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  • How Far Can Free Government Travel?
  • Giovanni Sartori (bio)

There is no doubt that the theory and practice of liberal democracy are a Western product rooted in Western history and culture. Thus as democracy is exported from the West to other areas and cultures we hear references made to “cultural imperialism” and to a “biased, Western-centric model.” But I do not think that ideas should be rejected on the basis of where they originated. That democracy is a Western invention does not entail that it is a bad invention, or a product suitable only for Western consumption. That my own writings on democracy are Western-centric does not give me any particular guilt complex. 1 I do recognize, however, that the prescription of democracy for non-Western areas confronts us with “traveling issues.” First, can democracy be exported to any place, regardless of “import conditions,” that is, of conditions in the importing countries? Second, can and should democracy be exported in toto and in its most advanced (Western) formulation, or should we first break the concept of liberal democracy down into its necessary (defining) and contingent (variable) elements?

The question whether democracy can be implanted in any soil is generally answered by pointing to India and Japan—both decidedly non-Western cultures and yet convincing instances of a successful implant. I bow to this grand evidence; nonetheless, I am not entirely satisfied by it. What about Africa, for instance? Close study would reveal that India and Japan did meet “minimal conditions” for the import of democratic forms, conditions that may not exist in other areas. Further exploration of the exportability of democracy, however, requires that we first take [End Page 101] up the second question and look at the component elements of the concept.

At the outset I referred to “liberal democracy,” and I must emphasize that “democracy” is only a shorthand—and a misleading one at that—for an entity composed of two distinct elements: 1) freeing the people (liberalism) and 2) empowering the people (democracy). One could equally say that liberal democracy consists of 1) “demo-protection,” meaning the protection of a people from tyranny, and 2) “demo-power,” meaning the implementation of popular rule. Historically, the creation of a free people was the accomplishment of liberalism (from Locke to, say, Benjamin Constant, the major French constitutionalist), and this element is generally singled out by the notions of constitutional democracy and/or liberal constitutionalism. A free demos, however, is also a demos that gradually enters the house of power, asserts itself, “demands” and “obtains.” And this is democracy per se.

Which of the aforementioned elements is the more important one? If this question implies that what is more important must supersede what is less important, then it is a misguided question. If we take this road, we generally arrive at the answer that freedom to is more important than freedom from, that demo-power is more important than demo-protection, and thus that the democratic element takes priority over the liberal element. 2 But this conclusion would be wrong. Regardless of our own personal feelings about which element is more important, the issue is one of procedural sequencing, and thus of what is a prior condition of what else. And it cannot be doubted that—procedurally—freedom from (what Hobbes referred to as the absence of external impediments) and demo-protection (liberal constitutionalism) are the necessary condition of democracy per se. 3

Of the two component elements of liberal democracy, then, demo-protection is the necessary and defining element. And I would also hold that this is the global or universal element, the one that can be exported anywhere and implanted in any kind of soil. As this element is concerned primarily with the structural and legal means of limiting and controlling the exercise of power, and thus of keeping arbitrary and absolute power at bay, we have here a political form that can be superimposed (since it is only a form) on any culture regardless of underlying socioeconomic configurations. This is not the case with the demo-power element, for here we enter the arena of policy content, of concrete inputs and outputs processed by, and...