[OBSERVER]Is democracy too much of a good thing?Is democracy like donuts ― fabulous, to a point, and then sickening?
Fareed Zakaria says it is. He wrote the book I’m recommending to everyone lately, “The Future of Freedom.” Mr. Zakaria is a Newsweek columnist, former editor of “Foreign Affairs” and public intellectual. He grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and lives now in the world’s oldest democracy, the United States.
And he says, as we all do, that democracy is clearly the best political system: It really does rest on the will of the people. But he suggests democracy may have become such a sacred cow, at least within democracies, that we blind ourselves to its limitations.
For one thing, Mr. Zakaria points out, democracy is not necessarily the same thing as liberalism. He does not use that term in its current political sense, as the opposite of conservativism. By “liberalism,” Mr. Zakaria has in mind the tradition, dating back 300 years to the political thinkers Hobbes and Locke, that emphasizes the protection of individual rights and liberties against a powerful state.
Can you have an “illiberal democracy” ― that is, one chosen by the people but oppressive of civil freedom? Of course. Hamas in the Palestinian territory, Hezbollah in Lebanon ― and Hitler in Germany ― all developed political power through free elections. They were creations of the democratic process, but profoundly illiberal.
Can you have liberal authoritarianism? Mr. Zakaria cites the cosmopolitan and progressive society of Vienna under the Habsburg monarchy in the late 19th century. More recently, he notes, Yugoslavia under its Communist strongman and India under Jawaharlal Nehru regressed in liberalism as they progressed in democracy.
The 20th century has been called “democracy’s century.” In 1900, not even the United States was truly democratic, Mr. Zakaria argues, because women ― and in many states, blacks ― did not have the right to vote. By 2000, he says, the number of democracies had grown from zero to 119. Democracy enjoys such prestige that even dictatorships profess it ― the “People’s Republic” of China, the “Democratic People’s Republic” of North Korea.
But democracy may also bring dysfunction. Many of Mr. Zakaria’s examples are from the United States. Half a century ago, Congress enacted a production subsidy for mohair, a kind of wool made from Angora goats and used in military uniforms. Within a decade, new synthetic fibers replaced mohair in uniforms, but the subsidy lives on because the mohair producers, through tradeoffs with other plunderers of the public purse, are able to mobilize enough democratic muscle to keep it.
In California, 85 percent of the state budget is “pre-assigned” for causes ― education, tax caps and the like ― that “the people” have mandated over the years in special initiatives or referendum elections. The legislature and governor have no power to adjust the spending to current realities.
Along with political democratization came cultural democratization. A hundred years ago, literature, art and music were ruled by elites; now they are produced for mass tastes.
And professional democratization. A hundred years ago, doctors, lawyers, educators and politicians saw themselves as elites with a responsibility to society. Now the very word “elite” makes us cringe, and the professionals have abdicated their position, continually asking the people “What do you want?” instead of providing a guiding vision based on their earned wisdom.
Who would go back to the day when women could not vote and blacks could not be hired to white-collar jobs? Not Mr. Zakaria. But he wants us to examine the ways in which democratic paths can lead, as he says, to “too much of a good thing.”
The ideals of liberalism ― free and fair elections, the rule of law, separation of government powers, protection of basic liberties such as freedom of speech, association, religion and property ― grew out of the Enlightenment rationalism of the 18th century. But in our times, intellectual rationalism has been driven into retreat by the gut appeals of religion, nationalism and ideology.
Mr. Zakaria wants to restore the balance between democracy and liberty. It is fashionable in the United States now to mock the 18th-century framers of the U.S. Constitution for their distrust of the changeable passions of the democratic “mob.” They built several layers of insulation into the system, not all of them successful. For example, the Electoral College contraption awarded the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 although his opponent polled more votes.
But the idea of insulation is not bad, Mr. Zakaria argues. Polls consistently show that the political institutions most trusted by Americans are also the least democratic ― the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve System, the armed forces. Least democratic, but subject to democratic oversight: The members of the first two are appointed by democratically elected officials, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is an elected civilian president.
Other examples of indirect democracy that have enjoyed some success are the bipartisan congressional panels that have produced plans for the reform of taxation or for closure of unneeded military facilities. The current freetrade negotiations with Korea proceed under a similar provision. If a deal is struck, it will be presented to the U.S. Congress on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If every clause is open to democratic inspection and amendment, you can be sure the American mohair will enjoy a privileged status in Korea.
Are there lessons in this book for Korea and its “participatory government?”
Sometimes, when the demonstrators are scrapping with police, and the legislators are pulling hair and trading punches on the floor of the National Assembly, this sure looks like a country with too much democracy. It is a good thing, democracy, but so is respect for the rights and liberties of others.
*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.
by Harold Piper