I readThe Narrow CorridorbyDaron Acemoglu & James A. RobinsononMar 5th, 2024


The authors extends their thoughts from the book, Why Nations Fail, and explore the question: Why some states are despotic, while others are prevailed by the democracy? The authors categorized the states as:

  • Absent Leviathan
  • Despotic Leviathan
  • Shackled Leviathan

The concept, Leviathan was coined by the historian Thomas Hobbes. In his classical book, Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Leviathan represents the state, —- the only legal entity to exercise absolute power. The emergency of state is the process of individuals and groups voluntarily handed off the violence power to the state for exchanging security, public services, and prosperity.

Red Queen Effect

Just like the Red Queen effect in the book, Alice Through the Looking Glass, The state, or the elites; and society continue the race to keep the balance between them.

The evolution of states of Leviathans
The evolution of states of Leviathans

When one tribe stood out, it would face fierce resistances from the society to undercut political hierarchy as the status quo stayed in the Absent Leviathan. On the other side, the state with greater initial momentum emasculated society, and over time the Despotic Leviathan became overwhelmingly powerful. When state, and society could compete, and compromise instead of zero-sum, the state power is in check; therefore the state entered the narrow corridor of Shackled Corridor.

Absent Leviathan

In the prehistoric human society, the hunting and gathering activities were organized in the unit of family, and extended to the kins, then tribes. Violence is the only acceptable way to resolve the conflicts, as Hobbs describe as:

War of every man, against every man

Social norms emerged to resolve conflicts and strifes. Captain Rattary described it as voluntary servitude after studying the Asante tribe in 1924. Men were often compelled to fulfill obligations and duties forced by the elites to seek their protection to avoid enslavement. For example, Bwanikwa was ensnared as a pawn or pledge slave due to her father’s inability to settle a debt. Additionally, it was not uncommon for parents to send their children as wards to powerful families for keeping them safe.

A modern world example is the Democratic Republic of Congo. After the peace agreement was finally signed to end the Great War of Africa between 1996 and 2003, the RCD-Goma among others kept fighting with great brutality. The income per capita in the Congo is $400, with life expectation 20 years less than the United States. The life of men is indeed poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

A state is born

It is not trivial to shatter the established social cage to forge a new state, as the entrenched social norm not only regulate the conflicts, but also prevent the power consolidation for anybody to take the control.

Muhammad’s journey exemplifies this arduous task. He received revelations and eventually emerged as a Prophet. Other trading clans were concerned his political influence to Mecca, which resulted in his flee to Medina in 622, aka the famous Hegira. In June of the same year, some Medinans ratified the Constitution of Medina, marking a pivotal shift from traditional kin or clan towards a religion and the nascent authority of a prophet. With his power and wealth grew, the Pledge of Good Pleasure represented a significant stride to establish state in Medina in 628.

Muhammad’s success underscores the the intricate process of state-building. By leveraging religion as a foundation for legitimate authority, he effectively supplanted the prevailing kin-based social order, and pave the way to form of a new political entity.

Despotic Leviathan

During the process of state-building, the social norms are dismantled; the state power prevails, which usually leads to the Despotic Leviathan. Even so, a state can yield many benefits in terms of increased order, security, and property rights enforcements. These benefits foster increased savings and investments, market expansions, and proliferation of specializations.

The despotic growth will be limited because the innovation needs creativity and creativity needs liberty. See Why Nations Fail for more detailed discussion about the extractive growth.

Enter into the corridor

The founding of the United States is exceptional: the newly-born state defeated the formidable British Empire, then entered into the corridor, at least for the white males. Several key factors contributed to this extraordinary outcome:

  • Contrasted to the conquistadors, the settlers in Jamestown were predominantly impoverished and disenfranchised individuals seeking to establish an economy to benefit the broader populace rather than solely curated to the interests of elites.
  • The society had been mobilized as whole, fostering a sense of unity to win the American Revolution War. This mobilization also served to counterbalance the concentration of government power within the nascent state.
  • Recognizing the risks of unchecked executive authority, the Federalists took deliberate steps to implement systems of checks and balances between executives and legislature. They also adopted indirect elections to curtail direct popular participation.

The US government was severely constrained by these compromises. It became increasingly reliant on public-private partnership for even fundamental public services, such as health insurance to law enforcement. The inherent discrimination against people of color continued to plague the United States today.

The Europe was shaped by the interplay of two influential forces, like the two blades of a pair of scissors:

  • democratically organized tribal society
  • legacy of Roman Empire and the Christian churches.

Together the intertwined forces contributed to the Red Queen effects.

Paper Leviathan

The term Paper Leviathan echoes what Mao Zedong characterized the United States as a Paper Tiger, suggesting that the apparent power and authority of certain governments might be deceptive. In countries like Argentina, Columbia, and various Latin American and African nations, governments may appear in charge, but lack the capacity or willingness to effectively govern and provide basic public services.

Why the elites stop consolidating the power? Because a week state structure serve their interest best. their best interest. Without the institutional meritocratic recruitment, they can appoint allies and supporters to bureaucratic positions, also known as gnocchi in Argentina for the ghost workers. Corruption becomes pervasive since it facilitates rent-seeking behaviors. Moreover, elites are often hesitant to mobilize society for fear that an awakened public may oppose their rulings. The two factors entrench the status quo and perpetuates the cycle of weak governance.

Leave the corridor

It is challenging to enter a narrow corridor, but exiting it may not be difficult. Following the war’s devastation, Germany adopted the Weimar Constitution, which introduced universal suffrage and transformed the nation into a republic. However, the highly mobilized yet fragmented party system created fertile ground for the rise of extremist movements such as the Nazi Party.

Closing thoughts

I am fascinated to explore the intricacies of state-building process and the dynamics between the state and society in various historical contexts guided by the authors.

We should also remain vigilant and proactive to address current challenges, such as the rise of populism and authoritarianism, the deepened polarization and fragmentation, the worse economic inequality and social injustice.