The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria

freedom.jpgThere is a great deal of discussion these days about democracy and its potential exportation to various areas of the world. Some see democracy and capitalism as the only hope for defeating terrorism and bringing peace and stability to crucial areas around the globe. Many see the action in Iraq as a step in this plan. Of course, others see this as a utopian scheme, unlikely to succeed and instead likely to have wide and dangerous unintended consequences. Fareed Zakaria?s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad tackles an interesting sub-debate in this wider discussion: is more democracy the answer? Zakaria?s answer is: not necessarily.

Obviously, his argument is a bit more complicated than that but it is a fair assessment. In essence what Zakaria argues for is more care in defining democracy and a realization than democracy doesn?t always solve our problems. The Future of Freedom is an interesting book with a controversial thesis. It broaches a subject worth thinking about and it touches on some important insights. In the end, however, he fails to make his case and fails to offer much in the way of wisdom for our time of troubles. To give you an idea of why this is, I will touch on a few of the things he gets right and a few insights that I think are missing from his argument.

The first thing that Zakaria gets right, or largely right, is that democracy ? in its simplest form ? is really just a tool. Democracy in this sense is just a format for elections: one man one vote; with 51% you win. These days this is a concept worth remembering. Democracy is not a good in and of itself. In the same vein, it is worth pointing out that democracy can lead to negative results. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true, that Hitler was elected. Democracy doesn?t guarantee good results because it is just a process with the usual trade offs and weaknesses of any system.


Another issue that The Future of Freedom handles well is the development of liberal democracy. In an interesting chapter entitled ?A Brief History of Human Liberty? Zakaria outlines how democracy and freedom developed in ?The West.? Zakaria describes how the system we have today developed slowly and organically out of unique circumstances and historical forces. Real governments and societies can?t be made to fit neatly into any one theory or paradigm. History and politics are messy and they move in a zigzag not a straight line. The recent history of totalitarianism reveals what happens when ?History? is imposed on people; when idealistic theories refuse to bend with human nature. Within this context, Zakaria details how liberal institutions and culture were just as important to the growth of freedom in the West as democracy ? universal adult suffrage. Civil society was a crucial ingredient to the stability and growth of freedom and democracy.

In a related subject, Zakaria understands that economic freedom and political freedom are interconnected. Throughout the book, he relates how autocratic rulers sought to liberalize their economies but not their societies. Quite often, however, the liberalization of the economy forced liberalization in society. On the other side, societies without economic growth and stability often see fledgling democracy spin out of control. In the West economic freedom strengthened political freedom.

Lastly, an important issue that Zakaria touches on is the delicate balance between order and freedom. In two controversial and interesting chapters entitled ?Too Much of a Good Thing? and ?The Death of Authority? he discusses the problems and issues facing America today. Zakaria makes the argument that what plagues America is too much democracy and not enough authority. While the analysis is a little thin, Zakaria is in good company when thinking that ?more hair of the dog that bit you? is rarely the answer. One only has to look at California to wonder if more democracy equals better government and a healthier society.

So if the above points are what Zakaria got right, what did he get wrong or leave out? If you want a strong critique of The Future of Freedom check out Robert Kagan?s review in the New Republic (Zakaria responds here). I think Kagan?s response is a bit too strong but he makes a number of valid points. Here are the issues I thought were important.

Zakaria?s discussion of the role of economics in the creation of democracy is too deterministic. In fact his analysis is essentially Marxist:

China?s communists should re-read Marx. Karl Marx understood that when a country modernizes its economy, embraces capitalism, and creates a bourgeoisie, the political system will change to reflect the transformation. Changes in the ?base,? in the Marxist lingo, always produce changes in the ?superstructure.?

Zakaria tries to use economic development data to connect the per capita GDP to a country?s ability to transition to democracy. But, as Kagan points out, this is a problematic concept at best. Plus, it really doesn?t help the thesis much.

Another problem Zakaria has, is that he doesn?t seem to grapes that value judgments matter. One doesn?t have to be a proponent of dictatorship to see that in unique circumstances a benign autocratic ruler can accomplish a great deal. The problem is that benign dictatorships are extremely rare. The risk of a ?benevolent? dictator turning into a more traditional despot is too great to chance the experiment. Zakaria seems to miss this point when he is discussing the development of democracy. There is a great deal of difference between 18th and 19th century monarchies and 20th century dictators. Instead of recognizing this difference, he seems to assume that modern day despots can be transitional figures in the growth of liberal democracy in the same way that European constitutional monarchies were. Because of the loose way he discusses this issue, Zakaria leaves himself open to the charge that he is sympathetic with dictatorship or autocracy.

The missing piece in this whole discussion is the American answer to this problem: republican checks and balances. The Founding Fathers recognized many of the problems that Zakaria outlines about a reliance on pure democracy. As a result they sought to create a system that had checks and balances against democratic excess and chaos. Consequently, it is in many ways hard to make radical changes in American politics. Democracy is not given free reign but checked by differing branches and levels of government. Of course the US is a great deal more democratic today than it was at its start ? with some very good results and some not so good ? but most of those checks and balances remain. In short there is a wide spectrum of options between pure democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. A little more time spent on the middle ground would have helped his argument.

Zakaria is right that there is a tension between freedom and order but what he leaves out is the need for justice. Justice is also a necessary ingredient for any decent government. Zakaria skips this subject all together and again it leaves him open to criticism. Although the scholarship is less than clear, let?s assume for a moment that a more autocratic government might allow for a more stable economy that might in turn help transition a country to liberal democracy. One still has to grapple with the level of injustice often involved in autocracy or dictatorship. When discussing China for example, Zakaria seems to feel that democracy is too dangerous for such a large and unruly country with no history of liberal institutions. But what about the injustice and suffering that the Chinese government imposes on its citizens? It is one thing to acknowledge that democracy in China might be a fragile thing and to worry about the immediate impact of democracy on a country with no experience of such freedom. But surely one must acknowledge that the people would be better off under democracy than under their present system. Instead of discussing the tensions and trade offs between order and freedom and justice, at time Zakaria seems to see them as a linear path: first order, then freedom, then justice. In reality they must be balanced together; an emphasis on any one at too great an expense of the others leads to trouble.

In the end, The Future of Freedom touches on some important issues and raises important questions but it fails to offer a solution. Zakaria fails to point out that it matters what type of democracy develops not just when it develops. A democracy with a system of checks and balances can withstand bad leadership and prevent a slide into illiberal democracy or autocracy with a false front of democracy. Perhaps, the biggest gap in Zakaria?s argument, however, is the fact that you can?t put the genie back in the bottle. People around the world want to be free. They have seen the benefits of democracy and capitalism and they want to join and participate in those benefits. Zakaria?s fears of illiberal democracy may be well founded but they offer little hope to those living in oppressed societies. Given this reality, Zakaria would be better off emphasizing the benefits of constitutional and republican democracy. In his defense, I think this is his goal and he does touch on these points in the book, but they are weakened and obscured by his discussion of the role of undemocratic leaders and economic development in the transition to democracy. Despite his acknowledgment of the organic and historical development of democracy, he often slides into an almost technocratic view of democratization: that experts can use economics and historical data to decide when a country is ready for democracy.

As the above review should make clear, there are a lot of interesting issues discussed in this book. Despite its faults, it is a thought provoking and intriguing read. If you are interested in the role of democracy in world affairs and its potential for good and ill, I recommend this book as a good place to start. It is certainly a timely and pointed discussion of many of the central issues of our time.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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