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What if the majority freely votes for tyranny?

Limits on the reach of democratic rule are essential to maintain liberty

Every student knows that ancient Athens was the alpha and omega of classical democracy. All laws were passed by popular vote.

More to the point, the majority held absolute power over citizens individually, an authority exercised to the fullest when the assembly, that most hallowed body, decided to teach Socrates a lesson about opening his mouth too often by serving him a cup of hemlock.

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"Democracy has its dark sides," argues Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria in "The Future of Freedom." He makes his case unexpectedly compelling by examining political debacles from the fate of the French Revolution to the state of special-interest legislation in America today.

Claiming that "there can be such a thing as too much democracy," Zakaria courageously, if ultimately unconvincingly, challenges our tendency to place so much faith in the vox populi. He questions the wisdom of favoring the rule of the majority rather than the protection of liberty in domestic and foreign policy.

Zakaria does not trace our heritage to ancient Athens but rather, provocatively, places the beginnings of our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in 4th century Constantinople. By moving the capital of his empire from Rome to Byzantium, Constantine quite literally separated church from state, depriving either of absolute influence over the populace. Each could provide a check on the other, as happened a mere 50 years later when the Bishop of Milan punished the Emperor Theodosius for a particularly nasty act of genocide by refusing him Holy Communion.

While that hardly marked the end of politically motivated mass murder by either church or state, the escalating struggle between clergy and royalty made initial wiggle room for human rights. Moreover, neither power, besieged by the other, could ever again expect complete stability. Further fragmentation of authority - as the Roman Empire disintegrated into regional monarchies and Catholicism suffered the Protestant Reformation - brought greater liberty in the form of bargaining power for nobles and landed gentry. In England, kings were contractually restrained by Magna Carta. Government became a negotiation: rule by collaboration.

Zakaria takes this detour through world history to show that "liberty led to democracy and not the other way around." That point is important, for it allows Americans to prioritize the reforms they should encourage in their foreign policy if they're effectively to guide other nations toward liberal democracy.

Traditionally, American foreign policy has emphasized elections over constitutions, resulting in governments that are a sad parody of the United States. In the case of Russia under democratically elected Boris Yeltsin, for instance, unruly governors were summarily fired, and the chief justice was deprived of his pay for striking down a presidential decree. Certainly, there were threats to the autonomy of President Yeltsin's fledgling government: He once famously climbed atop a tank advancing on the parliament building. Yet you don't get a free country by electing a despot.

For that reason, Zakaria favors the course taken by countries such as Singapore and even China. "On a wide range of issues, from law and order to attitudes regarding Taiwan, Japan and the United States," he writes, "the Beijing regime is less populist, nationalist, aggressive, and intolerant than its people." In the fight for liberal democracy, Zakaria maintains, the populace is its own worst enemy.

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There is something distinctly patronizing in this, although scarcely more so than the tone taken by the framers of the United States Constitution, whose distrust of crowds verged on paranoia. The contrast between their intentions and the function of American government in the present day forms the second part of "The Future of Freedom," bringing home the strengths and weaknesses of Zakaria's case.

(The third part of the book, devoted to the decline and fall of Western culture, possesses all of its weaknesses and none of its strengths, merely reminding readers how ill-equipped policy wonks are to deal with the arts.)

The genius of the United States Constitution rests not on the simple matter of granting ordinary citizens voting power, Zakaria points out, but rather on the far more difficult issue of preventing a tyranny of the majority.

The latter has been achieved, according to the author, by placing limitations on democracy. Institutions from the Electoral College to the judiciary - which are, by his reckoning, "distinctly undemocratic" - have produced the miracle of a government that is both just and functional. That precarious balance is undermined in the rush for more democracy: the rise of the voter referendums and the enslavement of legislators to public-opinion polls.

Zakaria is right about the threat such mechanisms pose to good government, but wrong to assume that their alternative, the United States of the framers, was undemocratic. On the contrary, the Constitution - unlike either the Beijing government or Boris Yeltsin - always ultimately respects majority will, but, by playing one whim against another folly, ensures first that our true wishes are perfectly explicit. This is crucial, for were democracy not the prime mover, no degree of parliamentary sophistication would give the document legitimacy.

While Zakaria provides an intelligent study on the compromises necessary to reach liberal democracy, and on the perils of maintaining it, he misses the deepest insight that the framers of the Constitution have to offer: There is no liberty without democracy, for democracy is the essential heart of a free people.

Jonathon Keats serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in San Francisco.