The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

Enter the elected autocrat
A. J. Philip

The Future of Freedom
by Fareed Zakaria, Penguin Viking, New Delhi.
Pages 287 Rs. 395

The Future of FreedomSOME see in Fareed Zakaria a future US Secretary of State. Son of Rafiq Zakaria and Fatima Zakaria, this thirty-something editor of Newsweek International has already earned a niche for himself in US intellectual circles. His series of articles before, during and after the Iraq war, conformed, by and large, to the thinking in the Bush administration but they were nuanced enough not to lose sight of the pitfalls of the war. While he argued for Saddam’s removal, he did not overlook the slogans on the Arab street. It is this combination of realism and idealism that makes his writing compulsive reading.

It is marvellous that he is able to juggle so many things and yet make a mark in each of them. His book is an eloquent testimony of his original thinking and scholastic argumentation. Small wonder that Clash of Civilizations-fame Samuel P. Huntington says: "With elegance and insight, Fareed Zakaria sets forth for our times, a fundamental truth previously articulated by Aristotle and Toqueville: unregulated democracy undermines liberty and the rule of law".

Zakaria’s central argument is that while more and more countries can today be loosely described as democratic, many of them are what he calls illiberal democracies. Take the case of Pakistan. It has an elected President and all the trappings of a democracy: a vibrant Press, a legislature and courts.


But the Commonwealth is still not prepared to admit Pakistan back to its fold because it does not consider Pakistan democratic enough to be its member. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin in his heyday ruled more by decrees than by democratic consultation, though his defiance in the face of the battle tanks at Kremlin symbolised the downfall of Communism.

That raises the question, are all states ready for democracy? Or, to paraphrase David Landes, why are some countries democratic and some others not? It is difficult to give a definitive answer that applies equally to Chad and China and India and Indonesia. This precisely is the task that Zakaria takes upon himself in this truly edifying book. He comes to the conclusion that democracy can flourish only in those countries where liberty flourished. Liberty is a prerequisite of democracy. This explains why western Europe is more democratic than eastern Europe and India is more democratic than Nepal.

Unlike many writers on the subject, Zakaria credits the rise of the Christian Church as the most important source of liberty in the West – and hence the world. He sees the shifting of capital from Rome to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine in AD 324 as a defining moment in history for it represented the separation of religion from the state. Constantine, Zakaria avers, had left behind only one person in Rome – the Pope. But he overlooks another influence that had a greater impact on the course of events.

The rule of law, which is central to liberty, began as a concept with Moses when he put the stone tablets containing law — the Ten Commandments — in the Ark of the Covenant. In India, this concept was institutionalised under T.B. Macaulay’s, now hated leadership, in the 1830s, as Nani Palkhivala once argued. The eminent jurist even paraphrased John 1:1 to say, "In the beginning was the Constitution, the Constitution was with God, and the Constitution was God". If the law is only what the rulers say it is, Mrs Gandhi’s arbitrary, inhumane decrees would have been the law of the land and we would have lost the right to protest against them.

However, secular humanists have deceived many Indians into believing that the concept of the Rule of Law originated in the materialistic philosophy of the Enlightenment. They even attribute the growth of democracy to the same philosophy. Zakaria, too, falls into the same trap. Democracy was tried and rejected in pre-Christian Greek city-states. Plato called it the worst of all political systems.

How then did democracy resurrect itself in the last millennium? The development of the ideas of human dignity, of the necessity of the rule of law and justice, combined with the development of the languages of the people and mass education, made it possible to develop the government of the people, by the people, for the people that operates in the language of the people.

As the languages of the people become the languages of learning, of the courts, science and technology, a "market economy" which thrives on individual initiative becomes possible, thus ushering in the modern world of unprecedented economic growth in a limited government: one limited by law, guaranteeing the individual’s property, rights and freedoms.

The Biblical idea of the sovereignty of God over the whole of life abolished the idea of the sovereignty of man in the state, church or society. At the same time, the idea of the sinfulness of all human beings demolished the idea of the infallibility of the Pope and the divinity of the emperors. The doctrine of human sinfulness also necessitated the institutionalisation of checks and balances. John Calvin, who founded Geneva as the first modern republic, wrote in his Institutes, the depravity of every heart makes it imperative that power be vested in many hands, so that many may check the tendency of the one to abuse it.

However, this does not detract from the merit of the book. Zakaria argues powerfully with telling illustrations that what we need in politics today is not more democracy but less. More and more democracies, including India and the US, are becoming more and more illiberal. History bears proof of democracy becoming a tool in the hands of fascists. The danger of the phenomenon repeating itself is too real to be scoffed at. He also points at another danger — western-style democracy in many Arab countries would result in more illiberal regimes. The Emir of Kuwait proposed giving women the vote. But the democratically elected Kuwaiti parliament – filled with Islamists – roundly rejected the initiative. For all its faults, democracy remains the only acceptable system. It can be strengthened only by strengthening the institutions that protect individual liberty. No doubt, Zakaria’s is a thought-provoking book.