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.