(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

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 Tocqueville’s conclusion 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 modern 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 current 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. 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, however, 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 argues, 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.

He begins to support his argument with a quick and rather breathless look 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 Catholicism 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. First, he contends, societies must achieve economic liberalization, with strong protections for property rights, and only afterward 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, but it must also 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 a 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...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)