Do you find Zakaria's distinction between "democracy" and "liberty" in The Future of Freedom to be useful?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I definitely believe that the distinction that Zakaria makes between democracy and liberty is important and useful.  It helps us understand what we truly value in a governmental and legal system.  It also helps us to understand what we need to try to promote at home and abroad.

To understand this, we first need to look at the distinction that Zakaria is making.  It can be found in a section of the Introduction that is entitled “Democracy and Liberty.”  This starts on p. 17 of the hardcover edition.  Zakaria uses the term “democracy” to refer simply to a system of government in which the people get to vote for their leaders in a meaningful way.  As Zakaria says (on p. 19),

If a country holds competitive, multiparty elections, we call it “democratic.”

He goes on to say that a country becomes more democratic when more people are able to vote.  He also says the elections have to be free and fair.

But this is different from liberty.  Liberty is a set of personal, individual rights that (we believe) all people have.  These are rights like freedom of religion and speech and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  A country can be democratic without giving its citizens liberty.  It can give its citizens liberty without being democratic. 

This is an important distinction because we have to determine how much democracy we want and how much liberty.  The two can really come in opposition to one another.  For example, if a majority votes to take away freedom of religion, do we favor democracy or do we favor liberty.  Because we need to understand this tension, Zakaria’s distinction is important.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The difference Zakaria draws between the two concepts is an important one. It highlights the reality that, even though around the world, "democracy has gone from being a form of government to a way of life," this development has not necessarily resulted in the expansion of basic human liberties (14). Zakaria quotes American diplomat Richard Holbrooke to illustrate the problem:

Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma. (17)

In short, Zakaria is arguing that democratization, often viewed as synonymous with human liberty, is in many cases leading to the rise of regimes that place profound restrictions on liberty, often with very broad popular support. When Zakaria published Future of Freedom, he was especially alarmed by the rise of democratically elected Islamist regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. But in recent years, democratically elected populists have established regimes that are quite repressive and actually contemptuous of the norms of liberal democracy. Indeed, Zakaria highlights the tensions that sometimes emerge between "democracy" and "liberty" in these states by using the phrase "illiberal democracy." As he puts it, "democracy is flourishing, liberty is not" (17-18). Fears about what political philosophers have long recognized as the "tyranny of the majority" are, as Zakaria attempts to show in the book, being realized.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yes, I find Zakaria's distinction between "democracy" and "liberty" useful. In the West, we often take for granted the idea that democracy will result in liberty and what the author refers to as "liberalism." We often think that popularly elected leaders will grant their people basic rights and liberties (the foundation of liberalism). However, as Zakaria writes, popularly elected leaders, in the developing world, often become despots or create governments (such as theocracies) that operate to remove people's basic rights.

The distinction between these concepts is useful because in the West we cannot facilely assume that popularly elected governments will respect their people's liberties in the Western tradition. It also poses a vexing question about how we should respond to regimes that are chosen by the people but result in tyranny or the removal of rights. Should we respect these regimes, or should we try to encourage countries to support leaders who are more liberal? The distinction between the concepts of "democracy" and "liberty" helps us understand how complex Western democracy truly is and makes us appreciate the issues involved in transporting Western ideas to the developing world.