Monday, April 21, 2003

Zakaria a Tory?

Here in Business Week is a respectful but poor review of Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom. cover

Since you need to subscribe to see the piece and since nobody should pay to see this piece, I will try to summarize quickly. A few words on this review should be useful because it reflects a fundamental and prevalent misunderstanding about liberal democracy that one finds everywhere in the popular press. Many reviews of Zakaria's book will sadly but undoubtedly approach it in the way that this one does.

When he is already two-thirds into his review, Bruce Nussbaum finally mentions Alexis de Tocqueville and proceeds to call Zakaria an "elitist" for his sympathies with Tocqueville's concerns regarding tyranny of the majority. Nussbaum has a difficult time believing that excessive egalitarianism or democracy conflicts with liberty or liberalism so when he finds Zakaria making this argument he simply calls him a name likely to rouse concern in many quarters and one that Tocqueville might say smacks of sociological or democratic abstraction anyway (what is elitism?). Near the end of the review, Nussbaum inexplicably calls Zakaria a "classic Tory" as well for his distrust of pure democracy. "Tory" has the virtue of being much less abstract than "elite;" unfortunately the tag just doesn't fit the phenomenon.

Nussbaum sees unelected institutions such as the electoral college and the Supreme Court handing George W. Bush his electoral victory in 2000 and says that we are caught between too much and too little democracy. But what he really means is that he hates what he views as the injustice of winning the popular vote and not winning the election. Nussbaum forgets how much liberals have used less-than-purely-democratic institutions such as the court to achieve their ends, and he appears to want more democracy to cure the ills of democracy.

"Liberal democracy" is a hybrid construct with one word emphasizing or representing one characteristic of the regime and the other representing another. There doesn't seem to be a way to combine freedom and equality with one word. (Even our enemies dissatisfied with our reverence for property maintain this convention when they call us "bourgeois democracy.") If Nussbaum had begun with that simple observation, that Aristotelian way of inquiring about politics from the way ordinary people speak about it, he would have understood this a little better. A little more investigation after that would have made him reconsider whether the cure for the ills of democracy is simply more democracy (more equality). Zakaria seems to know better.

Finally, one needn't read Tocqueville simply to worry about the tyranny of the majority, for that concern is all over The Federalist as well (though Tocqueville probably achieved more perfection than Publius in describing both democracy and America). Representation and separation of powers, after all, are remedies for tyranny of the majority, according to Publius. "Republicanism" is, therefore, the healthier kind of popular government when compared to "pure democracy" which has ineffective remedies (virtue) for the problem of popular government, tyranny of the majority or "majority faction." "Republicanism" is not "elitism," though it is less purely democratic than participatory democracy, for example.

What is so disappointing about Nussbaum's review is not its disagreement with Zakaria, but the lack of education it reveals, the lack of understanding of what it is questioning. To call Fareed Zakaria a "Tory" because he has the temerity to question whether equality is good for freedom reflects how far away we are from a decent understanding of our principles. If one wants to become depressed, one should collect all the reviews of Zakaria's book and study them to see which ones at least have an understanding of the fundamental arguments supporting liberal democracy. The title of Nussbaum's review is "When Democracy Backfires," but it really should be called "When Education Fails." Although Business Week may not be a serious intellectual journal, the level of this review is disappointing.


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