It’s Not Democracy You Want…It’s Liberalism

by Nathan Shapiro

In the United States there is a near universal belief that democracy is the optimal form of government.  Among a population often disgruntled with government, people cling to the word “democracy” as a source of liberty, freedom, and prosperity.  In truth democracy does nothing to secure liberty, freedom or prosperity.

Democracy describes the process by which the government is chosen, not the way the government is run.  The American diplomat Richard Holbrook understood this well.  Speaking about Bosnia he said “Suppose the election was declared free and fair,” he would go on to ask the question [what if those elected were] “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma.”

We live in an era where democracy is trendy and democratization is rampant.  Yet liberty, freedom, and prosperity are all too rare.  Take the case of India, a country home to millions of slaves.  While slavery is technically illegal in India, local elected government officials routinely protect the institution of slavery.  Yet India is constantly praised for being “the world’s largest democracy.”  It is true.  India is a democracy.  All it takes to be a democracy is for a country to hold elections.  What India is not, is a liberal democracy.

The scenario Holbrook imagined was an autocratic democracy.  This concept is unimaginable to most Americans because what we think of as democracy is American democracy, which is liberal democracy.  In the classical sense of the term, the United States has a rich liberal tradition that continues to this day.  I would argue that having a liberal government is more important than having a democratic government.  The word “liberal” comes from the old French word liberté, which referred to man’s freedom.

Dictatorships are by definition thought of as illiberal, but this should not be the case.  It is possible for a liberal dictatorship, or a liberal autocracy to exist.  Imagine for a moment that the universally beloved Fred Rogers, better known as Mister Rogers, somehow became the absolute dictator of a country.  There would be no elections but the country would be one big happy “neighborhood” because the ruler truly loved all his people and wanted what was best for them.  Mister Rogers would not deny anybody his or her freedom; the only thing they would lack was the right to vote.

Fareed Zakaria has used Hong Kong as a real-life example of a liberal autocracy.  The people of Hong Kong thrived under British rule, and enjoyed economic and civil liberties.  However, the people of Hong Kong were ruled by the British half a world away.

I am not advocating liberal autocracy in the United States or anywhere in the world.  It is best for the people to have a say in how their government is run.  Yet democracy is just part of the equation.  As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, historically liberalism leads to democracy, not the other way around.  Hence, our focuses should not be on the democratization of the world, rather the liberalization of the world.  When liberalism is achieved, democracy will follow.

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