Democracy or Freedom?

Sometimes it can seem as if Americans have a special gift for naïveté – something to do with living in a huge country bordered by oceans, thus distant from the rest of the world, and also to do with our dreams of exceptionalism and being the City on a Hill, and maybe also to do with vague notions that people who live right in the place where Levis and Hollywood movies and Big Macs actually come from have no need to do a lot of heavy lifting-type thought, that that kind of thing is for those poor deprived people in other countries who have to import their Jurassic Park and Kentucky Fried Chicken from us. Whatever the reason, we’re not awfully good at noticing the blindingly obvious.

One bit of common knowledge that always seems to come as a big shock, not to say an appalling violation of taboo, is the notion that democracy could be good and valuable in many ways, could be the best available possibility, and still have some aspects that are troublesome, still not be compatible with all other possible goods. Americans ought to know this if anyone does, given our history, the longevity of our democracy, our oddly mixed role as beacon and bad example, and a little book some French (Liberty?) guy wrote by the name of Democracy in America that took a good hard look at the subject. That little book inspired another, equally influential little book by John Stuart Mill, called On Liberty. And yet it still comes as a great surprise when anyone tells us that there could be tensions between democracy and other goods, particulary if the other good is our beloved freedom.

Fareed Zakaria is the latest to point this out in his new book The Future of Freedom, which is reviewed by Niall Ferguson in the New York Times. Zakaria was interviewed on Fresh Air a few days ago. I was particularly interested in what he said about his dismay at seeing India turn farther and farther away from its proud founding heritage of secularism over the last twenty five years. That’s another thing Americans don’t like to notice: that religion can be highly coercive. Democratic, yes indeed, but not necessarily anything to do with freedom.

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