Zakaria on the Possibility of Too Much Democracy

In the movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson plays a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, Benjamin Martin. The movie begins in the first years of the American Revolution. The South Carolina assembly is debating whether to join the war for independence. Wearied by his war experiences, Martin pleads with the assembly to attempt reconciliation with England yet again. When reminded of King George’s transgressions, Martin snaps back, “Why should I agree to swap one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?” Actually, a similar remark has been attributed to Byles Mather, an 18th century Loyalist from Boston, but Gibson probably delivered the line better. What is interesting is how strange to a modern American’s ears the phrase rings. How can one enjoy a democracy and suffer a tyranny at the same time?

The United States and most Western democracies have managed to sustain liberal democracies, democracies that not only permit the populace to control the government, but also restrain democratic governments from limiting personal freedoms. It is sometimes hard to imagine that it is also possible to have illiberal democracies where the people are sovereign, but the people choose to use that sovereignty to limit personal freedoms. The idea that personal liberty and democracy can be in tension with one another is the theme of Fareed Zakaria’s new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Americans rightly seek to promote democracies and as a John Kennedy promised “will bear any burden … to assure the survival and success of liberty.” It is incumbent upon us, especially now that we are reluctantly engaged in nation building in Iraq, to consider the consequences of the balance between democracy and freedom.

Zakaria begins by citing a question posed by American Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists… That is the dilemma.” The question is not just theoretical. It is very likely that in some parts of the Middle East, if given a free choice, the people might very well elect to form a theocratic regime, not only hostile to American interests but eager to ignore freedoms of religion, speech, and association to enforce compliance with a certain vision of an Islamic society.

Zakaria traces the history of the notion of individual freedom to Constantine deciding in 324 to move the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople, so the empire would be centered nearer the growing centers of trade and wealth. The pope, however, remained in Rome. The move underscored separation of religious and political authority. The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the rise of capitalism all helped expand the personal zone of privacy and autonomy at the root of personal liberty.

Zakaria makes the important observation that though democracy and liberty may be compatible and ultimately necessary compliments to one another, democracy may not always prove to be the optimum route to a liberal democracy. A number of democracies that emerged after at the end of colonization, particularly in Africa have regressed into tyrannies that respect neither the sovereignty of the people nor individual liberties. On the other hand a number of formally autocratic regimes Greece, Spain, Portugal, South Korea and have evolved to more democratic and free countries. The question is why.

Zakaria argues, as have others, that wealth is a key component to successful liberal democracies. Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi followed the history of every country from 1950 to 1990. They found that per capita income is highly correlated to the longevity of democracies. In countries with a per capita income of $1500 (in current dollars) or less, a democratic government lasts only eight years. Longevity increases with per capita income. The values between $3000 and $6000 appear to define a transition range. The chances of democracy in such a country devolving to tyranny at higher levels of income are small.

The reason that some, though certainly not all, authoritarian countries have succeeded in becoming liberal democracies is that their leadership has allowed the creation of an economic infrastructure of individual autonomy, contracts and independent courts important to wealth creation and free societies. These, in turn, helped to create a middle class, jealous of their personal liberty. A virtuous cycle is created. The wealthier a country is, the less able authoritarian regimes are able to make arbitrary decisions without negative political, and perhaps more importantly, economic impact.

The one important exception to the correlation between wealth and the creation of liberal democracies occurs when the source of the wealth is dominantly a single resource commodity like oil. A country rich in oil can achieve high levels of wealthy without the necessity of creating those institutions that create a middle class and encourage liberty. “Easy money means little economic or political modernization. The unearned income relieves the government of the need to tax its people — and in return provide something to them in the form of accountability, transparency, and even representation.” Saudi Arabia is an important example of this exception.

Zakaria, however, neglects to apply his thesis to Iraq. How wealthy is Iraq? Is there a sufficiently large and educated middle class? What fraction of Iraqi income is tied to oil? A quick check with the CIA World Factbook shows a per capita income of $2400. This is at the low end for successful democracies, but is reflective of the effect of economic sanctions that have since been lifted. Surprisingly, 81% of Iraq’s GDP comes from services. This suggests the presence of a significant middle class. It is disappointing that Zakaria did not investigate the prospects for a successful Iraqi democracy more thoroughly.

Zakaria ends with some important self criticism of the United States that has become prophetic. Arguing that there is such a thing a too much democracy, he points out as an important example the proliferation of referenda and ballot initiatives in California. These initiatives have effectively hamstrung the legislature by both limiting taxes and mandating services making California less governable. The “paradox” is that initiatives and referenda were implemented to reduce the influence of big money over government. However, to pass or defeat a referendum requires money for advertising returning power and influence to those institutions that can afford to economically support initiatives and referenda. Direct democracy increases rather than decreases the influence of money in politics. Zakaria concludes that to maintain both manageable government and insure freedom, what “we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.”

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