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In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.
    -Thomas Jefferson
Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their death."
    -James Madison (1751-1836)
The merit of our Constitution was, not that it promotes democracy, but checks it.
    -Horatio Seymour (1810-86)
Fareed Zakaria's essay, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, appeared in the November/December 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs and generated substantial buzz, if not quite as much as its famous predecessor in those same pages: The Sources of Soviet Conduct (Foreign Affairs, July 1947) by George F. Kennan or the essay that Francis Fukuyama modeled on Kennan's, even adopting the same pseudonym,, "X", The End of History (National Interest, Summer 1989). If Mr. Kennan's thesis could be boiled down to one simple point--that if we contained the Soviet Union it would eventually crumble because communism is unworkable--and Mr. Fukuyama's to a similarly brief statement--the long political argument of humankind is over and we are arrived at the realization that liberal democracy is the ultimate form of the state--then perhaps Mr. Zakaria's thesis can be rendered in a sentence: "Constitutional liberalism has led to democracy, but democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism." This notion, that democracy can ultimately be the enemy of liberalism (of freedom) has been around as long as liberal democracy has--it was the great concern of our Founders, who created the first liberal constitutional democracy--but it's been awhile since a mainstream pundit stated the case so forthrightly--thus the excitement.

But before we go any further, let's allow Mr. Zakaria a longer statement of his case:
From the time of Herodotus democracy has meant, first and foremost, the rule of the people. This view of democracy as a process of selecting governments, articulated by scholars ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Joseph Schumpeter to Robert Dahl, is now widely used by social scientists. In The Third Wave, Samuel P. Huntington explains why:

Elections, open, free and fair, are the essence of democracy, the inescapable sine qua non. Governments produced by elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, irresponsible, dominated by special interests, and incapable of adopting policies demanded by the public good. These qualities make such governments undesirable but they do not make them undemocratic. Democracy is one public virtue, not the only one, and the relation of democracy to other public virtues and vices can only be understood if democracy is clearly distinguished from the other characteristics of political systems.

This definition also accords with the commonsense view of the term. If a country holds competitive, multiparty elections, we call it democratic. When public participation in politics is increased, for example through the enfranchisement of women, it is seen as more democratic. Of course elections must be open and fair, and this requires some protections for freedom of speech and assembly. But to go beyond this minimalist definition and label a country democratic only if it guarantees a comprehensive catalog of social, political, economic, and religious rights turns the word democracy into a badge of honor rather than a descriptive category. After all, Sweden has an economic system that many argue curtails individual property rights, France until recently had a state monopoly on television, and England has an established religion. But they are all clearly and identifiably democracies. To have democracy mean, subjectively, "a good government" renders it analytically useless.

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government's goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source -- state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law. Constitutional liberalism developed in Western Europe and the United States as a defense of the individual's right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, it emphasized checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and separation of church and state. Its canonical figures include the poet John Milton, the jurist William Blackstone, statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, and Isaiah Berlin. In almost all of its variants, constitutional liberalism argues that human beings have certain natural (or "inalienable") rights and that governments must accept a basic law, limiting its own powers, that secures them. Thus in 1215 at Runnymede, England's barons forced the king to abide by the settled and customary law of the land. In the American colonies these laws were made explicit, and in 1638 the town of Hartford adopted the first written constitution in modern history. In the 1970s, Western nations codified standards of behavior for regimes across the globe. The Magna Carta, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the American Constitution, and the Helsinki Final Act are all expressions of constitutional liberalism.

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power. In 1830 Great Britain, in some ways the most democratic European nation, allowed barely 2 percent of its population to vote for one house of Parliament; that figure rose to 7 percent after 1867 and reached around 40 percent in the 1880s. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism -- the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The "Western model" is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge. [...]

The tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy centers on the scope of governmental authority. Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use. For this reason, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberals saw in democracy a force that could undermine liberty. James Madison explained in The Federalist that "the danger of oppression" in a democracy came from "the majority of the community." Tocqueville warned of the "tyranny of the majority," writing, "The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority."

The tendency for a democratic government to believe it has absolute sovereignty (that is, power) can result in the centralization of authority, often by extraconstitutional means and with grim results.
In this initial essay, Mr. Zakaria used the fundamental recollection of that ancient wisdom, that there is a "tension between constitutional liberalism and democracy", to look at how making a fetish out of elections and the other accouterments of democracy could lead us to slight better opportunities to develop institutionalized freedom in the developing world. In the book length exposition, he returns to this topic, but then expands upon the idea to show how the overdemocratization of the Western world has eaten away at, and continues to endanger, our freedoms too.

