James Robinson: “everywhere people are interested in liberty”

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 freedom

September 26, 2019
Photo: Nancy Wong/University of Chicago
Photo: Nancy Wong/University of Chicago
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 you think about the deep history of India, in some senses it looks more like western Europe than it does China. There is a history of participation and assemblies, going back to the time of the Buddha. So why doesn’t that merge together the way it did in Europe? There’s no one answer to that obviously, but one argument is caste.

One of the things we liked about this notion of the narrow corridor is that it’s a process. The state gets stronger, society reorganises, the cage of norms breaks down. Society and state transform each other in competition. So, why couldn’t that get off the ground in India, where you have these initial conditions that seem quite propitious? I think the reason is the caste system, which stops this kind of process taking place in the way it did in western Europe.

Why is it some countries deviate from their historic trajectories? Some despotic nations or empires have moved into the corridor of liberty, whereas others seem to be trapped.

I think the collapse of the Soviet empire is a fascinating example here. In some sense, Russia is too far away from the corridor. The state is too strong, the security apparatus is too strong, civil society is not organised.

But then you take Poland—you have Solidarity, you have real popular uprising against the communist regime, the state is not so powerful. The collapse of Soviet Union and the organisation of civil society in the 1980s pushes Poland into the corridor. The initial conditions relative to where you are to the corridor are very important.

You can have significant economic growth within a despotic leviathan, can’t you? It’s not as if such countries are necessarily poor.

That’s right. In somewhere like Yemen or the Central African Republic, where you have an absent leviathan, it’s very hard to imagine economic growth. In a case like China, or indeed the Soviet Union, where there’s much more centralised authority albeit despotic, if that centralised authority starts pushing towards infrastructure, investment in public goods or education, you can imagine economic growth taking place.

However, history also suggests that a situation with such concentrated political power always ends up disastrous for the economy. The Soviet Union grew pretty rapidly for 40 or 50 years, but it was very narrow. There was much less innovation, there was a lot of capital accumulation.

I wonder if there’s a particular parallel between Russia and China. The Soviet economy was able to outpace the western economy for a decade or two, but it didn’t have the freedom to innovate, to develop. Do you think there’s a parallel with China there?

I do think there are differences with China and the whole issue of meritocracy gives people more security than they had in Russia, that they can get to the top and they can be respected and protected to some extent.

But I agree with you, I think those mechanisms are still there. You see the kind of Orwellian machine that’s being created in China. That’s going to be anathema to creativity and individualism and all the things that generate productivity, growth and prosperity.

You mean the social credit system, which assesses and rewards (or punishes) citizens’ behaviour, in particular?

Yes, the social credit system exactly, yes.

The “Red Queen” is probably the biggest “character” in the book, so to speak. Tell us why this is so significant to your argument?

Why Nations Fail made it sound as though, if you were able to organise a switch from “extractive” to “inclusive” institutions, you’re all set. Here I think the emphasis is much more on having to build up the state and having to build up society.

The idea of the “Red Queen effect” is that there is this race between state and society, the state is trying to control and regulate society, but society is trying to push back and control and make the state accountable. In that process of competing with each other, they sort of stand still. In Alice Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen and Alice have a race but they end up standing still.

Why are some nations seemingly quite stable within the corridor, and why do some of them edge out of it?

There are forces that can drive you out of the corridor, both from the bottom and the top. Today what’s happening with Trump, or what happened with National Socialism… it’s pressure from the bottom that threatens to throw society out the corridor. It’s disillusionment with institutions. Big crises can lead people to get very disillusioned with institutions.

What I find interesting [about Nazi Germany] is that when that collapsed after 15 years, then the Germans get right back, the old institutions reassert themselves. They’ve got some sort of collective norms and recognition that “this is how we do things.”

We do tend to be very focused on this longue durée, we see the deeply rooted historical influences everywhere. Of course, that’s not to say what happened during the Nazi period or even during Prussian Absolutism wasn’t enormously consequential. But they seem to be transitory, these deviations.

The last ten or so years have seen a reversal of democratic fortunes. Prophecy is always a mug’s game, but… do you think this direction of travel will continue? Where do you think we would be if we were having this conversation in 10 years’ time?

Obviously, democracy is connected to participation and accountability and this notion of shackled leviathan, but I guess we want to say there’s a lot more to it than that. So, we don’t want to fixate on a particular set of political institutions. Just having an election in the Congo or Sierra Leone isn’t going to create a shackled leviathan.

I would say, if you look around the world you see these cycles… this is not the first time democracy has waned and these cycles tend to be quite long-lived, so I believe that we could keep going down for a decade.

I guess I’m relatively optimistic in that although there have been these cycles, I think the big picture has been towards greater democracy and more of a notion that this is the legitimate way of organising government. So, yes, we could keep going down for 10 years—but probably the trend is upwards.


The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson is published by Viking

Nick Spencer is a senior fellow at Theos think tank