Three cheers for “the shackled leviathan”: on Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and University of Chicago political scientist James Robinson’s new book makes important contributions to understanding the nature of states as actors in the modern world. It also lays out a rich trove of case studies taken from almost every corner of the world. While I took a rather negative view of their previous book, Why Nations Fail, and of earlier related papers co-authored with Simon Johnson, I recommend The Narrow Corridor as both a good read and a stimulating contribution to ongoing debates about the role states can play in the achievement of good societies.

Like most market-favoring economists, Acemoglu and Robinson seem to start from a place of a wariness about government. They call it bad names, e.g. leviathan, the name of a Biblical sea monster. That name was, of course, applied to the government of a monarch or sovereign in English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s book of the same name. It was Hobbes who famously wrote that life was “nasty, brutish and short” in a “state of nature,” meaning a world without political order. Hobbes concluded that such a condition is even worse than life under a leviathan, considering the upheavals caused by the English civil war of the 1640s. The unacceptability of the “war of all against all” which constitutes the “state of nature” is what justifies the otherwise intolerable leviathan’s power. But the leviathan isn’t pretty. Acemoglu and Robinson repeatedly declare that it has a “fearsome face.”

In Why Nations Fail and still moreso in their work with Johnson, Acemoglu and Robinson’s dislike of an intrusive state was much more apparent than was any appreciation of what well-functioning states might do for a society’s members. States with tendencies to extract wealth from the people and territory they ruled over were blamed, in those works, for the economic decline of the places that became Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru, whereas the absence of such extractive tendencies was credited with helping to cause the economic ascent of the places that became Canada, the United States and Australia. The bad that states can do was proxied, in the 2001 paper by Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, by high rates of expropriation of private companies, resources, and wealth (“risk of expropriation”); and in that trio’s roughly contemporaneous and equally well known 2002 paper, the expropriation risk indicator shared this spotlight with an indicator of absence of “constraints on executive power.” One might be forgiven for mistaking the approach to institutions of those early 2000s studies as a more-or-less conventional enshrinement of economic freedoms and strong private property rights at the pinnacle of veneration, implying that the less the government makes its presence felt, the better.

But that is clearly not the argument of The Narrow Corridor. In fact, the new book’s conception of the ideal government is difficult to distinguish from the views of progressive economists like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs. Like the latter, Acemoglu and Robinson now appear to agree that under modern conditions, there are a plethora of things government can do to raise the potential for human flourishing far more efficiently than can individuals acting on their own, and that no consortium of private companies can be counted on to do the job, since they would be stymied by beneficiaries’ abilities to escape paying their fair share. Think of the construction of road and rail networks, the maintenance of ports and airports, the assurance of protection in domains like air traffic, food, drinking water and pharmaceuticals safety, or the provision of quality public schooling once aspired to in the United States and today more closely approached in those high income countries less allergic to a well-funded public sector. A “that government governs best that governs least” outlook is clearly incompatible with Acemoglu and Robinson’s ranking of Sweden and Denmark among the countries with both highest quality of life, most widespread economic well-being, and best functioning governmental institutions in the world today, nor with their general approval of the direction in which FDR was taking the U.S. of the 1930s, and of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man. And while giving a respectful hearing to the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek’s warnings about a welfare state “road to serfdom,” they are ultimately on board with the importance of promoting mutual trust between society and government, as in the OECD’s “Trustlab” project on which I’ve written elsewhere.

An interesting passage, in this respect, is the authors’ discussion of the Beveridge commission report, published in 1942, which laid the groundwork for the U.K.’s post-World War II welfare state. Noting how both British and other European welfare states sustained political democracy despite Hayek’s warnings about “serfdom,” they write: “In fact, a lot of human progress depends on the state’s role and capacity advancing to meet new challenges while society also becomes more powerful and vigilant. Nipping greater state capacity in the bud would preclude such human progress. It is particularly important for the state to expand its remit during moments of social or economic crisis.” Hayek’s error lay both in failing to foresee that society’s capacity to hold the state in check could grow as the state’s capacity itself grows; and also in failing to realize how much more the state would be needed to protect basic economic needs of people in the increasingly complex economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Seeing the condition into which so many sub-Saharan African countries had descended, with little effective government capacity but with nominal “paper leviathans” propped up by an international state system, foreign aid, and control over legal revenue from mineral extraction, has evidently helped to bring the authors to the view that a truly capable as well as democratically accountable state, is after all the contemporary world’s best option. So too has recognizing the widespread corruption and inability to contain violence in many Latin American countries, along with the signs of danger now facing democracy in the United States, Observing the failure of democracy to be sustained in Russia, Turkey, Egypt or the Philippines, the absence of reason to hold one’s breath waiting for a democratic transition in China, and the rise of anti-minority and anti-immigrant “populism” with strains of 1930s fascism in this decade’s Europe and U.S., is dispelling optimism among observers like Acemoglu and Robinson that liberal democracy is the wave of the future. The “end of history” once touted by the American political sociologist Frances Fukuyama is brought out, not unsurprisingly, to endure a few ceremonial whacks in the course of making this point, in Narrow Corridor.

