More democracy isn't always a good thing

Democracy may be a necessary condition for human rights... but it is not necessarily a sufficient condition.

Summary - What if an election is free and fair but results in victory for a racist or religious zealot bent on restricting human rights? That question is posed in a recent thought-provoking study of freedom by Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. Zakaria questions the assumption, prevalent in the past century, that democracy alone is sufficient to bring about a well-functioning society. Freedom and democracy, he argues, are not synonymous; without constitutional liberalism, societies run the risk of ending up like Hitler’s Germany or Putin’s Russia. They become, in other words, ‘illiberal democracies’. Thus in Africa, despite the fact that 42 out of 48 countries have held multi-party elections since 1990, only a handful are free societies that observe the rule of law. The same phenomenon can be observed to varying degrees in South America and Central Asia. Many illiberal democracies quickly turn into dictatorships in which civil and economic liberties gradually disappear. What African countries need more urgently than free elections, Zakaria believes, is good governance and the protection of basic human rights, and the best way for them to increase their chances of becoming well-governed free societies is to strengthen their economies. This is because, as economies grow, the business sector and the middle classes gain power independently of the state and provide a counterbalance to it. However, money alone cannot create a free society – wealth has to be earned by the people. Societies that are rich in natural endowments, such as the Gulf states, are among the least democratic because they tend to import skills rather than developing the skills of their own people and allowing the growth of an entrepreneurial class and civil society. Zakaria believes that populist tendencies are jeopardising the delicate balance between freedom and democracy in the USA. As opinion polls and referendums have become the key measures of political legitimacy, traditional authority has been undermined and public representatives have abdicated their responsibility to make difficult decisions. The most extreme example of this is California, where the political system is now approaching anarchy. Thus to function effectively, South Africa must strive for balance between democracy and freedom by constraining the will of the majority and delegating some authority to non-elected bodies (inter alia the reserve bank and the judiciary) that are insulated from the influence of lobbyists and public opinion. Ultimate power will still rest with the people, but our democracy will function more effectively and our freedom will be enhanced.

If a country cannot have both, is it better to have a democratic system of governance or a constitution that protects the rights of individuals against the power of the majority? What if an election is free and fair, but those elected are racial or religious zealots intent on imposing their will on the rest of the population? These are key questions posed by Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria in a new and thought-provoking study of freedom at the dawn of the 21st century1.

During the 1900s, the spread of democracy was the most important trend worldwide. And for many people today, democracy - as the expression of 'the will of the people' - is regarded as the be-all and end-all of political legitimacy. If a political system doesn't function effectively, the cause is assumed to be too little rather than too much 'democracy'.

Yet freedom and democracy, the author argues, are not one and the same thing. Electoral democracy on its own is not sufficient to bring about a well-functioning society. The sine qua non is constitutional liberalism - a system characterized not only by free elections but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and protection of the basic rights of free speech, property and religion. Without such a system, a country runs the risk of ending up one day like Putin's Russia or Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Democracy and liberty have not always gone hand in hand, even in the West. Hitler, after all, became chancellor of Germany via the ballot box. In Venezuela four years ago, Hugo Chavez won 71 per cent support for a new constitution that gave him unfettered powers. Not long afterwards, public disenchantment with his thuggish rule gave rise to an attempted coup. In Africa, since 1990, 42 out of 48 countries have held multi-party elections yet no more than a handful observe the basic tenets of liberal constitutionalism. Around the globe, democracy may be flourishing, but freedom is not.

'Illiberal democracy', to use Zakaria's arresting phrase, runs along a spectrum - from the semi-autocracies of South America to the near-tyrannies of Kazahkstan and Zimbabwe. While elections may reflect popular participation in politics and support for those elected, they often lead to societies which are not really free. Russia is the prime example of an illiberal democracy: its elections are freer than most, but the country has an ineffective constitution, no party system to speak of and is ruled by presidential fiat.

