This is the second article in a series on bureaucratic autonomy; the first installment can be found here.
My dissatisfaction with existing theories of political development in the early 2000s eventually led to the publication of my two volume series, The Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2014). These books were inspired by my mentor Samuel Huntington, whose 1968 volume Political Order in Changing Societies sought to turn the focus of development studies to the problem of the state.
The starting point for my approach was to take human nature seriously. In my view, the economists’ rational choice model was gravely defective from the get-go because it did not take into account the powerful social proclivities that shaped human behavior. Human beings may be capable of a certain sort of rationality, but much of how they act politically was heavily determined by emotions like pride, anger, and shame. The latter in turn were the byproducts of a complex evolutionary process that hard-wired social cooperation into the precursors of human brains. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The Origins of Political Order started, therefore, not with early human societies, but rather with the primate progenitors of modern humans who already manifested the capacity for complex social organization. The rational choice literature did not begin to draw upon work coming from evolutionary biology, comparative anthropology, social psychology, or a host of other disciplines that focused on the social side of human behavior. One of the great pleasures of researching for these volumes was the discovery of a lot of 19th and early 20th century anthropology, writers like Denis Fustel de Coulanges, Henry Maine, and others who used comparative methods to interrogate human sociability. The latter, for example, took aim at the two foundational liberal theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke for their assertion of a primordial individualism. As he explained, individualism was not the original state of mankind, but an historical contingency that developed over time.
There is a rich literature outside of economics that describes human social organization prior to the state, as well as theorizing about so-called “pristine” state formation, that is, the emergence of the first states in places like the Yellow River valley in China, Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Valley of Mexico. Pre-state social organization shifted from the small bands of genetic relatives characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies, to the segmentary lineages (what we sloppily label tribes) that allowed human groups to scale up enormously into alliances that could encompass thousands of individuals. Segmentary lineages also depended on a set of religious beliefs to legitimize themselves, built around belief in the power of dead ancestors and unborn descendants to affect life in the present.
The next evolutionary jump was from segmentary lineages to the state, in which power became centralized in a single authority. Pristine state formation required certain economic conditions like settlement in alluvial, nutrient-rich valleys, as well as physical caging that permitted centralized authorities to control populations. While there were economic conditions that promoted state formation, the primary driver, as in the transition from band to lineage, was security: each higher level of social organization could deploy violence more effectively, thereby driving societies to adopt the institutions of their competitors.
This view is known to social scientists as the "Tilly hypothesis" due to Charles Tilly's work on early modern Europe, and his argument that "war makes the state and the state makes war." But it wasn't just Europe that developed in this fashion.
States were thus an evolutionary adaptation driven primarily by power competition. They appeared simultaneously in different parts of the world, responding more to local environmental conditions than to any deeply embedded cultural traditions. It was not true that a state-level society could always defeat a tribal one. After the domestication of the horse, mounted nomads at a low level of economic development could harry and often defeat richer, state-level agrarian societies, something that continued in the Middle East, China, and Europe up through invention of firearms. Nor has state-level social organization triumphed everywhere: tribal societies continue to exist under certain geographical conditions like mountainous uplands, arid deserts, and arctic conditions where it is hard to deploy conventional armies. This is why it has been so difficult to construct a state in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, economic modernization everywhere in the world has depended on the emergence of states, and in particular modern states that could impartially protect property rights and adjudicate disputes.
This insight had direct applicability to contemporary development problems. During the neo-liberal 1980s and 90s, many economists believed that the state itself was the primary obstacle to economic growth, and that markets would spontaneously appear and sustain themselves. They failed to recognize that no modern economy can thrive without a coherent state to provide order and security, and beyond that to provide a stable framework of property rights and public services. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Western advisors were more focused on destroying the old Communist state than on building a new one on democratic foundations. Privatization in the absence of clear and enforceable rules, however, will simply allow insiders to grab resources, which is exactly what happened in Russia, Ukraine, and many other post-Soviet republics. This faith that a state could continue to function regardless continued through the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, when one of the first acts by the American occupation authorities was to disband the Iraqi army. What ensued, of course, was not the spontaneous order beloved of libertarians, but rather an orgy of violence as militias struggled for power and resources.
