Madeleine Albright’s Confusion

Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright writes in Parade magazine that 20 years after the Berlin Wall, “We Must Keep Freedom Alive.” A commendable sentiment, but the article is a bit confused, notably in that it seems to use “freedom” and “democracy” interchangeably. But as Fareed Zakaria and Tom Palmer, among others, have demonstrated, they’re not the same thing. Freedom is the right and ability of individuals to make the important decisions about their lives. Democracy – especially constitutional democracy, with separation of powers, the rule of law, and constraints on government – can be the most effective way to protect liberty. But democracy isn’t liberty, and we shouldn’t confuse the relationship.

Albright writes:

democracy is a prerequisite to economic growth.

That seems clearly, spectacularly wrong. Consider some historical cases of great economic growth: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan grew rapidly in recent decades without being democracies. (And I would say that that growth led to Taiwan’s becoming a democracy.) Beyond that, look at the United States and Great Britain during the unprecedented growth of the 19th century; neither was a democracy by modern standards. And of course China has been experiencing rapid growth in the past 30 years without democracy.

But look at Albright’s complete sentence:

In fact, democracy is a prerequisite to economic growth, which only flourishes when minds are encouraged to produce, invent, and explore.

That is a much stronger hypothesis. Indeed economic growth flourishes “when minds are encouraged to produce, invent, and explore.” And the condition in which that happens is actually called freedom, not democracy. So perhaps the problem is just that Albright is using the terms “freedom” and “democracy” loosely. And if by democracy she means the modern Western conception of a system of individual rights, private property, and market exchange protected by a limited constitutional government featuring divided powers, an independent judiciary, and free and independent media, then it would be true that that kind of “democracy” is a solid foundation for economic growth – though not a prerequisite, as the examples above demonstrate.

The relationships between the rule of law, popular participation in government, constraints on government, protection of property, the market economy, and economic growth deserve serious study, and that study should start with conceptual clarity.