Simon & Schuster £18.99 (294pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Freedom for Sale, By John Kampfner

Through the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, a tantalising question started to insinuate itself into international conversations. How valid was the widespread post-Cold War assumption – which underlay George Bush's philosophy, but by no means his alone - that democracy, political freedom and national wealth went hand in hand?

As Russia grew fat on oil and gas revenues, as China's economy registered record growth rates, and as more and more Westerners were drawn to partake of the burgeoning wealth of the modernising Gulf States, that question could no longer be avoided. These countries were growing demonstrably richer and more comfortable, but in terms of democracy, as commonly understood, progress was negligible. In Russia's case, there was even backsliding.

John Kampfner sets out to examine the pact that he discerns in these, and other, countries between the rulers and the ruled: a pact under which, consciously or not, the population trades civic rights and freedoms against rising living standards and political stability. As someone who grew up for some years in Singapore – the state that most starkly represents this trade-off even today – and a past correspondent in Russia, Kampfner is well-equipped to set out the arguments.

His book is well and clearly written. The absence of jargon is especially welcome and makes the ideological debate it presents highly accessible. Yet I had hoped for something more. Kampfner's initial question – how does authoritarianism stack up against democracy - and the implicit question that follows - is it possible that authoritarianism might perform better in some circumstances ? – are of enormous significance for the future of West and East alike. But his approach presents many small pictures, rather than getting to grips with this big one.

The separate chapters, each devoted to a different country, draw on personal reporting, and include some perceptive interpretations. But they are essentially anecdotal. At times he seems to lose the thread of the "pact" in favour of a romp through recent history. In the end what emerges is precisely what anyone with even a passing interest in the subject might expect: the nature of the trade-off differs from country to country, according to culture, tradition, the leader, and other variables.

The big question evaporates into the relativist's fudge. Could it be, he asks, that democracy is a matter of degree, as well as so often being imperfect? So the reader is left wondering, is authoritarianism vs democracy any contest at all? And what might lie ahead?

That said, Kampfner does well not to accept, even implicitly, that democracy is good and autocracy bad. His inclusion of Italy, with its particular flawed democracy, and of the US and UK, with their anti-terrorism measures, supplies useful perspective. Still, I was left with misgivings. The more I read, the more signs there were of late scrambling to accommodate new questions about democracy, the free market and regulation thrown up by the economic meltdown. These complicate his argument more, I think, than he allows.

The title and subtitle exemplify the way Kampfner has fallen between two stools. This book set out to examine the competing merits of democracy and authoritarianism. "Freedom for Sale" might chime well with Kampfner's current position, as chief executive of Index on Censorship. When taken together with the subtitle – "How we made money and lost our liberty" - it sounds, however, like another book about the financial crisis. It also hints that the book is actually about something more transient and less profound than it might have been.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits