Book Review

by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
When you try to understand the state of the world, it can feel a bit like looking at individual puzzle pieces. Read The Future of Freedom (W.W. Norton) and you'll be able to finally put them all together. You might have seen its author, Fareed Zakaria, on the endless hours of punditry surrounding the recent war in Iraq. He was the Indian guy who, refreshingly, didn't have an ax to grind -- he was also the guy nobody could shout down because he's just on a completely different intellectual level than what passes for analysis these days.

Zakaria's unstated premise seems to be that freedom and democracy are good, but if the United States is intent on exporting its own brand of freedom, it had better clean up its act. Along the way, Zakaria challenges all kinds of conventional wisdom -- the World Trade Organization is good; Iran is a better candidate for democracy than Iraq; we should be more worried about Russia than China; 9/11 was not about poverty; dictators are sometimes useful in the transition to a free society; and the United States has too much democracy.

Economics is the key to freedom, he argues, even offering an explanation for Hitler that rests on money, not culture. But it's not always that simple, as in the Middle East today. He argues that special consideration needs to be taken in helping those nations make the transition. "In general, a five-year period of transition, political reform, and institutional development should precede national multiparty elections," Zakaria writes. "In a country with strong regional, ethnic, or religious divisions -- like Iraq -- this is crucial."

But the rest of the book is about the demise of America's political system. Today, he says lobbyists, ballot initiatives, an elite class without responsibility and too much transparency have turned the U.S. into a kind of hyper-democracy, in which the founders' fears of the tyranny of the majority are fast becoming the norm. As a vision of where America could be headed, he singles out California, where, as in Washington state, initiatives have wreaked havoc. "Having thoroughly emasculated their elected leaders, Californians are shocked that they do so little about the state's problems," Zakaria concludes, adding later that "the American people believe that they have no real control over government. What they do not realize is that the politicians have no control, either."

His solution is a return to the nation's roots as expressed in the founders' vision -- a delegation of democracy. "In the founders' views," Zakaria writes, "representative, republican democracy provided the right balance of popular control and deliberative decision-making."

Publication date: 05/15/03