The Financial Times

Edward Mortimer: Is democracy enough?


It was the year when the east Asian economies collapsed, and Isaiah Berlin died.

Can there possibly be a connection? Well, not a causal one perhaps. But events in east Asia may call for yet another rethink of one of Sir Isaiah's great themes, the relationship between positive and negative freedom, or between democracy and liberalism.

Positive freedom means being entitled to take part in government, that is, democracy. Negative freedom means a guaranteed sphere of personal independence - what we think of as classical liberalism.

In recent times the two ideas have often been conflated. The fall of communism was assumed to mean the triumph of "liberal democracy". But the terms are far from inseparable as the current issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs reminds us, entitling its lead article "The rise of illiberal democracy".

The author, Fareed Zakaria, argues that democracy is flourishing worldwide in the sense that more governments than ever before are chosen by the people whom they govern. But, he says, this expansion of democracy has not been accompanied by a corresponding spread of "constitutional liberalism". By this he means the use of law to "protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source - state, church or society".

In many parts of the world, elected governments enjoying genuinely popular support show little respect for the law or for individual freedom. Mr Zakaria cites Russia, Argentina, Iran and Ethiopia as countries where elected governments have restricted freedom and violated human rights. And, he claims, things are getting worse. "To date, few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies; if anything, they are moving toward heightened illiberalism."

This, he suggests, is because things have been done in the wrong order. Western liberal democracies were liberal first, democratic only later. And this is where east Asia comes in. Its recent history, according to Mr Zakaria, "follows the western itinerary". "Most of the regimes in east Asia remain only semi-democratic, with patriarchs or one-party systems that make their elections ratifications of power rather than genuine contests. But these regimes have accorded their citizens a widening sphere of economic, civil, religious, and limited political rights."

In other words, liberalism today and democracy tomorrow - if you are very good. Such is the message of the nanny states of east Asia to their peoples.

Mr Zakaria does not allude to east Asia's economic travails, which were perhaps only beginning when he wrote his article. Have they invalidated his thesis? Some westerners think so, to judge by recent contributions on this page.

On December 9 Dominique Moïsi tried to claim Asia's troubles as a back-handed vindication of the European social model, arguing that "Asia is paying the price, in economic terms, of non-democratic and too-often corrupt practices". And yesterday Gerald Segal attributed Asia's crisis to the lack of "robust, pluralist political systems with entrenched democratic institutions". His prescription is - surprise, surprise - "more liberal democracy", though whether he means more democracy or a more liberal version of democracy is not clear.

These arguments smack uncomfortably of Schadenfreude. We are all fed up with having the east Asian tigers held up as an example to us. So it is hard to stifle a schoolboy snigger when they slip up. But sniggers are out of place. The Asian economies will almost certainly recover, since the underlying reasons for their dynamism are still valid. If they do not, it is bad news for the world as a whole, including the west. In any case, the fact that they have problems, too, does not make our own difficulties any easier.

Mr Segal may well be right in prescribing more democracy. But that would not in itself invalidate Mr Zakaria's thesis. It could simply mean that some east Asian countries have now got to the point on the liberal path where democracy becomes both possible and necessary: possible, because liberal institutions are now too well entrenched for democracy to do them much damage; necessary, because in the end it is hard to refuse people a say in government once you have deprived yourself of the option of locking them up or interfering with their freedom of speech.

But how many east Asian governments really have deprived themselves of that option? The real weakness in Mr Zakaria's argument is that his examples of liberal authoritarianism are mostly not all that liberal. (One or two of them, such as Tunisia, are not liberal at all.) And for that matter, his illiberal democracies are not all irredeemably illiberal either. Are individuals in Argentina less free than in Indonesia? Surely not. Even Iran, under Mohammed Khatami, now shows signs of becoming liberal as well as democratic.

The fact is, democracies cannot remain illiberal for very long without ceasing to be democratic. Unless people's negative freedoms are secured, elections will not be free and therefore people will not be free in the positive sense either. You soon get back to the totalitarian formula of governments that claim to be popular because they win 99 per cent of the votes.

Democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. But it is difficult to have one without the other for very long.