The rise of China and other economies of East Asia in the later part of the 20th century made it clear to me, at least, that having a modern state was the single most important institutional foundation for economic growth, and much more important that democracy. After the publication of The Origins of Political Order, I was frequently asked why my book didn’t begin, like countless prior books on the “origins of civilization,” with Greece and Rome. My answer was that neither Greece nor Rome produced anything that looked like a modern state, one that was uniform, centralized, impersonal, and built around a merit-based bureaucracy. That honor belonged to China, whose state of Qin laid the foundations for state modernity during the Warring States period, and then unified northern China in 221 B.C. Comparably modern states would not arise in Europe for another 1800 years.
Don’t get me wrong—a modern state without parallel institutions of constraint like a rule of law or democratic accountability are simply efficient dictatorships. Both the state of Qin under its chief minister Shang Yang and the Qin dynasty of Qin Shi Huangdi were proto-totalitarian states that sought to exercise total control over their populations, and for that reason was much admired by a later totalitarian, Mao Zedong. The technology of the time did not allow for this degree of control over so large a population, and the harshness of the Qin regime was later softened by Confucian ethics in the succeeding Han Dynasty, which nonetheless revered an educated bureaucracy as one of the central components of Chinese culture.
The important historical point is that China developed the idea of a modern state at a very early stage, and passed that idea on to Korea, Japan, and other societies within the Chinese sphere of cultural influence. If there is a single explanation for the rapid rise of East Asia in the later 20thcentury, it is the fact that countries there had a tradition of modern statehood prior to their contact with European imperialism. In addition to a tradition of “stateness,” China, Japan and Korea settled questions of national identity early on. They did not have to construct state institutions from scratch like many other developing societies emerging from colonialism, or deal with deep ethnic fragmentation. Once other conditions were right (e.g., political stability, state sovereignty, property rights, and exposure to an open international economic order) they could take off rapidly and become developed societies in a couple of generations.
In today’s world, we are all aware of the threat posed by strong states, beginning with Russia and China but extending to a host of authoritarian regimes that are turning back the clock in Myanmar, Tunisia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Turkey, and other places. Yet state weakness also remains a perhaps even greater obstacle to democratic consolidation, and actually motivates the call for authoritarian leadership.
Take the case of El Salvador. Following the end of the civil war there in the 1980s, El Salvador ostensibly became a democracy with regular elections that allowed its political parties to alternate in power. Yet none of its elected governments were able to provide security or control the rise of gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) that rival the state in power. It is estimated that the maras take in more extortion money from local businesses than the Salvadorian state collects in taxes. This situation then gave rise to the incredible popularity of the current President Nayib Bukele, who has gutted the country’s check-and-balance institutions with the promise to crack down on crime and disorder.
Indeed, in many countries, excessive state strength co-exists with state weakness. Nicaragua and Venezuela are ruled by strong men, but have been unable to provide basic public services and are themselves complicit in complex webs of corruption and mismanagement.
A successful democracy therefore needs a strong modern state, but it has to be a state that is constrained by a rule of law and democratic accountability. Much more effort continues to flow into building the institutions of constraint than in building states themselves, both in the academic literature and in development programs around the world. During the 18 years that I was a member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, I tried to argue consistently that the NED and its institutes needed to focus not just on opposing authoritarian government, but in helping nascent democracies build their state institutions and deliver the goods with respect to democratic government.
Finding the right balance between state strength and appropriate constraints on that state is very difficult and usually highly context-dependent. Developed democracies differ substantially in the quality of their states, and it soon became evident that the United States suffered from its own version of state weakness, even as many Americans came to believe that the state was oppressive and overgrown. This then led to my next focus, which was state-building in the U.S.
Top image: A statue of Shen Yang. (Wikimedia Commons: Fanhong)
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