The Future of Freedom: A book review

May 28, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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Michael C. Boyer reviews The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Mr Fareed Zakaria. The Future of Freedom argues for a remade democracy, with power vested in a small elite.

Fareed Zakaria misses the good old days, when wealth, profession, and heredity determined a person’s influence in the world. And Zakaria, the 39-year-old editor of Newsweek International, wants them back. To convince others that the world needs to return to a bygone era, Zakaria wrote ”The Future of Freedom.” The result is a volume of old-fashioned establishment thinking filled with the kind of self-congratulatory sentiments that must permeate meetings of those who believe themselves to be the rightful political elite, like the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Why does Zakaria want a return to a seemingly antiquated political era? Because even as the world is experiencing more democracy, it suffers from less liberty. To reclaim liberty, Zakaria advocates an end to the dangerous penchant for populism and direct democracy that has dominated American politics for the last 35 years. Since the late 1960s, Americans have developed a distrust and distaste for authority. Zakaria calls it an “assault” on elitism. (Never mind that President Bush attended Yale, former president Bill Clinton went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and that two-thirds of all US senators are millionaires.) He sees its manifestations everywhere, in religion and banking, the media and literature.

To see the results of the assault, Zakaria challenges readers to look west, where California’s experiment with referendums and ballot initiatives has transformed it from a place with “an enviable reputation as one of the best-run states in the union” in the 1950s and 1960s to a society “plunged into blackouts and electricity shortages” with a “collapsed” educational system and traffic that is “an expensive drag on productivity.” At the federal level, Zakaria believes the democratization of democracy only ensured that government is run by packs of special-interest lobbyists.

The populist morass could be avoided, in Zakaria’s view, if the world would just turn democracy over to a select group of intellectual elites who understand the inner workings of freedom and capitalism.

Essentially, “The Future of Freedom” calls for the caste system, which is deeply embedded in the Hinduism of India and in which societies are segregated by distinctions of heredity, profession, and wealth, to be projected on democracy at home and abroad. In this respect, as Zakaria notes, democracy is roughly analogous to stock markets. The inner workings of stocks and bonds, hedge funds, and 401(k)s are too complicated for the average citizen, so people pay brokers and financial advisers – experts – to help them, in Zakaria’s words, “navigate in uncharted and turbulent waters.” People may have to give up some control of their finances, but in the long run, they’ll be better for it. And so it should be with democracy, Zakaria says.

The point is transportable to the developing world, the other main focus of Zakaria’s theory. Too many poor nations have democratized too quickly, rushing to hold free elections, but finding greater poverty and less liberty instead. Zakaria argues for a slower process. In order for democracy to take root in the developing world, the poor first need wealth. Wealth encourages the development of a broad bourgeoisie and encourages the state to more closely follow the rule of law. (Unless, Zakaria says, the developing state happens to have oil, in which case getting rich easy more often than not spoils what would otherwise be a beautiful thing.)

So where has wealth led to a broad middle class and adherence to the rule of law, and in turn constitutional liberalism? Over the last 50 years, Zakaria says, “almost every success story in the developing world has taken place under a liberal authoritarian regime. Whether in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Indonesia, or even China, governments that were able to make shrewd choices for the long term were rewarded with strong economic growth and rising levels of literacy, life expectancy, and education.”

Here Zakaria’s argument amounts to a tacit endorsement of liberal autocracy in the name of slow, incremental change. (By his logic, South Africa was arguably wrong to grant immediate suffrage to all blacks as it shed apartheid.) In this sense, Zakaria reveals his true colors as an old-school Republican, petrified by the specter of an empowered citizenry and obsessed with government by elite consensus.

Holding up leaders like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Singapore’s “brilliant” Lee Kuan Yew – notorious repressors of civil liberties, one murderous, the other not – as role models for democratic up-and-comers like Bulgaria, Mexico, and China (about which Zakaria seems giddy) is risky business.

Missing from Zakaria’s analysis are the lessons learned in places like Chile, where Pinochet murdered more than 3,000 people during his 17-year rule, or in South Korea, where hundreds died in the Kwangju uprising. Perhaps that’s because Zakaria’s own background blinds him to the unhappy fate of these victims of autocratic progress. Young, smart, Muslim, and well connected both in his native India and adopted United States, he attended Yale and Harvard, where he also taught international relations and political philosophy. In the late 1990s, as managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Zakaria was one of the gatekeepers of the foreign policy establishment. Now, as Zakaria recently told New York magazine, “my friends all say I’m going to be secretary of state.”

Zakaria’s formidable combination of intellectual and social status helps explain why “The Future of Freedom” has received an overwhelmingly warm reception thus far. Notable scholars have commented with the requisite niceties, while journalists have trod lightly around Zakaria’s big ideas. All the good publicity has helped make “The Future of Freedom” a bestseller. But then, where would the elites be without the masses?

Michael C. Boyer is assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.