Many illiberal democracies quickly turn into dictatorships: in Central Asia and in Africa, for example, elections are often no more than legitimised power grabs, after which the executive becomes more powerful, the legislature and judiciary grow weaker and civil and economic liberties gradually disappear. What the African continent needs more urgently than free elections, in the author's view, is good governance and the protection of basic human rights. Let the architects of Nepad take note.

What can any democratising country do, Zakaria asks rhetorically, to increase its chances of becoming a liberal democracy? Strengthen its economy, is the short answer. As countries grow economically, key sectors of society - private business, the middle classes - gain power independently of the state. In East Asia recently, as in Europe of old, economic liberalization produced a middle class and civil society and, in time, liberal democracy of a sort in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.

As Seymour Martin Lipsett pointed out way back in 1959, the more well-to-do a nation, the better its chances of transforming itself into a democracy. Statistics show that as a rule of thumb better-off countries with a GDP per capita of between US $3 000-6 000 a year are able to make the transition successfully - India being a notable exception to the rule. In Africa, only Mauritius, Botswana and South Africa fall into this economic bracket.

Yet natural resources and money alone cannot produce a free society: wealth has to be earned by the people. Some of the richest countries in the Gulf, for instance, are among the least democratic. A Harvard survey of 97 developing countries between 1971 and 1989 found that the richer a country in natural endowments - oil, gas, minerals - the slower its economic growth. Those with huge oil deposits like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria grew far more slowly than East Asian countries with almost no resources at all. Unearned riches are less of a blessing than a curse because they impede the development of modern political institutions, laws and respect for human rights. Countries rich in natural resources tend to import knowledge and buy into modernity rather than grow the skills of their own people and allow an entrepreneurial class and civil society to develop independently of the state.

Although Zakaria focuses much attention on the Islamic countries of the Middle East - with diversions into Russia, his native India and China - he devotes a large part of his book to the shortcomings of democracy in the USA. While most Americans believe their version of 'democracy' to be a model for the rest of the world, the author begs to differ. American democracy has only worked well, in his view, because of the constraints on it, such as the bill of the rights in the constitution that protects minorities against the will of the majority and the delegation of key powers to non-elected bodies, notably the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve. Where America is currently failing, he argues, is in not preserving the delicate balance between democracy and freedom. By embracing a simple-minded populism - dictated by opinion polls - as the key measure of legitimacy, America is allowing key institutions such as Congress to be devalued, traditional authority to be undermined and special interest groups to become dominant. Public representatives in the US, elected to exercise judgment on tough issues, are abdicating their responsibilities by allowing the 'the will of the people' to prevail.

Nowhere is this more evident than in formerly prosperous and well-run California. Once the envy of the nation for the health of its economy and the excellence of its public education system, California has become an administrative and economic shambles. Its extreme form of free-wheeling democracy - made worse by a series of referendums and propositions that have taken 85 per cent of the state's budget out of the governor's and legislature's control and put it in the hands of the people - has resulted in a political system that is 'as close to anarchy as any civilized society has seen'.

The lessons of this important book for a society such as ours are that a balance has to be struck between democracy and freedom - that too much of either can be as harmful as too little. If a country is to function effectively, some authority has to be delegated to non-elected bodies - the Central Bank, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary - which are insulated from the influence of politicians, interest groups, lobbyists and popular opinion. The need for constraint is even greater in developing countries than in more mature democracies because the stakes are often higher. If new governments do not demonstrate disciplined commitment and capitulate to populist demands, international markets rapidly lose faith.

Constraints on the will of the majority and the delegation of powers to non-elected experts are not incompatible with democracy because ultimate power still rests with the people, through their elected representatives and the oversight of Parliament. Delegation exists in many other sectors of society - business, medicine, law, the armed forces - and it should apply in politics as well. It is a means of making democracy function more effectively and thereby enhancing the freedom of all.

1 The Future of Freedom - Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad; Fareed Zakaria; WW Norton & Company; $24,95.