I want to return to the issue that has been my central intellectual preoccupation over the past couple of decades, which is the autonomy of the modern state and its role in a democracy. The Republican Party has become a cult of personality in recent years, but behind the phenomenon of populist nationalism cultivated by Donald Trump is hostility to the so-called “deep state.” This issue will be a central dividing line in American politics now and will continue to be in a post-Trump future, and on this question I am on the opposite side. I believe that a high-capacity, professional, and impersonal state is critical to the success of any society. While that state must be responsive to the society it serves, it also needs to retain a degree of autonomy if it is to function properly. Understanding the proper balance between autonomy and democratic accountability is a complex question that I’ve discussed in a series of academic writings, but I want to lay out the basic arguments for how to think about this issue over the next few blog posts. In doing so, I’m also providing a kind of intellectual biography of how my thinking on this subject has evolved.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
When I published The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, I did not understand the importance of a modern state to the success of liberal democracy, nor did I appreciate how difficult it was to create the institutions that comprise such a state. This changed for me after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s that left both countries without a functioning state—that is, a body that could exercise a legitimate monopoly of coercive force over their whole territory. (Readers will see in this Max Weber’s famous definition of a state, which I continue to believe is the most useful way of thinking about what this institution ideally is.) While the American occupation authorities talked about building democracy and the rule of law in both countries, the problem they faced most immediately was how to construct a state that could keep order and provide security to ordinary citizens, while being perceived as legitimate. And they had very little idea how to do this.
State-building is something that Americans don’t like to think about much in general. In the country’s political culture, governments are things to be feared and circumscribed, precisely because they wield coercive power over individuals. But states are also the institutions that provide security, enforce laws, and provide necessary services from education to health to basic infrastructure. Americans take for granted the existence of the state; rather than thinking about how to make it more effective, they think of ways to constrain it. In Afghanistan and Iraq, they faced basic questions like how do you collect taxes, prepare budgets, build infrastructure, and educate citizens, when the organizations responsible for those functions have collapsed? The occupation authorities basically had no idea.
This is what started me on a line of writing and research over the next two decades: how to build a state that not simply exercised a legitimate monopoly of force, but a modern state that used its power in an impersonal way to serve public interest rather than the narrow interests of the power-holders. The first product of this effort was my 2004 book State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century based on the Messenger Lectures I gave the preceding year at Cornell University. In this book I tried to establish a conceptual framework for thinking about what types of state agencies would be most susceptible to reform and modernization. This was followed by an edited 2006 volume Nation-Building: Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, which looked more specifically at the dilemmas faced by external actors seeking to fortify weak states.
Perhaps as a result of these writings, I was asked by the World Bank and the Australian aid agency in the mid-2000s to look at their state-building efforts in Melanesia—Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and the Solomon Islands—where foreign actors had made big investments following violent conflicts in the latter two places. The international development community was at this point focusing on “failed states,” places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the like where state authority had collapsed completely.
The time I spent in Melanesia was transformative in my thinking about the role of states. In all of these places, the “state” is virtually non-existent throughout most of the territory over which it has nominal sovereignty. In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, there is a surviving tribal society more untouched by modern institutions than anything found in sub-Saharan Africa. The attempt to overlay a modern Westminster democracy on top of this social structure led to bizarre outcomes, like parliamentary seats that are contested by dozens of candidates representing not programmatic political parties, but kinship groups. The efforts by outside mining and timber companies to exploit the region’s natural resources leads to prolonged conflicts with tribal landowners who do not want to grant title to land where they believe the spirits of their ancestors continue to reside.
I began to realize that there was a huge gap in the social science literature regarding the origin of states, as well as the related issue of the provenance of rule of law institutions. If you wanted to assign a political science book surveying the literature on early state formation, where would you go?
The lack of interest in state-building and state formation in academic political science became evident to me when I first moved to Stanford in 2010. That university’s highly rated political science department was back then dominated by scholars operating under a “rational choice” paradigm. The latter, growing out of Douglass North’s new institutional economics, applied an economic model to political behavior. Political actors were seen as rationally self-interested, and would seek to maximize the rents they could extract from the rest of society. The states they created were thus seen as essentially predatory.
The central problem this approach sought to address was how the state could ever credibly commit to limiting its own power by, for example, protecting property rights. The rational choice paradigm did not consider the question of where state power came in the first place. All of these deficiencies came together in the 2009 North-Wallis-Weingast volume Violence and Social Orders, which purported to give an historical account of the rise of what it called “open-access orders” that were said to be the basis for modern prosperity. Shortly thereafter, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson published their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, which had similar sweep over the whole of human history and sought to explain the origins of what they labeled “inclusive” as opposed to “extractive” orders.
I have to admit that I found the attention given these books so irritating that I decided I would have to write my own account of the origin of institutions. Despite being ostensibly about development, neither book put forward a theory as to why states emerged or developed new institutions. Somehow these rational actors woke up one morning and decided it was more efficient to collect taxes and provide public goods rather than simply predate on populations, or benefited from a series of accidents that provided a “narrow path” to modernity. Neither ideas, culture, or social mobilization played a significant role in their account of modernization.
In the next part, I'll talk about my attempt to answer these questions in my Political Order series.
Image: Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1339, Siena, Italy.
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