The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria
A straightforward and illuminating analysis of the world we live in.
Reviewed by Bruce McKinney
I recently read a remarkable book, The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria. It is a small book of very large ideas. It speaks not from ideology but from openness and it offers explanations for the changing political environment both in the world and in America. In newspapers and on television we hear about events. This is a book of interpretation.
This is a book that expresses the idea that, at least with respect to economic development, the past predicts the future. All readers of history and members of AE take note. Our perspective is confirmed here. As George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For those who believe this Mr. Zakaria's book is cautionary. The paperback edition is $14.95 and if President Bush had read it he could have saved $129 billion and countless lives. Mr. Zakaria makes the point that democracy requires a broad middle class. Education and per capita income are two measures he employs to establish the probability that democracy will take hold. Iraq today meets neither standard and will not for many years to come. It's a matter of numbers.
Mr. Zakaria simply has looked at those countries that adopted democracy, established who has succeeded [survived as a democracy] and who has failed and then looked at both literacy as percentage of the population along with gross per capita income. He found that where about two thirds of the population was effectively middle class and the per capita income at least $6,000 there was a high probability that democracy, if introduced, would succeed. Iraq's GDP, gross domestic product, per person was estimated at $1,600 in 2003 and oil, a substantially undistributed form of national income, a material part of it. So if you are wondering why democracy seems foreign there it's because it is. Democracy is a political development stage based on economic development and wide citizen participation. Iraq will get there someday as will most countries in the world but to try to impose democracy now, before the basic underpinnings are established, is going to be expensive, tenuous and dangerous. The test in Iraq isn't going to be whether elections can be held in January but whether in 5 years, democracy survives without foreign occupation. Americans are high minded but they also grow impatient. Mr. Zakaria's analysis suggests that the United States has not done its homework. To me it looks like another Vietnam.
Recently Mr. Zakaria was interviewed on Jon Stewarts's The Daily Show and seemed to distance himself from the factual conclusions that can be drawn from his book. In the interview he expressed hope that US intervention in Iraq might work. His own research suggests it's unlikely.
The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria
Media on both the right and left commend this book.
The book is actually a series of essays that can be read separately. Zakaria devotes about 50 pages to an interesting idea: that Democracy may be a stage that leads to other, potentially unsavory possibilities. He speaks of the decline of democracy through the death of central authority and speaks of American state referendums as evidence of this decline. To the extent that referendums determine funding policy elected officials are left to debate and argue only the funding details while being held accountable for government performance. He argues that government is weakened by moving financial decision making away from those whose job it is to administer the money. Think of it this way. The passengers on a ship vote and decide to determine the precise route their ship will take to New York. The Captain and the officers get to sound the alarms but not change course. This is an accurate way to see state government in California and a dangerous way to run government. He points to deteriorating roads and schools as evidence of this failing approach.
His alternative is a leap-of-faith to a separation of specific government powers that do not, in his view function as well when subject to the electoral process. He gives two examples on the Federal level where appointment insulates administrators from political pressure: the Federal Reserve chairmanship and the Supreme Court. He would like to see economic policy including tax policy moved into this more insulated environment. Tax policy should not be a political marketing tool. It's hard to argue with this.
He also discusses the breakdown of traditional government. He writes
"[Americans] think that something has gone fundamentally wrong with their country - specifically, with their political system. Simply put, most Americans have lost faith in their democracy. If you examine what lies underneath America's disquiet, you will find that the troubles of American democracy are similar to those being experienced by countries across the globe. The democratic wave has hit America hard, perhaps harder than any other Western country. Founded as a republic that believed in a balance between the will of the majority and the rights of the minority - or, more broadly, between liberty and democracy - America is increasingly embracing a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy. This ideology has necessitated the destruction of old institutions, the undermining of traditional authority, and the triumph of organized interest groups, all in the name of "the people." The result is a deep imbalance in the American system, more democracy but less liberty."
While this is a short book it is a slow read because every few pages there's an idea that needs to be considered carefully. Mr. Zakaria is to be commended for extraordinary insight.
The Future of Freedom is available in hardcover and paperback at bookstores around the world.