The Corner

Re: Liberalism or Democracy

Andrew – I don’t really see anything wrong with Yglesias’ post. But I also don’t see how it contradicts me in any significant way. The “What if?” here is intact. The West has not invested a lot of effort in talking about liberalism as anything other than an ancillary benefit of “democracy.” I think that’s a shame. I conceded that it is likely the case that — Singapore notwithstanding — democracy is probably essential to keeping liberal regimes liberal in the long run, for without it there is no accountability.

But just because we don’t make arguments for liberalism distinct from democracy doesn’t mean those arguments cannot be made. Such was the case in the 19th century, as Yglesias notes. What was it they used to say, “Britain used to be a free country, now it’s a democracy.” My guess is that countries would modernize better and faster if they became liberal first and democratic second, rather than the other way around. Samuel Huntington has argued that one of the things that has allowed India to modernize is that large fractions of its public are illiterate, and therefore incapable of pleading for their interests effectively. As a result, elites have been able to wean themselves of socialist nonsense they otherwise would not be able to if the illiterate masses were better able to organize into populist movements. In Turkey, the military has historically been the great champion of liberalism and secularism in part because it has kept democratic and Islamist forces at bay.

Zakaria is in no way opposed to democracy per se, his point is that when democracy comes first, liberalism is often postponed or short-circuited. Amy Chua makes a very similar point. And there are now piles of data showing that democracies become stable when incomes get past a certain point. I’m sure you agree that liberalism, not democracy, is the faster route to prosperity. All I would like to see is a bit more effective diplomacy and rhetoric aimed at what is ultimately more important and valuable: liberty, rightly understood.

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