The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Altitude gives one perspective, and in these troubled times we surely need that. This book gives us altitude. I normally get cranky with books that push 500 pages, as this one does, but I found it sufficiently engaging and enlightening to be worth the time.
Thomas Hobbes argued in the seventeenth century that granting absolute power to a sovereign (a Leviathan) was absolutely necessary to avoid the evils of a war of each against all, and to safeguard the benefits of civilization. Acemoglu and Robinson take off from the idea of Leviathan to make the argument that individual liberty is not to be found in the absence of a Leviathan but rather in the presence of a Leviathan that is “shackled” by organized society. Hobbes’ Leviathan of course is unshackled, absolute in its authority over society: it is the Despotic Leviathan. But a stateless society (they use the example of the Tiv of Africa), while having no Leviathan, still limits individual liberty by what they call the “Iron Cage” of custom.
The Shackled Leviathan (they ought to be giving John Locke some credit here) occupies what they call “the Narrow Corridor” between the Absent Leviathan and the Despotic Leviathan.
The Shackled Leviathan (they ought to be giving John Locke some credit here) occupies what they call “the Narrow Corridor” between the Absent Leviathan and the Despotic Leviathan. It is characterized by parallel changes in the power of the state and the power of society, such that each checks the other. That is the precondition for establishing individual liberty. It is not easy for societies to enter the Narrow Corridor, nor is it easy to stay there, but it’s pretty easy to exit.
Oddly, they use the shorthand “the Red Queen” to stand for this precarious balance. The reference is to Alice’s adventure in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where Alice and the Red Queen have a foot race where they run as hard as they can but don’t get anywhere. I find this appropriation of Carroll to be inappropriate, but as long as you remember that whenever they mention the Red Queen, they mean this running balance between state and society, then you won’t run astray.
The countries we recognize as liberal democracies today (the United States, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, the former British colonies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand) exemplify the Shackled Leviathan, though each has reached the Narrow Corridor in its own way and with its own contradictions. Other countries (India and other Third World democracies, Poland and other Eastern European states) are making their more or less troubled ways into the Narrow Corridor or slipping out of it, as the case may be.
The (great) bulk of the book is taken up with detailed discussion of historical and contemporary cases, all the way back to the earliest civilizations. I don’t doubt that specialists on each of the cases will find fault with their analyses. With my own background as a Latin Americanist, I could see that their comparison of Guatemala and Costa Rica was oversimplified, for example, but it wasn’t flat out wrong. I suspect other specialists will have similar takes. If you are old enough to have read Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy in the 1960s, and enjoyed it, you’ll probably like this one too.
The concluding chapter brings us in for a landing with a discussion of challenges facing the US and other advanced democracies in these troubled times. They deal in some depth with the troubling implications of the extreme inequality that we now have, how we got here, and what to do about it.