Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy


It is uncommon for a theoretical discussion of democracy to resonate throughout everyday political discussion. The removal of dictatorial regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq created a rare opportunity for political scientists to remind us of the historical thread connecting democratic theory with practice. Despite the devastation and dashed expectations of the Iraq war, in particular, one should now be able to point, at the very least, to a better and more widespread understanding of the democratization process and to exactly what it is that we in the West mean when we declare a political system to be a “democracy,” or a nation to be “democratic.” Regrettably, that particular window of opportunity has almost closed. Especially in book-length form, substantive examinations of either the meaning of democracy or the means by which democratization occurs have been noticeable by their absence. Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad stands out as a welcome exception. It is into this enormous, and enormously controversial, void that John Dunn has courageously stepped. As with most of his previous work, this text is not to be absorbed at lightning speed. Political theory that is both enlightening and well written causes, even requires, the reader to pause frequently to absorb and reflect upon the author’s weightier points. Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy is firmly situated in the best of that scholarly tradition. The depth and breadth of the text, while welcome from the reader’s standpoint, is unsurprising given the author’s pedigree. John Gray has described Dunn as “the most important political theorist currently at work in England.” As Professor of Political Theory at Cambridge University and Fellow of King’s College, John Dunn has had a productive and influential academic career. If Gray has overdone his praise of a peer, he is not far off the mark. The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics and The Political Thought of John Locke are among Dunn’s most important contributions. In Setting the People Free, Dunn tells the astonishing story of democracy. It is the story of a word, the story of an idea, and the story of a range of widely varying practices associated with that idea. His quest is to answer two enormous questions. First, why does democracy loom so large today? Second, why has the state form known as modern representative capitalist democracy won the competitive global struggle for wealth and power? For Dunn, “Democracy has come to be our preferred name for the sole basis on which we accept either our belonging or our dependence. What the term means . . . is that the people hold power and exercise rule. That was what it meant at Athens, where the claim bore some relation to the truth. That is what it means today, when it very much appears a thumping falsehood”(p. 51). Dunn holds to the view popularized by the Austrian émigré economist, Joseph Schumpeter, who CATO JOURNAL

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@inproceedings{Dunn2006SettingTP, title={Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy}, author={John Dunn}, year={2006} }