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The Puzzle of Liberal Democracy

PRINCETON – Nearly two decades ago, the political commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote a prophetic article called “The Rise of the Illiberal Democracy,” in which he worried about the rise of popular autocrats with little regard for the rule of law and civil liberties. Governments may be elected in free and fair elections, he wrote, and yet routinely violate their citizens’ basic rights.

Since Zakaria’s piece, illiberal democracies have become more the norm than the exception. By Freedom House’s count, more than 60% of the world’s countries are electoral democracies – regimes in which political parties compete and come to power in regularly scheduled elections – up from around 40% in the late 1980s. But the majority of these democracies fail to provide equal protection under the law.

Typically, it is minority groups (ethnic, religious, linguistic, or regional) that bear the brunt of illiberal policies and practices. But government opponents of all stripes run the risk of censorship, persecution, or wrongful imprisonment.

Liberal democracy rests on three distinct sets of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. The first set of rights protects owners and investors from expropriation. The second ensures that groups that win electoral contests can assume power and choose policies to their liking – provided these policies do not violate the other two sets of rights. Finally, civil rights guarantee equal treatment before the law and equal access to public services such as education.