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Democracy and mobocracy
The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

A panoply of political philosophers, from Aristotle, Montesquieu, De Tocqueville and Edmund Burke to Francis Fukuyama, have worried about the excesses of democracy that can degenerate into mobocracy. Newsweek International editor and former editor of the influential Foreign Affairs journal, Fareed Zakaria joins this brotherhood with an ambitious conservative critique of illiberal democracy. A rising star in the American foreign policy horizon, Zakaria has been tapped as a future secretary of state, the first Muslim to occupy the office. His columns and books enjoy enormous reach and impact in the United States and around the world. This new work cements his place as an original thinker on global systems, however much one may resent the elitism that runs amok from cover to cover.

We are living in a democratic age where 119 countries are governed through universal adult franchise. Pressures from the masses are the primary engines of social change. Capitalism itself has been democratized, as consumption, saving and investing are now mass phenomena. Culture has been democratized thanks to popular music, blockbuster films and prime-time television. Technology and information have been democratized. Zakaria asks if this shift of power has not overreached itself to the detriment of liberty. "Democracy is flourishing, liberty is not." (p 17)

Liberty is secured through "constitutional liberalism", ie rule of law, separation of powers, protection of private property, freedom of speech, assembly and religion. In Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Iran, Peru, Palestine, Zimbabwe etc, democratization is antagonistic to constitutional liberalism and is imposing new forms of tyranny. In the US, too, slavery and segregation were entrenched in the South by the democratic system. The American Congress is today "utterly open to its constituents' views and pressures more responsive, more democratic and more dysfunctional". (p 23)

Political parties and professionals are engaged in a spiraling search for the "pulse of the people", a race to "be the first to genuflect before the people". Zakaria alleges that Western democracy's pandering to populism, special interests and lobbies has taken the inner stuffing out of liberty. Just as Ulysses, the Greek mythological hero, imposed limits on himself and took the advice of Circe while crossing the Island of Sirens, "democratic societies need new buffers and guides", unelected institutions that can temper and tame public passions, educate citizens and preserve liberty.

The first fires of liberty were lit by strife between church and state in Europe from the time of Constantine. Catholicism's independence from the state and countervailing authority limited government. European landed aristocracy's near equal relationship with kings in the Middle Ages gradually allowed for separation of powers. Dukes, barons and counts forced monarchs to concede freedoms, thereby limiting the arbitrariness of the state. The Reformation rejected the now-oppressive authority of the papacy from the 16th century and opened space for religious liberty. Capitalism created an independent class of businesspeople who pushed the envelope for free trade, free markets and individual rights. Zakaria maintains, "capitalist growth is the single best way to create an effective and limited state". (p 76)

If capitalism and constitutionalism come first, followed by democracy, the sequence is liberty-enhancing. South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia liberalized their economies, legal systems and rights of worship and travel before transiting toward democracy. "Premature democratization" must be avoided. Taking more leafs out of history, Germany, Austria-Hungary and France had bourgeoisie and civil societies that were weak, divided and subservient to the state. Their democratization had to undergo violent shocks. Oil-rich Persian Gulf sheikdoms, Nigeria and Venezuela have business classes deeply dependent on the state. They are immature for full-scale democracy. Endowed with independent economic institutions, countries like Belarus, Bulgaria, Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia are ideally placed for liberal democracy to flourish. Singapore, the apotheosis of economic freedom, "will be a fully functioning liberal democracy within a generation". (p 86) China's administrative and legal reforms and its truncation of state power in the economy are also conducive to Zakaria's preferred form of democracy.

Having missed liberty-friendly sequencing, many countries are afflicted by "elected autocrats" and illiberal democracy. Zakaria claims that half of the democratizing nations in the world are illiberal democracies. Boris Yeltsin emasculated competing centers of power in Russia - legislatures, courts and regional governors. Vladimir Putin has taken the cue and left absolutely none to check the Kremlin. African states "overemphasized multi-party elections and correspondingly neglected basic tenets of liberal governance". (p 98) Pakistan had a system in the 90s best described as "fascist democracy", which a "liberal autocrat" like Pervez Musharraf is trying to change. India's "semi-liberal democracy" has in recent decades grown less tolerant, less secular, less law-abiding, less liberal. Its court system is a corrupt handmaiden of politicians, who are also polarizing the population on the basis of factional solidarity in opposition to some other group. Introduction of unregulated democracy in Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Georgia has ended in war. Echoing Immanuel Kant, Zakaria opines, "without constitutional liberalism, democracy itself has no peace-inducing qualities". (p 116)

Elections in the Arab world would produce demagogues closer in mentality to Osama bin Laden than King Abdullah of Jordan. It would be "one man, one vote, one time" and an endless night of theocracy thereafter. Arab politics is not culturally unique but has been caught in a time warp since European inspired liberal thought flourished in the Middle East two centuries ago. Fundamentalism is on the upswing owing to the total failure of Arab political institutions. Zakaria calls the mineral-laden kingdoms "trust-fund states" that have too much unearned income, don't need to tax the population and provide accountability, transparency and liberty in return. What the US should pursue prior to free and fair elections in west Asia is capitalism, a genuine middle class, rule of law, civic institutions, courts and political parties.

Moving to the US domestic arena, Zakaria thinks too much democracy is shortening liberties. Pursuit of public opinion has gone out of control in Washington, so much that the hyper-responsive poll-driven American system has booted out institutions that guarded liberalism. Congress is dictated by each individual member's whim, which in turn is the mouthpiece of a fanatically self-interested lobby. Political parties are so open and decentralized that nobody controls them. Presidential primaries have been snatched from party organizations and handed over to the voters. Democratization of campaign finance has converted fundraisers into king makers. Politicos are single-mindedly focussed on winning the next election to the exclusion of all else. States like California have gone overboard with direct democratic procedures like referendums and initiatives, rendering centuries of liberal governance chaotic. "Politics did not work when kings ruled by fiat and it does not work when the people do the same". (p 196)

Zakaria's agenda is to resurrect institutions and elites injured by mobocracy. American democracy's halcyon era was served eminently by public-spirited elites who acted as "social stabilizers". From independence until 1960, the WASP elites (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) performed public service as a responsibility that came with power. They adhered to an unwritten code of honor and took charge of local and national-level public policy, showing the masses the way. "Without guidance or reference to authority, people can make bad choices." (p 220) Zakaria argues for delegation of governance to citizens experienced in public affairs, nonpartisan specialists who are unfazed by short-term interests. Key decision-makers must be insulated from the intense jockeying of politics so that deliberative and unemotional policies are implemented. Central banks, the European Union and the World Trade Organization work well due to their insularity from vote-bank considerations. Those with immense power should lead and set legal and moral standards or else illiberal democracy will take the world into a race to the bottom.

Zakaria's sophisticated and complex theory deserves the attention of everyone worried about democracy's inadequacies. However, his unabashed admiration for elites and "liberal autocrats" is worrisome. The notion that a handful of aristocratic know-alls can decide better on behalf of the unlettered and underfed poor shocks sensibilities and goes against the notion of self-determination and decentralization. For a scholastic work of this order, there is no mention or concern for equality. Inequality of status, wealth and power is a far greater world problem than lack of "liberties", as Zakaria defines them. Readers would do well to consult Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom to counter Zakaria's fusillade against mobocracy.

The Future of Freedom. Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, by Fareed Zakaria. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, June 2003. ISBN: 0-67-004993-X. Price: US$24.95, 286 pages.

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Sep 13, 2003


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