Is effective government in the service of a country’s people really possible? The better moments exhibited by most Western European countries since World War II, by their offshoots in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, when at their best, and more recently in Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, and Costa Rica, provide historical cases favoring a positive response. What element do these cases have in common? They have strong and effective governments — leviathans, in Acemoglu, Robinson, and Hobbes’s term — but they also have effective control of their governments by their “societies,” so that their leviathans are “shackled.”

I’m not the biggest fan of the terminology. If effective, accountable states are keys to a high quality of life and the greatest feasible expansion of life possibilities for the largest proportion of a society’s people. So why refer to the state as a horrifying beast and to the forms of civic engagement that keep the state accountable as “shackling”? But apart from terminology, I think the authors and I are on much the same page. Government enforcement of safety standards for foods, medicines, transportation systems, and workplaces, government provision of an economic safety net for those who become unemployed or disabled, government funding of a large share of the educational and research investments of our societies, governmental enforcement of laws against theft, killing, and other harms individuals might impose on one another, have proven themselves to be necessary to the achievement of high living standards in the world’s more developed countries during the centuries in which up to a quarter of humans have gradually achieved their previously unprecedented prosperity. Making government accountable to as large as possible a fraction of a society’s people is likewise necessary to those achievements. Keeping government accountable requires both formal checks on the arbitrary or corrupt behaviors of officials, and ongoing citizen engagement in the political process.

My own writing has emphasized the potential tension that could exist between the citizen engagement needed to keep government accountable and the self-interest that’s assumed to be the main or even sole motivator of human action in traditional economic theory. And I’ve argued that the apparent likelihood of that tension, or put differently the impossibility of making government accountable if citizens are simply self-interested, is resolved in practice by the fact that people are not all and always strictly selfish. As social creatures, they have in-built inclinations to cooperate when possible, because the whole history of the species is one of tension between cooperation and self-dealing, and inclinations to gravitate towards a sustainable happy medium between those extremes have been favored by natural selection on both genetic and cultural planes.

Acemoglu and Robinson appear to accept that a bit of pro-sociality or moral constraint on the parts of some actors is part of the mix we might call human nature, but they don’t systematically address the issue of what motivates humans, don’t discuss the apparent disconnect between motivations that permit societies to behave as societies and those that undergird the profit motive of individuals and companies. Instead, they write vaguely of “society” as an actor, calling the collections of individuals that appear at various points in their narrative “society” when they seem broad and inclusive enough (no explicit set of criteria is declared), and they describe the process by which a capable and accountable state comes into being as a race between said society and state, in which each grows in capability without either becoming stronger relative to the other. In racing, yet remaining equal in strength relative to one another, they remind Acemoglu and Robinson of the Red Queen in Alice and Wonderland who declares that “here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” So the process by which their racing strengthens both is dubbed “the Red Queen effect.” (The metaphor must have been recycled many times; writer Matt Ridley adopted it to describe the evolutionary race between microbes and sexually reproducing organisms that explains why complex creatures like us engage in sex [Ridley, The Red Queen, 1993].)

Despite state and society remaining in place as they race alongside each other, it appears to Acemoglu and Robinson that they need more than a single point or grid cell to serve as the site of their race, so the image of a “narrow corridor” is adopted, and voila, we have a book title. A society that enters “the narrow corridor” is one in which state capacity and societal capacity are growing at roughly equal paces. Such a society leaves “the corridor” if sufficient weakening of either state or society relative to the other occurs. The evolution of English society during the centuries following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 remains a favorite example of favorable narrow corridor dynamics in the book, as in others of the authors’ writings, but they assert now that similar processes were occurring elsewhere in Europe in roughly the same period.

Apart from their sensible embrace of the idea of government as a tool for raising human welfare provided that the people it is to serve are willing to do their part to make it do their bidding, the great strength of The Narrow Corridor, in my view, is the diverse set of case studies employed, using an immense amount of information and generally fine writing and narrative. Entire chapters on Chinese and Indian society, not necessarily areas of expertise for the authors, make worthwhile reading. Other cases getting fairly intensive treatment include: the Athens of Solon and successors; the birth of post-Roman Western Europe in the era of Charlemagne and the influence upon it of two traditions of social and political order — the centralized and formal approach of Rome and the consultative approach of Germanic tribes; the divergence of Spain from England and the Low Countries in the era between the mid-1400s and the late 1700s, helping to explain the emergence of repressive societies in Latin America vs. liberal ones in UK, northern Europe, and the UK’s “neo-Europes;” Sweden, Germany, the U.S., and Denmark, as leading examples of today’s wealthy democracies; Turkey and Russia; an interesting comparison of the different trajectories of the Costa Rican vs. Guatemalan polities; and Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina; S. Africa, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

In sum, The Narrow Corridor provides a provocative and thoughtful tour of political history and an encouragingly progressive message by authors whose evident fear of the leviathan made their past work appear considerably less forward-looking. Unlike the Red Queen, the two authors appear to have done all the running they could do, but have done better than to stay in place!

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