Elective Surgery

Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, has written at least two-and-a-half books here, each different in its own way. The half-book is an historical survey of democracy’s course from Roman Republic to the world of the mid-20th century, with emphasis on the merging and diverging of democracy and liberty. And an interesting survey it is, with provocative observations, such as that the Emperor Constantine left the bishop of Rome to produce a form of pre-democratic liberty. Zakaria’s argument that the Roman Catholic Church brought democracy to the West by its promotion of liberty (” … liberty came to the West centuries before democracy”) will surely provoke debate. The role of the Greek city-state is diminished as providing only the liberty (for land-owning males) to participate in government but not to be free of its arbitrariness.

The first full book is a treatment of the fate of democracy in nations and regions around the world in modern times, and liberty is often its counterpart not its handmaiden. Here the spotlight sweeps from post-war Europe through selected nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Zakaria draws a direct correlation between economic development and democracy. The higher the per capita income, the stronger the democracy–but only if the income is earned, not produced by the bounties of nature, as in Saudi Arabia. In so many words, he says countries with per-capita incomes between $1,500 and $3,000 have a chance to transition from autocratic or oligarchic rule, but that those below $1,500 are doomed to failure.

The author finds dictatorships in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia–in contrast to the Western and East Asian models–moving toward democracy but with little regard for constitutional liberalism, which is to say, individual liberty. A nation, he argues, can move toward democracy and, at the same time, diminish liberality generally and human rights particularly. It is a sobering argument and one whose subtlety may not penetrate the political/media filter that permits only sound bites and slogans to pass through. “Democratic Russia” is good. Never mind that Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin (“popular autocrats”), though elected, largely ruled and rule by fiat, that the press is only marginally free, that civil society has yet to take root, and that the rule of law and private property rights are only just emerging.

Zakaria further premises that taxation is central to constitutional liberalism, as distinct from democracy, because it requires the taxing power (the state) to provide services in return. That exchange in turn produces accountability and eventually representation. “This reciprocal bargain–between taxation and representation [sound familiar?]–is what gives governments legitimacy in the modern world.”

Zakaria’s geographical survey becomes most interesting when it gets to the Arab world. “The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt, and heavy-handed. But they are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than what would likely replace them [if elections were held].” He finds the Arab world trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies and, thus, probably amenable only to the “shell” of democracy apparently envisioned by Bush administration officials. Given present circumstances, it might be interesting to test American popular reaction if the first election in Iraq after the deposition of Saddam Hussein produced Mullah Omar as the first president of the new Iraqi “democracy.” And, contrary to popular impression, Zakaria points out that 800 million Muslims presently live in electoral democracies.

It is the final book, a survey of democracy in 21st-century America, that will stir up the most discussion. “[M]ost Americans have lost faith in their democracy,” Zakaria says, because, as it becomes more “democratic”–that is to say, popular, diffuse, and open–it has eroded individual liberty. Americans don’t trust their government and thus are alienated from it. Voting turnout declines. He argues, somewhat confusingly, that as Americans become more individualistic they also have less liberty. The quality of leadership, public and private, has declined demonstrably, he claims, contrasting Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush to make the point. By making the political system more open, we have also made it more porous to armies of lobbyists and interest groups. Gone is any sense of national purpose, unity, or common good. The constitutionally protected media, under the rampant influences of democratization and marketization, “sensationalizes, dramatizes, and trivializes news” and inflames rather than tempers public passions. The republican ideal of the founders has simply given way to one vast, ungovernable, unbalanced, and greedy “democracy”–in effect, Alexander Hamilton’s worst nightmare.

New elites (“a bunch of smart college graduates”), self-interested, autonomous, and narrow, have replaced the old governing elites who were characterized by disinterest, noblesse oblige, and national service. As market deregulation has reached its zenith, so deregulation of politics–excessive democracy–has gone too far. Zakaria’s solution? Delegation. “There must be a way to make democratic systems work so that they do not perennially produce short-term policies with dismal results.” Delegation of authority to institutions (perhaps like the Federal Reserve Board) above and beyond the murky souk of politics is an approach he favors. Wise men and women, beyond ambition and far from the reach of grubby electoral politics, would make long-term policy and that, in turn, would be implemented by the people’s elected representatives.

California, with its rampant referenda, represents the future of American democracy, Zakaria argues. His gloom over the Californication of democracy is not farfetched, he claims, but simply anticipates “a crisis of legitimacy which could prove crippling” to America. How this crippled American democracy becomes “potentially dangerous” is not quite spelled out.

Zakaria is a serious enough thinker and has produced a serious enough book to require serious attention. Either one-dimensional “democracy” or a more nuanced constitutional liberalism with institutional instruments underwriting individual liberty are the choices he offers for the 21st century. He sees no alternatives, though a lively debate stimulated by his book might produce some.

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