Putting Liberty First: The Case Against Democracy

The U.S. State Department has a Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor whose purpose is to "promote democracy as a means to achieve security, stability, and prosperity for the entire world" and "identify and denounce regimes that deny their citizens the right to choose their leaders in elections that are free, fair, and transparent." The Bush administration has already promised to bring democracy to Iraq after Saddam Hussein is ousted. And Americans regularly condemn China for being undemocratic and praise Russia for its democratic advances. Democracy is the way Americans distinguish the good guys from the bad, those regimes worth supporting from those not, and it is the first remedy prescribed for any country whose practices are disliked. But Fareed Zakaria, editor and columnist at Newsweek International, argues in The Future of Freedom that many developing societies initially fare best under what he calls "liberal authoritarian regimes," and that "what we need in [American] politics today is not more democracy but less."

Zakaria's provocative and wide-ranging book is eminently worth reading. If not entirely persuasive when dealing with contemporary American politics, he is correct that Americans' obsession with electoral democracy has clouded their understanding of countries such as Russia, China, and South Korea and led at times to disastrous policy choices. This case has been made before, but never as simply and clearly. His book displays a kind of argumentation, grounded in history and political philosophy, of which there is precious little these days, particularly among opinion columnists.

CHAD, NOT CHADS

Zakaria's argument pivots on a distinction between constitutional liberty and democracy. He defines the former as the protection of individual rights of speech, property, and religion through a system of law not subject to arbitrary government manipulation. This phenomenon developed gradually over time, he argues. Imperial Rome had a system of law, but not constitutional liberty. England gained rudimentary constitutional liberties after the Magna Carta in 1215, and the United States was founded as a system of constitutional liberty in 1788.

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