The first thing that the larger format allows Mr. Zakaria to do is expand upon a notion he touched on in the essay: that the United States of America has a rather illiberal constitution:
It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of unrestrained democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities. The Bill of Rights, after all, is a list of things that the government may not do, regardless of the wishes of the majority. Of America's three branches of government, The Supreme Court -- arguably the paramount branch -- is headed by nine unelected men and women with life tenure. The U.S. Senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the world, with the lone exception of the House of Lords, which is powerless and in any event on the verge of transformation. Each state sends two senators to Washington, D.C. regardless of its population. Thus, California's 30 million people have as many votes in the Senate as Arizona's 3.7 million -- hardly one man, one vote. In state legislatures all over the United States, what is striking is not the power of the majority party but the protections accorded to the minority party, often to an individual legislator. Private businesses and other nongovernmental groups -- what Alexis de Tocqueville called "intermediate associations" -- make up yet another crucial stratum within society. This rich fabric of civil society has been instrumental in shaping the character of American democracy.
It goes almost without saying that other nations, especially the underdeveloped ones that we tend to prod toward democracy, don't generally have such rich social fabrics. Nor are they terribly likely to have men like Madison and Hamilton writing their constitution, with their healthy skepticism about human nature.

The challenges facing nations which would like to develop along American lines, or which we would like to do so, only multiply as Mr. Zakaria traces the birth of freedom back to the rise of Christianity -- Christianity provides an enduring source of authority independent of the State, especially Catholicism, which is well-institutionalized -- and as he introduces an economic model that can serve as a predictor of whether democracy is likely to arise and survive or fail: according to a study by Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi, the answer appears to be closely related to per capita GDP, with $6,000 seeming to be the level at which reasonable durability is established and $9,000 nearly guaranteeing permanence, with one additional kicker--this wealth needs to be produced, not just natural resources extracted from the ground. All well and good until you realize how affluent such societies are in the broad perspective. Consider that by this gauge the following nations appear primed to join the ranks of the liberal democracies: Romania, Belarus, Croatia, Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Iran. There are a couple of nice surprises there, but most have been in the past or are now pretty closely integrated with the West. It has to be considered a particular disappointment that Iran, given the Shah's long pro-American rule, and Turkey, despite Attaturk's vehemently pro-Western ideology, have basically gone backwards in recent decades. And though both offer cause for hope, both also seem like they could instead slip into a period of Islamic fundamentalist primitivism. Indeed, Mr. Zakaria adds what he calls the "Islamic exception":
The Arab world today is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies, neither of them fertile ground for liberal democracy. The dangerous dynamic between these two forces has produced a political climate filled with religious extremism and violence. As the state becomes more repressive, opposition within society grows more pernicious, goading the state into further repression. It is the reverse of the historical process in the Western world, where liberalism produced democracy and democracy fueled liberalism.
That the one region of the world we're all most concerned about these days seems most resistant to liberalization must be cause for worry. Unfortunately. Mr. Zakaria has no easy to answers to how to get the Islamic world on the same track the rest of the world has followed/is following. But he does hold out hope that a liberated Iraq could become a model for the region. We'll see.

In the second half of the book, Mr. Zakaria turns his penetrating gaze on America and ponders whether we too are not suffering from a surplus of democracy. This over-democratization is evident in a variety of places. In government it manifests itself most clearly in the unending growth of government and the refusal of the people to pay for it, as witness the federal deficit and the spending of the entire Social Security trust funds. Given the power to do so the demos has in fact voted itself other peoples money, as predicted many years ago by Alexander Tytler:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.
The prediction of eventual dictatorship may seem extreme, but we've not yet seen what happens to democracies when their fiscal policy leads to actual bankruptcy. Japan and certain nations of Western Europe may end up serving as our canary in the coal mine in this regard.

Meanwhile, we've also seen a really disturbing attrition of the idea that private organizations are entitled to set standards for their members or even determine their own membership. The political parties have been forced to open up the primaries and caucuses wherein they choose their candidates and have had a variety of restrictions placed on their capacity to raise and spend money, effectively seizing control of the process from the party itself and turning it over to non-members, even to those why may oppose the party--as was seen when Democrats crossed over to vote for John McCain in Republican primaries in 2000. If some coherent argument can be made for a more open political process, none can be made for things like the demand that the Boy Scouts admit homosexuals or that the Chamber of Commerce admit women or whatever. These movements represent attempts to impose democracy even on entirely private organizations, to make the counterbalances to the State submit to the same destructive forces as are eating away at democratic government. Other examples of the lowering of standards--some occurring just because of the cultural ethos, others pushed by government--include the ordination of women and even homosexuals by various religious denominations; the use of affirmative action in education and workplaces; court opinions requiring gay marriage; the dumbing down of not just television in general but even of public television, which now seems little more than a vehicle for new age gurus and financial planners; court ordered free speech protections for pornography, profanity, and the like; etc., etc., etc.... The defining feature of all of these trends is not just that various institutions have become more open to the masses but that there is a general denial that there is anything -- any opinion or any position -- where one person should be valued above another, whether for reasons of superior intellect, training, experience, temperament, or whatever. A political theory that holds that all should have an equal standing before the law has led inexorably to a culture where everyone is to be considered equal in fact. The noble ideal which held that the vote of John Adams should count for no more than that of a dockworker and that they should should have an equal shot at justice under law, has deteriorated to the point where folks would deem it unfair to test their relative scholastic aptitude before admitting one or the other to college and we are asked to believe that there is no likely difference in the quality of their thought on constitutional matters. If the dockworker happened to be Eric Hoffer, this might well be true, but such a one would have no trouble proving himself worthy in competition, as envisioned by the original American system--he would not need a system designed to elevate him regardless.

