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Guarding Liberty from Democracy

[The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria, W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pages]

Ancient writers on political themes would seldom recommend a purely democratic constitution on the grounds that, unless checked by powerful countervailing forces, democracy could at any moment degenerate into mob rule. The argument was refined by later thinkers, and notably in the 19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, both of whom warned against the “tyranny of the majority.” Unless the constitution protects the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities, they argued, democratic choice could threaten anyone at any time—as it did in Hitler’s Germany. Put another way, the argument tells us that there is nothing inherently liberal in popular choice and that individual freedom might be better protected under an aristocracy than when exposed to the whims of democratic resentment. Indeed, that is what Edmund Burke thought and what he showed to be the case in his great study of the French Revolution.

Although the argument is familiar—and indeed no more than plain common sense—it is constantly forgotten by modern people, who seize on popular choice as the one criterion of legitimacy, for fear of otherwise endorsing the rule of elites and offending the official doctrine of human equality. In this well-argued and far-ranging survey, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria shows the damage that is being done by this un-nuanced pursuit of the democratic idea and argues once again for a society in which elites are accorded their proper place and esteemed for what they are—the true guardians of individual freedom and the ones who have the greatest stake in maintaining law, order, and accountability in the public realm. His argument is particularly pertinent now, when allied forces are attempting to bring freedom to Iraq by imposing democratic procedures on its people. As Zakaria points out, democracy could as well lead to an elected dictatorship of mullahs as to a modern civil society. For democracy without the rule of law is mob rule, and the rule of law is not built by democratic means.

Elected dictatorships, which extinguish opposition, destroy the political process too. It is only where people are free to dissent that genuine democratic choice is possible. Hence liberty should come higher than democracy in the wish list of our politicians. You can have liberty without democracy, but not democracy without liberty: such is the lesson of European history. Before imposing democratic regimes, therefore, we should ensure that civil liberty is properly entrenched in a rule of law, a rotation of offices, and the freedom to dissent. These institutions tend to arise naturally, Zakaria argues, with the emergence of a socially mobile middle class. That is why the transition to democracy is successful in countries with a per capita GDP of $3,000 to $6,000 but not in countries where it is significantly less.

The argument here is pertinent and fascinating. As Zakaria makes clear, there is all the difference in the world between a country where this relatively high GDP is achieved by the enterprise of the citizens and a country where it comes simply from selling off some natural resource like oil. The high GDP of Saudi Arabia is a kind of political illusion since it does nothing to indicate the emergence of a resourceful middle class or the demand for freedom, law, and citizenship that such a class will inevitably make. Thanks to oil, Saudi Arabia exists in a state of feudal hypostasis, even though it can treat its citizens—who are not true citizens but subjects—to a middle-class lifestyle.

As it proceeds, Zakaria’s argument turns increasingly towards the condition of America and the damage that untrammeled democratization is doing, as he sees it, to American social and political institutions. Here he brings home a truth that was already very much in the minds of the Founding Fathers, influenced as they were by Montesquieu’s conception of the separation of powers. Democracy, he argues, is intrinsically hostile to elites, but it also requires them. For no democracy can survive without a rule of law, without offices and dignities that refuse to be swayed by popular passions, without the kind of public servants whose social position is sufficiently secure that they can see service as its own reward. In short, democracies need to create their own form of aristocracy.

This the Americans had done, Tocqueville thought, through the dignities bestowed on the judiciary and through the many small associations that conferred social standing at the local level on those who embarked on public service. But, Zakaria argues, the law has lost its dignity now that the democratic idea has taken possession of it. In a country where all have access to the law, litigation becomes a scramble for profit, and lawyers become speculative businessmen for whom justice has no special value. Indeed, Zakaria finds the pressure of democratization to be a downward-directed force that lowers the social, cultural, and intellectual level of every institution, from church to newspaper, and from Senate to school.

Some might dismiss the later parts of Zakaria’s book as merely pessimistic and valedictory. For certainly, many of the things of which he complains seem too deeply established in modern culture to be eradicated by any political decision, and many of them bring benefits to the electorate as well as costs. Nevertheless, he is surely right in his insistence that democratization is not enough, that institutions and offices must be rescued from popular access and popular taste if liberty is to be protected, and that the democratization of culture has undermined much of the dignity of modern America. I would go further and suggest that what motivates the hostility of Islamic terrorists is not America’s material and political success but the flagrant democratization of those spheres that piety has traditionally protected. As Zakaria is aware, democratization seeks to turn every value into a price and then to bid down the price to the lowest that the market will sustain. This has happened to culture through the TV sit-com and chat-show, through MTV and the music video, through the Internet, and above all through pornography, protected by lawyers who invoke a constitution intended precisely to forbid such things. And it is these products of the moron culture that have the greatest and most shocking impacts on pious Muslims.

Zakaria’s book is full of well-observed examples. His keen intelligence and eye for illustrative facts make his book as instructive as it is challenging. Beneath his lament the reader feels “the sharp compassion of the healer’s art”—a keen desire to help his fellow human beings and to restore the kind of order in which his own altruistic energies would not be wasted. Even at its most pessimistic, therefore, The Future of Freedom sheds a ray of hope. For it reminds us that, after all, public spirit can still be found in America and—to the glory of that great country—can fill the soul of an American citizen brought up as a Muslim in India.


Roger Scruton is a philosopher and former editor of the Salisbury Review (UK). His most recent book is The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat.



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