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Fareed Zakaria: The Future of Freedom

Does less equal more when it comes to safeguarding democracy in the 21st century?

July 6, 2003

Does less equal more when it comes to safeguarding democracy in the 21st century?

The 20th century was marked by two broad trends: the regulation of capitalism and the deregulation of democracy. Both experiments overreached.

They were sensible solutions to the problems of the time — unregulated capitalism and oligarchy. But as Evelyn Waugh pointed out in her comic novel Scoop, every good idea is valid "up to a point."

In the early years of the 20th century, free markets and free trade seemed to be the inevitable way of the future. Countries around the world were trading with one another, opening up their markets — indeed, their entire societies.

Markets were on the march. But it turned out that those years before World War I, hyperinflation and the Great Depression were a watershed for laissez faire.

From then on, whenever a problem developed — economic, social, political — government intervention was the solution. Every crisis brought forth new regulations and every regulation brought forth a new bureaucracy.

Democracy moved in the opposite direction. "The cure for the ailments of democracy," wrote the influential American philosopher John Dewey in 1927, "is more democracy."

He was prescient. Most problems faced by most democracies during the 20th century were addressed by broadening the franchise, eliminating indirect elections, reducing the strength of elite groups and empowering more and more people in more and more ways.

The results were thrilling. In America that meant blacks and women got the right to vote, senators were directly elected, parties chose their candidates on the basis of popular votes — and clubs changed their character and rules.

The political history of the 20th century is the story of ever-greater and more direct political participation. And success kept expanding democracy's scope. Whatever the ailment, more democracy became the cure.

The regulation of capitalism had gone overboard by the 1970s, resulting in heavy tax rates and Byzantine government controls.

Over the last two decades, governments all over the world — from the United States to France to India to Brazil — have been deregulating industries, privatizing companies and lowering tariffs.

As the economic boom of the late 1990s unravels, there will be need for new regulation and a renewed appreciation of the role of government in capitalism.

But few countries are likely to return to the bloated practices of a generation ago. The state has retreated from the commanding heights of the economy.

The deregulation of democracy has also gone too far. It has produced an unwieldy system — unable to govern or command the respect of people.

Although none would dare speak ill of present-day democracy, most people instinctively sense a problem. Public respect for politics and political systems in every advanced democracy is at an all-time low.

More intriguingly, in poll after poll, when Americans are asked what public institutions they most respect, three bodies are always at the top of their list: the Supreme Court, the armed forces — and the Federal Reserve System.

All three have one thing in common: They are insulated from public pressures and operate undemocratically. It would seem that Americans admire these institutions precisely because they lead rather than follow.

By contrast, the U.S. Congress — the most representative and reflective of political institutions — scores at the bottom of most surveys. People view the pandering and the resulting paralysis with dismay, even disgust.

Of course, that does not stop them from celebrating the processes that have made such pandering inevitable.

Do not look for help from democratic theorists. Despite the existence of hundreds of unelected bodies that now help democratic governments make decisions — political philosophers who write about democracy today are mostly radicals in favor of total, unfettered democracy.

Seemingly unaware of the problems that made these institutions necessary — blind to the fact that these bodies are responsive to their elected masters — the theorists are content to join with the street protests against world government.

They sing paeans to the people and urge the ever more direct participation of the people (except in the running of universities, of course, which still run like medieval kingdoms). As a result, philosophy has little connection with reality these days.

Politicians also, by and large, have exacerbated the problem of democratic legitimacy. Happy to hand over complex problems to unelected bodies, they then grandstand by attacking these very institutions.

What we need in politics today is not more democracy — but less.

By this, I do not mean we should embrace strongmen and dictators. Rather, we should ask why certain institutions within our society — such as the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court — function so well, and why others — such as legislatures — function poorly.

Meanwhile, public dissatisfaction with the effects of all these changes will continue to grow.

If these problems build, eventually people will define democracy by what it has become: A system — open and accessible in theory — but ruled in reality by organized or rich or fanatical minorities, protecting themselves for the present and sacrificing the future.

This is a very different vision from that of the enthusiasts of direct democracy, who say that the liberating new world we will live in will harken back to the city-states of ancient Greece.

I leave it to the reader to judge whether Californian politics today resembles Athenian democracy in its prime.

In any event, it is worth remembering that direct democracy was tried only in a few small cities in ancient Greece — where a few thousand men were allowed to vote.

It is also worth remembering that within a hundred years all those democracies collapsed into tyranny or chaos — frequently both.

This would be a tragedy, because democracy — with all its flaws — represents the "last best hope" for people around the world. But it needs to be secured and strengthened for our times.

Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the 20th century with a challenge to make the world safe for democracy. As we enter the 21st century our task is to make democracy safe for the world.

Adapted from “The Future of Freedom” by Fareed Zakaria. Copyright © 2003 by Fareed Zakaria. Used by permission of the author.