Now, the scope of this book does not allow for suggested solutions to all of these problems, but Mr. Zakaria notes a couple exceptions to this democratization and suggests that they might serve as a model for at least our political system. He makes the point that two of the most widely respected and generally effective institutions that remain in the United States are the court system and the Federal Reserve, both of which represent delegations of authority to undemocratic bodies. Similarly, in Europe, for all its faults, the EU has forced states to move towards balanced budgets and freer trade and in the international realm the most effective body has been the World Trade Organization, which has pushed even the most powerful nations, like the U.S., to open their markets. It would appear that only institutions which are more or less insulated from democratic pressures are any longer capable of making unpopular decisions and imposing them on unwilling citizenries. So, Mr. Zakaria proposes that for something like the U.S. tax code, which is universally recognized to have become an impenetrable monstrosity, a nondemocratic body be appointed to come up with a thorough reform and present us with a fait accompli. This was in fact how the last reform of Social Security and the one round of post-Cold War military base closings were handled. Sad, but true, that only the knowledge that one will not be held accountable to and by the people frees one to do what one understands to be the right thing for the nation, rather than the politically expedient to keep the peoples' favor. It is this sad fact though, and that it is true even in the most developed democracies, that leads Mr. Zakaria to his final warning for developing countries, and to us about how we seek to make them develop, that delegation of authority to power structures that are not prey to mere public opinion is vital.

It seems strange that after such a powerful set-up Mr. Zakaria's remedial proposals are so skimpy. But suppose we take his analysis as seriously as it deserves to be taken, maybe even more seriously than he took it. What are some other liberty-enhancing or preserving ways in which we might reform American democracy and the restrain the power of the central government? Here are a few to consider:
(1) Rerestrict the franchise, to those who generally have a vested interest in freedom (rather than in their own financial security with a resulting dependence on the State): adults (age 25 and up), net taxpayers (those who give the government more money than they get back every year--with an exception for the military), people of property, married women only, etc.

(2) Do away with all campaign reform laws: in particular there should be no limits placed on how the parties choose their nominees.

(3) Repeal the 17th Amendment: let state legislatures select their senators.

(4) Term limit all congressmen (12 years total in each house). Limit the president to one six year term.

(5) Close congressional hearings and stop recording committee votes.

(6) Require sunset provisions in every federal law and regulation so that they lapse and have to be reauthorized periodically.

(7) Amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget and to permit a line item veto.

