or the country was more truly a republic. He adds that today 119 do, while monarchies are antique and fascism and communism utterly discredited. Certainly an encouraging trend.

The author coins the term democratization to apply to what he feels is a downward shift of power. This, he says, goes far beyond politics because hierarchies are breaking down, closed systems are opening up, and pressures from the masses are now the primary engine of social change. He may be giving the masses a little too much credit in respect to their desire and ability to become politically astute and effect change.

The same comment might apply to his discussion of the economic realm. There is no question that the public becomes much more involved, but they are not making the decisions. And, Zakaria feels that culture is democratized, now being dominated by popular music, block-buster movies and prime time television. But here and elsewhere such is dictated by the few who set the trends. It is amazing what the public will buy into. Also, he refers to the democratization of violence, arguing that for years the state had the monopoly over the use of force, but now small groups can do dreadful things. Has not the latter been going on for eons? Then there is the matter of the illegal people, drugs, and weapons. What does this have to do with democratization? This really happens any time a society does not have adequate laws or is negligent in enforcement.

Zakaria poses the question of who among us would want to go back to an age with fewer choices and less individual power and authority. Is this an accurate portrayal of options?

For people in the West, democracy, he says, means liberal democracy with free and fair elections along with the rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of the basic liberties — speech, assembly, religion, property. This bundle of freedoms he terms constitutional liberalism. Incidentally, this does not sound like a package a liberal would cherish. Maybe these people of the left should be given a different moniker. Whatever, it is his feeling that these two strands are coming apart around the globe, with democracy flourishing, while liberty is not.

He presents his book as a call for self-control with a restoration of balance between democracy and liberty. There can be too much democracy — too much of an emphatically good thing. He feels that new buffers and guides, designed for modern problems and times, are needed. It can be argued that the proper remedy is to stick with the old time-tested and proven ones with much greater adherence and avoidance of liberal interpretations.

The first chapter presents a very thorough and thought-provoking review of the history of human liberty, starting in A.D. 324 when Constantine decided to move. The author notes that from the sparks of those struggles came the first fires of human liberty. He then suggests that the first important source of liberty in the West, and hence the world, was the rise of the Christian Church. Then he identifies the paradox of Catholicism, suggesting that this might seem an odd place to begin the story of liberty; Lords and Kings and the Magna Carta; Rome versus reform; the struggle between Catholics and Protestants; the consequences of capitalism; and Anglo-America with limited government, property rights, and constitutionalism. Zakaria notes that being part of the Western world is a political advantage in respect to liberty.

The chapter "The Twisted Path" traces the drastic changes in the political landscape of Europe throughout history. It is noted that few places in the world have the peculiar combination of circumstances that produced liberal democracy in England and the United States. For example: Germany lacked the political independence of its bourgeoisie and France placed the state above society, and democracy above constitutionalism.

A chapter entitled "Illiberal Democracy" follows. The author points out that since the fall of communism countries of the world are being governed by regimes like Russia's that mix elections and authoritarianism. These he chooses to call illiberal democracies. Russia and China are the most important of these. Unfortunately, China is reforming its economics before its politics, whereas Russia did the reverse. The discussion of these two powers and others flirting with democracy should serve as lessons to others. The paradox of many of the failures is that many are rich in natural resources. Problems are identified involving countries where too much importance is attached to limitations of government power itself, or those where there are fears of the tyranny of the majority.

Nowhere are the tough choices more stark than in the Middle East today. And, nowhere will it be more important that the United States gets it right, in theory and in practice, states the author.

Then comes a chapter referred to as "The Islamic Exception." The thrust is that problems arise when the issue of human rights is brought up. The fear is that if pressure is brought to bear, the Islamic fundamentalists will take over. Zakaria notes that the Arab world is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither fertile ground for a liberal democracy. It must be borne in mind that this section of the world is utterly different from the prosperous, democratic West.

The fifth chapter is entitled "Too Much of a Good Thing." It is pointed out that in the last quarter century the United States has added five trillion dollars to its gross domestic product, but surveys and measures reveal that Americans are no happier than they were 25 years ago. And, the author feels that Americans have lost faith in their democracy. This is a matter of opinion. Maybe the dissatisfaction is over the way it is administered — the twisting of laws, deception of politicians, and violation of the Constitution. Of course, the previous administration greatly tarnished images. And, old institutions are not being destroyed, but seriously abused. Yes, the triumph of special interest groups is a major concern. For example, the environmentalists, who employ deception and plays on emotion to win over the believing public. Zakaria notes the decline in voter turnout which also may be the result of the above.

He feels that part of the public attitude toward government is their opening up to public contact and influence. But, he notes, this is not how Americans see the issue. Washington, he says, is bent on a pursuit of public opinion. But he does not mention how politicians strive to influence it. Zakaria states that lobbyists have become Washington's greatest growth industry. As a result of trends, he sees for conservatives the goal of reducing federal spending as hopeless and for liberals spending real money on new problems close to impossible. The author goes to great lengths to identify problems associated with primary elections.

The final chapter is "The Death of Authority," an attempt to explain how democratization has transformed American society well beyond merely the political sphere. Financial business is selected as a good place to start. In the economic realm, everyone, king and commoner alike, has become a capitalist. Zakaria then proceeds to explain how the democratic wave has also moved through law, medicine, culture and even religion. The first big change was opening many industries and professions to outsiders and the breakdown of old structures of power and control. The second is the eclipse of the class who ran these institutions.

The conclusion is entitled "The Way Out," which Zakaria begins by pointing out that the regulation of capitalism had gone overboard, resulting in heavy tax rates and controls, and the deregulation of democracy has also gone too far. Modern democracies, he notes, will face difficult new challenges and they will make their system work much better than it currently does. That means making democratic decision-making effective, reintegrating constitutional liberalism into the practice of democracy, rebuilding broken institutions and civic associations. Perhaps most difficult of all, it will require that those with immense power in our societies embrace their responsibilities, lead, and set standards that are not only legal, but moral. Democracy, he notes, with all its flaws, represents the last best hope for the world.

No answer was found by the reviewer to the question of the meaning of the sea-nymph Sirens symbolism. Consequently, it is left to the imagination of the reader.

April 29, 2003
Nate Dickinson

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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