Too Much Democracy
In his book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria offers two themes: 1) rich countries should advocate good governance rather than fair elections in poor countries, and, 2) too much democracy (transparency and public access) is counterproductive to the body politic. My surprise was to find a book with broad scope in which liberals and conservatives would agree with the main themes.
In Western countries, what Fareed Zakaria calls
constitutional liberalism – free press, separation of powers, an independent
judiciary, property rights, contract enforcement,
and protection for religion and assembly.
Without rule by law, you wind up with rule by the strong. In
Good governance is usually hard
to establish in resource rich countries.
In countries with few natural resources, the state has to make the
society rich for itself to become rich.
In oil rich countries like
His more controversial theme is
that too much democracy is dysfunctional.
His chief examples are in the
The legislatures and the Congress
are hamstrung by ballot initiatives, interest groups, polls, lobbyists and
deficient party cohesion. Due to ballot
Since the 1960s, American politics as become
more transparent and more accessible. Presidentail primaries are numerous and
the influence from traditional party bosses is negligible. There are few, if any, closed committee
meetings in the state legislatures now.
The effect is that organized interests (called special interests when
they do not advocate your views) now run
In the old days, tightly controlled party hierarchies gathered consensus on candidates and platforms (in popular stories, they made these decisions in smoke filled rooms). Legislatures worked in a hierarchical and closed manner. Internal committee votes and discussion were not public knowledge.
American politics has become hyper-sensitive and poll driven. Rules allow congressmen to introduce new legislation and amendments, no longer restricting this work to committee members. At one time, 20 or so powerful people ran Congress. Nowadays, 535 independent operators represent special interests more than the general public. With the 1970s reforms, there are more open meetings and recorded votes. Since few Americans have the energy or interest in following congressional activity, lobbyists and activists can use information and access to get attention for their pet projects which are certainly legitimate.
The result is that the President and Congress are virtually powerless to reduce spending. President Ronald Reagan was successful at eliminating four programs. President Bush the Elder proposed elimination 246 small programs that would have cut $3.5 billion or 0.25% of federal spending. When Congress finished, they eliminated four programs and $58 million (million with an “m”). President Clinton‘s 1994 budget eliminated 47 small programs which totaled 0.01% of the federal budget.
Conservatives and liberals both want to cut spending. As a liberal, for example, I see no need for 737 military bases in foreign lands nor a bloated defense budget when there is no major enemy around. Conservatives are more enthusiastic about budget cutting but like the liberals are unsuccessful at reducing anything. The younger President Bush spent more in his first two years as President Clinton did in his first five years. Congress has lost control.
Interest groups do not cancel each other out. Favors for one group serve as precedents for everyone else. Otherwise, there is an appearance of discrimination.
Political parties no longer vet
candidates nor build platforms. Their only
purpose is fund raising. Fareed Zakaria
says, “The old party was rooted in neighborhoods, local government and
broad-based organizations such as unions and business associations. The new
party is dominated by
A dysfunctional political system
has produced today’s income code. When the
To make the system fair and
simple again, Fareed Zakaria proposes an independent tax authority with broad
congressional directions and guidelines.
The tax authority would write the legislation with an approval or
disapproval by Congress with no amendments.
There are precedents in other countries and the
The biggest surprise in the book
was attributing the Catholic Church as the first source of liberty in western
culture. Considering the Inquisition and
heresy prosecution, the last sentence may first look like a misprint. The church took over the
Liberals like me and
conservatives will disagree with some issues in this book. They will agree on the broad themes and find
some ideas for democracy’s reform in the
Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad,
W.W. Norton & Company,
Ed O’Rourke is a certified public
accountant, who spent most of his life in or near