The Narrow Corridor

Recommendation: ‘How to save democracy’ is quite the popular genre at the moment – this is a valuable addition to it

Where to read: A leather couch somewhere

Read with: Manners Tempranillo

In brief: This is one of those books that is worth reading and thinking about, even if you’re ultimately not convinced by the argument. It is certainly offers a more interesting account of the democratic process than the usual CNN contributor punditry.

I am generally sceptical of books which purport to provide a “big picture grand theory” of history and the universe more broadly. That said, this one I am willing to go with to at least some extent. Regardless of the merits of the thesis as a comprehensive explanatory framework, I think the ideas and patterns explored are worth examining and considering in their own right.

The general theory expounded here is that stable, democratic societies hover in the titular ‘narrow corridor’ between the ‘Despotic Leviathan’ (which provides public order at the expense of individual liberty) and the ‘Absent Leviathan’ (in which individual liberty is limited by a lack of security), terms borrowed from Hobbes and used to describe, in very broad terms, different societal models. The Despotic Leviathan is what we see in countries like China or North Korea, which have significant state capacity and exercise tyrannical control over the population. The Absent Leviathan is observed where there is no functional state and the ‘cage of norms’, being social mores and cultural/religious norms, are the most important drivers of social conditions and constraints on individual action.

The central argument is that getting into the corridor requires balancing state power with social mobilisation and the institutions of civil society. In the case of an Absent Leviathan, this requires building state capacity and breaking at least some of the power wielded by non-state agents (priests, for example). In the case of the Despotic Leviathan, this requires the development of civil society through organisations like trade unions, the press, merchant guilds or professional bodies to rein in state power. Crucially, this search for balance between society and the state can never end if liberty is to be maintained; as one becomes stronger, so must the other, the price of liberty is endless vigilance etc. It’s a powerful argument against the now well and truly questionable ‘end of history’ thesis and one which emphasises the importance of engagement in civil society beyond, in democracies at least, the relatively simple act of voting – liberty is a process, not a permanent state.

Based on this framework, Acemoglu and Robinson go on to offer a series of observations about the status of particular nations, as case studies if you will. There is a fascinating section on China (which may or may stand the test of time), hypothesising that it has limited capacity for growth in the long term because of a lack of civil society and trust in institutions, effectively massive sovereign risk. The sections on the United States are also interesting, making the argument that the federal government is too weak to be effective in a number of key domestic policy areas. This weakness leaves the state vulnerable both to the power of society (see the power of corporations in US politics) and to wannabe dictators who seize on failures to deliver services or outcomes as evidence that the system is fundamentally broken.

Some reviewers have made the observation that it is quite a dense text with confusing terminology. That is probably a fair point but one that can be easily overcome with a notebook and a pen. Nothing wrong with a bit of active reading.

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