The co-author of Why Nations Fail is back with a far-reaching interrogation of the roles of the state, society, and the conditions required for freedomby Nick Spencer / September 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
Along with Daron Acemoglu, economist James Robinson wrote the best-selling and widely-praised Why Nations Fail, which located the origins of power, prosperity and poverty in the balance of “inclusive” and “extractive” institutions. The pair come together again for an equally far-reaching exploration of “states, societies and the fate of liberty,” entitled The Narrow Corridor. The book builds on but modifies their previous insights, seeing the fate of liberty in society as a fundamentally dynamic process. I spoke to Robinson down the line from his office in Chicago on why history isn’t converging, how Leviathan can be shackled, and why liberty reminds him of Lewis Carroll.
Nick Spencer: About 30 years ago, all the talk was about the end of history and political convergence on liberal democratic capitalism. Your idea is very different. You talk about political divergence quite a bit, don’t you?
James Robinson: Yes, I think that’s a great observation. In some sense, what we’re trying to provide in the book is a very simple framework for thinking about why that convergence is kind of implausible and why it was unlikely to characterise the post-Berlin wall era.
You make it very clear that liberty is not a norm in history. In fact, it’s a rarity.
Everywhere people are interested in liberty. But they also understand that there are disadvantages to living in a society without states, without hierarchy: it’s hard to cooperate, to provide public goods, to get order.
The fundamental problem is how to create a kind of state or centralised authority and then how to control it. You can have the state dominating society, which is the Chinese case; or society dominating the state, which is more or less what you have in Yemen or Lebanon, or large parts of Africa.
In the book, we call the first of those a “despotic leviathan,” and the second an “absent leviathan.” And then in between, you can get this balance, what we call the “shackled leviathan,” which is critical to the emergence of liberal democracy This is the “narrow corridor” of the book’s title.
You talk about how social norms often form a “cage,” which prevents countries moving into the narrow corridor, and how this “cage of norms” is particularly strong in India.
Yes, I think that’s a fascinating case. If…