- The Illusion of Liberal Autocracy
The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. By Fareed Zakaria. Norton, 2003. 256 pp.
As the third wave of global democratization has spread from southern Europe to ever more distant countries and cultures, many have detected a paradoxical trend. Democracy has become the norm in the world—the most common, and only broadly legitimate, form of government—but it often functions in ways that abridge liberty. Fareed Zakaria was not the first to identify and analyze the rise of "illiberal democracy," but his 1997 article in Foreign Affairs attracted readers and provoked debate to an unusual degree. Now Zakaria has widened the scope of that essay into a much more sweeping and audacious critique of the perils of populism and majoritarian democracy—not only in emerging and transitional polities but also in established democracies, especially the United States.
The Future of Freedom is not a systematic or in any way scientific treatment of the subject. The book is bereft of any quantitative data on trends in freedom (readily available from Freedom House, for example), and much of the world is treated in brief, staccato fashion, if at all. Particularly disappointing is a general ignorance of Africa and a specific neglect of the wide variation in regime trajectories on the continent. Latin America—save for Venezuela, which under Hugo Chávez has become a kind of poster child for populist, illiberal democracy run amok—gets barely more attention. Yet there are parts of the world that Zakaria knows well and dissects with penetrating insight, above all the Middle East and his own native India.
It has been suggested that Zakaria's distrust of popular democracy has been shaped fundamentally by his experience growing up as a Muslim in [End Page 167] India. But his alarm over the rising "tyranny of the majority" there—which finds the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party steadily dismantling venerated traditions of religious tolerance, while political corruption and thuggery drain democratic politics of its liberal content in many states—is shared by a wide range of analysts inside and outside the country, including Sumit Ganguly in this issue of the Journal. For Zakaria, India epitomizes what happens to freedom when elite standards, constitutional safeguards, and the rule of law all get trampled by mass politics.
An avowed elitist, Zakaria is certainly not (as he is too often simplistically portrayed) an autocrat at heart. As he makes clear repeatedly throughout the book, he values democracy as a form of government, but believes—with Montesquieu, Madison, Tocqueville, and other seminal democratic thinkers—that its darker impulses must be restrained by a cultural fabric of liberal norms, a social fabric of elite judgment, and a constitutional fabric of limited government and judicial supremacy. All of these take time to construct, and so Zakaria believes that transitions from extreme autocracy are best negotiated gradually, even through a long period of semi-authoritarian rule. He has a particular admiration for those East Asian countries that got the trajectory right, following "a version of the European pattern: capitalism and the rule of law first, and then democracy." Here he identifies South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia—and elsewhere, Pinochet's Chile—as paradigmatic, glossing over the fact that under military and one-party dictatorships, human rights were seriously abused in these countries, even if there was a "rule of law" of sorts in the economic realm. Indeed, it is one of the truly odd things about this book that it pays so little attention to the issue of human rights.
The modernizing authoritarian regimes to which Zakaria points (and, one could add as he does elsewhere in the book, Singapore—a regime whose performance he much admires—and Indonesia under Suharto) protected property rights, adjudicated commercial disputes, maintained order and predictability, avoided the raw terror and predation of brute dictatorship, and allowed freedom of worship and travel. In short, people were free to live their lives, so long as they did not organize opposition political parties, challenge the structure of power, or demand accountabilityand political freedom. But can we say that these authoritarian regimes had a "rule of law" when the press was...