There are probably more than a few other ideas kicking around, equally good or better. What matters is to begin to come to terms with the way in which giving the great mass of people the power to satisfy their whims is perverting our government and our society and threatening the liberties the Founders sought to guarantee. In the end we've a choice to make between the kind of grotesquely egalitarian path we're now on or the more difficult but more free path our nation started out on. The latter is more difficult and requires a hardier people, folks unafraid of the occasional failure and willing to depend on each other instead of on the State, but it seems more likely to produce a vibrant and robust society in the long run.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Fareed Zakaria Links:
    -ESSAY: The Rise of Illiberal Democracy (Fareed Zakaria, November/ December 1997, Foreign Affairs)
    -New America Foundation (Board of Directors)
    -ESSAY ARCHIVES: Fareed Zakaria (
    -ESSAY: OUR WAY: The trouble with being the world's only superpower (Fareed Zakaria, 2002-10-07, New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Freedom vs. Security : Delicate balance: The case for `smart profiling' as a weapon in the war on terror (Fareed Zakaria, 7/08/02, NEWSWEEK)
    -ESSAY: How to Wage the Peace: Improving on Saddam's rule will be easy. (Hint: Don't gas people.) But democracy will take hard work. Don't believe oil riches will make it easier. And above all, don't rush it (Fareed Zakaria, 4/21/03, NEWSWEEK)
    -ESSAY: The Arrogant Empire: America's unprecedented power scares the world, and the Bush administration has only made it worse. How we got here--and what we can do about it now (Fareed Zakaria, 3/24/03, NEWSWEEK)
    -ESSAY: The Extremists Are Losing (Fareed Zakaria, September 3, 2002, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: The American Age: Capitalism and democracy unleash creativity and human potential, but they can also be destructive, eroding old orders. Are we ready for what Hoover media fellow Fareed Zakaria calls "the wild ride of tomorrow"? (Fareed Zakaria, Summer 2000, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?: Bin Laden and his fellow fanatics are products of failed societies that breed their anger. America needs a plan that will not only defeat terror but reform the Arab world (Fareed Zakaria, 10/15/2001, NEWSWEEK)
    -ESSAY: The Balkans Keeping Kosovo : The costs of liberal imperialism (Fareed Zakaria, Sept 27, 1999, National Review)
    -ESSAY: The ABCs of Communitarianism: A devil's dictionary (Fareed Zakaria, July 26, 1996, Slate)
    -ESSAY : A Harvard Education (Fareed Zakaria, January 8, 2002, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Asian Values (Fareed Zakaria, Nov/Dec 2002, Foreign Policy)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: Fareed Zakaria on The Politics and Culture of the Global Economy (Calvin College, January 8, 2002)
    -PROFILE: The Interpreter: The Rise of Fareed Zakaria: Muslim, Heartthrob, Super-Pundit (Joy Press, August 16th, 2005, Village Voice)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew (Fareed Zakaria, March/April 1994, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW : of A Thread of Years By John Lukacs (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of 6 Nightmares: Real Threats in a Dangerous World and How America Can Meet Them By Anthony Lake (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Development As Freedom by Amartya Sen (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism By John Gray (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A World Transformed By George Bush and Brent Scowcroft (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as a World Power by Donald W. White (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -DISCUSSION: Fareed Zakaria and Eric Alterman (, August 1998)
    -INTERVIEW: Illiberal democracy five years later (Richard Re and Sabeel Rahman , Summer 2002, HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Fareed Zakaria (Fresh Air, April 16, 2003)
    -INTERVIEW: A beautiful mind made for our complicated times (David Shaw, May 11, 2003, LA Times)
    -INTERVIEW: The dangers of democracy: This season's intellectual pinup, Fareed Zakaria, author of "The Future of Freedom," explains why the romantic myth of freedom could harm Iraq -- and why power elites aren't so bad. (Michelle Goldberg, April 21, 2003, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW: THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD: In the first part of a series on the United States' role in the international community, Margaret Warner interviews Fareed Zakaria (Online Newshour, January 3, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: Statesman in the making: Precocious international affairs pundit Fareed Zakaria has a new job (Sally Jackson, 3/08/2001, The Australian)
    -INTERVIEW: At 34, Worldly-Wise and on His Way Up (Elisabeth Bumiller, September 24, 1999, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Man of the World: Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has the perfect intellectual pedigree (Indian-born, educated at Harvard, conservative) for a fast-changing world, and the kinds of friends in high places who can push a career into overdrive. The first Muslim secretary of State? Don't bet against it. (Marion Maneker, 4/21/03, New York)
    -ESSAY: The electronic equivalent of bad sex (Tina Brown, April 17, 2003, Times of London)
    -ARCHIVES: Fareed Zakaria (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES: "fareed zakaria" (MagPortal)
    -ARCHIVES: "fareed zakaria" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria (Niall Ferguson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria (Robert Kagan, The New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom(Robert D. Kaplan The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Future of Freedom (Roger Scruton, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (Timothy Noah, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (WILLIAM MCGURN, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (Gary Hart, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (John B. Judis, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Future of Freedom (Tony Judt, NY Times Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Future of Freedom (Claremont)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (Stephen Holmes, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (Sreeram Chaulia, Asia Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Future of Freedom (Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America's World Role by Fareed Zakaria (Walter A. McDougall , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of From Wealth to Power(Randall Schweller, American Political Science Review)
    -REVIEW: of From Wealth to Power(Christopher M. Gray, Orbis)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Is Government Too Political? (Alan S. Blinder, November/ December 1997, Foreign Affairs)
    -ESSAY: Illiberal Imagination (Daniel W. Drezner, 08.06.03, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Democracy--Faster, Better, Smarter: The seven best new ideas for introducing representative government to Iraq. (David Plotz, April 25, 2003, Slate)
    -ESSAY: How Much Democracy Is Too Much? (Slavoj Zizek, 5.19.03, In These Times)
    -ESSAY: Two Jeers for Democracy: The more democracy the better? According to Hoover media fellow Tom Bethell, not necessarily. An argument for restricting the franchise. (Tom Bethell, Winter 1998, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: A World on the Edge (Amy Chua, Autumn 2002, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability By Amy Chua (Sasha Polakow-Suransky, American Prospect)