Jay Elwes

Liberty depends on a delicate balance between state and society

Repression does not always come from above. In India, it is society that enforces the caste system that confines millions to degrading work

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The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Viking, pp. 555, £25

Liberty is a fragile thing. For thousands of years, civilisations have risen, flourished and fallen, and most of them have been rigid, brutal and despotic. Freedom for the masses is a historical rarity. It arises only as the product of a fine balance between competing interests. That balance is the subject of this book.

According to the authors, both of whom are American economists, the first of those countervailing forces is the state, or what Hobbes called the Leviathan. The second is society. For liberty to exist, the state and society must achieve equilibrium. If one dominates the other, the result is a slide away from liberty towards despotism.

Conversely, the lucky society that strikes a balance between state and society can slip into what the authors term ‘the corridor’, the theoretical space in which liberty flourishes. Society is then free to develop and innovate, with all the economic benefits that brings. The state holds a monopoly on force, gathers taxes, dispenses services and so on. But society creates institutions such as the courts and parliament, to keep the state and elites in check. Hobbes’s Leviathan exists, but has become shackled.

The creation of the US constitution and the social mobilisation that followed are expertly set out by the authors, even if the story is a little familiar. More striking are the descriptions of lesser known societies — for example the rise of the Zulu nation under King Shaka. There are also analyses of Polynesian society, the history of the Congo, Argentina’s failure as a viable state and why Costa Rica succeeded in shackling its Leviathan, while neighbouring Guatemala did not.

Hawaii’s history is a cruel example of how states can crush society. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, successive kings forced their subjects to harvest the sandalwood forests for sale to passing merchants. Driven into indentured labour, Hawaiians developed no private enterprise or social institutions. In 1848, King Kamehameha III announced a programme of land reform. He would take 24 per cent of all of the islands’ lands as his private property. In addition, 36 per cent would go to the government — the king again — and 39 per cent to his chiefs. The entire Hawaiian population was to have just 1 per cent of the land. Liberty was crushed under the despotic royal prerogative.

An overbearing state is a threat to liberty. But society can also become the problem if its power is unconstrained. Take the caste system, which confines millions of Indian citizens to menial, often degrading, work, and prevents their full participation in the economy. Here, society voluntarily enforces strictures that deprive citizens of liberty. There is nothing in Indian law that mandates the caste system. Society does it of its own accord. India has all the trappings of a democratic system, but the state is so weak that it is unable to challenge this damaging social structure. Society itself has become a threat to liberty.

Other peoples have been more successful in balancing the influence of state and society. Europe is perhaps the outstanding example, where an upsurge of freedom led to the technological and cultural marvels of the 18th and 19th centuries. How did Europe get it so right? For their answer, the authors go back to the 5th century and to the fall of the western Roman empire. When it collapsed across Europe, the empire didn’t suddenly vanish. Instead it left behind a residue of political structures that were sustained by the hierarchical and centralising influence of the early church.

The empire gave way to tribal societies that had traditionally made use of assemblies and systems of consensual decision-making. These tribes co-existed with the remnants of the Roman state and came under its influence. In this way the two elements at the heart of Europe’s great historical advantage were brought together — the tribal social instinct and the hierarchical state model. The tension between those two has underpinned the rise of European liberty ever since.

It’s impossible to avoid setting these insights against Britain’s current era of disruption. Whatever one’s political views it seems clear that, in recent years, the British state has barely been able to withstand the pressure that’s been applied to it. Liberty, in this analysis, is not a fixed condition. It is the result of a constant balancing act. If that balance begins to falter in Britain — and the US — could the cause of liberty be put into reverse?

‘The defining characteristic of populist movements,’ the authors write, as they turn to the present day, ‘is their refusal to accept constraints and compromise… They are about creating new dominances, not ending them.’ It’s a line that will resonate uneasily with the British reader, as will the remark that ‘even if claiming to represent the people, populist movements will ultimately lead to despotism’.

This is an important book. It is also an unsettling one. In the context of our troubled times, it reads like a warning.