The Future of Freedom

Last fall, driving to New Hampshire to pay a family visit, I tried to interest my nephew, Tim - a decidedly political animal - in a discussion of what seem to me to be the problems of democracy. I'll get to these in a moment. In the car, I was puzzled by Tim's reluctant, almost sullen contributions to the conversation, until I realized that he had heard me to say, "the problems with democracy." The difference in prepositions is far from trivial. To speak of the problems with democracy is to suggest, however tacitly, that a superior political system is available. To speak of the problems of democracy, in contrast, is to recognize first of all that there is no such system, at least among those known to man, and at the same time to recognize that democracy does not work all by itself, like some perpetual motion machine, but rather that it requires exercise and maintenance. The difficulties of exercising and maintaining democracy are the problems of democracy.

The difference between of and with struck me quite forcibly as I read Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (Norton, 2003) earlier this week. Before I say anything else, let me recommend this book as highly as I can; it is certainly the most generally important book of the year so far - a title that I expect it to hold. By generally important, I mean that it's a book that everybody ought to read, and that its usefulness will be a function of how widely it is read. In short, it becomes a more important book for me if you read it, too. Mr Zakaria, a former editor of Foreign Affairs, provides a clear and comprehensive exposition of the way democracy is working, or not working, right now ought to become familiar to every voter in every democracy around the world. If it were, that would go a long way, I think, toward solving one of the problems of democracy - which is that its beneficiaries take it for granted. Mr Zakaria's point of view, however, is rather like the one my nephew Tim thought that I was espousing. He certainly thinks that there is a problem with too much democracy.

The fundamental problem either of or with democracy is its repudiation, for certain purposes, of the age-old civilizational principle of the division of labor. In a democracy, everyone is expected to vote. This means - and here we have the fundamental problem of democracy put more neatly - that every voter is expected to inform himself or herself about the various candidates and also about the political issues of the day. What does it mean to be informed? That's very hard to say. It must mean something between the extremes of following political news with Tim's level of attention - something that not very many people have the leisure or the education to do - on the one hand, and of simply soaking up television news on the other. Some reading is required, and some serious discussion. To my knowledge, no one has attempted to frame a workable standard of voter information. This, too, is a problem of democracy. Do voters have a right to be ignorant? They certainly do today.

That's why Mr Zakaria fears that there is too much democracy. His ideal is the representative democracy envisioned by James Madison, the famous system of checks and balances designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Madison's checks and balances have been greatly eroded in the Constitution's two-hundred-year run, and Mr Zakaria's makes the very interesting point that, in today's distracted world, unchecked democracy leads to the tyranny of various minorities, aka special-interest groups. He cites the maddening example of the federal mohair subsidy. Bet you didn't know about this one. Fifty years ago, mohair was deemed to be something of a military resource, essential for the manufacture of uniforms, and Congress enacted a subsidy to ensure the production of mohair. The subsidy persisted even after the military replaced mohair with Dacron. It was finally voted off the books in the 90s, but as Mr Zakaria points out, the mohair lobby didn't just go away. The subsidy was re-enacted and endures to this day. Do you care? Perhaps you ought to; it's pennies like the mohair subsidy that make the dollars of national debt. The government is very generous with handouts of this kind, because in today's 'open' legislative environment it is impossible for Congressmen to hide behind closed committee-room doors. Their votes are known to the interest lobbyists, and this knowledge, given the miasma of campaign financing, is power. The tiny number of Americans interested in maintaining the mohair subsidy trumps the total indifference of the overwhelming majority of their countrymen.

You can look at scandals like the mohair subsidy in two ways. The popular and easy way is to denounce government 'corruption,' and to work, as many conservatives claim to be working, to starve the government of the wherewithal for subsidies. This view leads to nothing but an ever-ballooning national debt, because in our political climate the subsidies can't be cut off. (See 'campaign finance.') The more difficult view holds the electorate ultimately responsible. Here's where the question of the voter's right to be ignorant heats up. If you hold, as I think Mr Zakaria does, that voters in a democracy have the right to pay little or no attention to public affairs, then the need to restore checks and balances assumes great urgency. In Mr Zakaria's view, this would largely be a matter of delegating authority, by voters to legislators, and by legislators to appointed agencies such as the WTO and the SEC. He raises the very interesting possibility of handing the overhaul of our income tax code over to such an agency, created for the purpose.

Needless to say, Mr Zakaria does not bemoan the 'undemocratic' (read 'unequally representative') makeup of the United States Senate. On the contrary, he speaks rather wistfully of the days when senators were elected by state legislatures. My own view of good old days generally is that there are usually pretty good reasons for their passing. Because the trend toward ever more direct democracy can only be reversed from within, by the voters themselves, I begin with the proposition that voters have a duty to avoid ignorance, even though this sounds idealistic and perhaps even utopian. Only voters can restore the checks and balances; if democracy is be restrained, then it must be the voters who restrain it, both by voting intelligently and by restraining themselves. I agree with Mr Zakaria that voters ought to elect leaders whose authority they acknowledge - I share his contempt for the referendum - but this falls far short of simply handing the business of government over to a clique of self-proclaimed sages - which is what voters did in the good old days.

Although I don't think that Mr Zakaria has much to offer in the way of reform, his analysis of today's unbridled democracies makes it very clear that only reform will avert revolution into far worse tyranny. The central, abiding problem of democracy is that such reform must at home, voter by individual voter. This is the prospect that makes the good old days look better than they were. (July 2003)

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