LIBERTY AND DEMOCRACY
John Judis has an excellent review of a new book by Fareed Zakaria which argues that the US should be more concerned with instilling liberty in the developing world rather than focusing on electoral democracy:
He defines the former as the protection of individual rights of speech, property, and religion through a system of law not subject to arbitrary government manipulation. This phenomenon developed gradually over time, he argues. Imperial Rome had a system of law, but not constitutional liberty. England gained rudimentary constitutional liberties after the Magna Carta in 1215, and the United States was founded as a system of constitutional liberty in 1788.
Zakaria defines democracy, in contrast, as a political system based on “open, free, and fair elections.” In 1830, the United Kingdom had constitutional liberty but was not a democracy: only two percent of the population was eligible to vote. The United States became a full-fledged liberal democracy after women won the vote in 1920 and blacks were guaranteed access to the polls in 1965, and now most of Europe consists of liberal democracies also. Singapore today has liberty, but not democracy. Russia, on the other hand, has elections, but under Vladimir Putin it is tossing out some of the constitutional liberties it acquired after the fall of communism.
Zakaria argues that the best way to turn developing countries into liberal democracies is by fostering constitutional liberty rather than democracy. If electoral democracy is established in a society before it has achieved constitutional liberty, it is likely to either end up as an “illiberal democracy” (like Russia) or degenerate into fascism or populist authoritarianism (as Germany and Italy did between the world wars). He speculates that if elections were held now in many Middle Eastern or North African countries, they would be won by fundamentalist parties that would proceed to destroy whatever modicum of liberty exists and probably eliminate future elections as well.
This distinction is well worth noting. The United States had a strong sense of inalienable rights long before we were truly democratic, as did England. Free societies virtually always develop into democracies; the reverse is far less certain.
Update (1818): Thomas Friedman says essentially the same thing.