macroafricaintel | Insights & views on culture (1): Acemoglu & Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty”, the latest book by Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at MIT, and James Robinson, a professor at the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago, is a goldmine of insights. What is state capacity? It is the ability of a state to achieve its objectives. That simple. Such simplicity is the recurring theme of the book. The suggestion is not that the authors avoid the complexities of the subject they explore, but rather that they have sufficient mastery of it to put their ideas forward in the most straightforward manner.

Their main idea is that for liberty to thrive, there must be a balance between the state and society. And they impressively show how a lot of the governance problems around the world stem from an imbalance between the two. The objectives of a state include law enforcement, conflict resolution, economic regulation, provision of infrastructure and public services. A state has capacity when it is able to achieve these objectives. When a state lacks capacity, however, society dominates. The dominance of either the state or society stifles liberty, which is the condition that underpins innovation and prosperity.

Society is culture; that is, “customs, traditions, rituals and patterns of acceptable and expected behaviour that have evolved over generations.” When culture dominates the governance of people’s lives, the influential custodians tend to get a better deal than the rest of society. And not until there is a state with capacity to balance the scales, culture becomes a cage that the elite beneficiaries use to stifle the progress of the rest.

Red queen
Thus, as society predates the state, “it is [the] state that creates liberty.” To sustain liberty, however, the state and society need to continually compete with each other, with “neither getting the upper hand.” The authors call this continued balanced competition between the state and society a “Red Queen” effect. And this is true in reality, isn’t it? Countries with state capacity and strong civil societies are the ones Africans are willing to brave the dangers of the seas to reach.

“Societal mobilization” or “the involvement of society at large (in particular non-elites) in politics” take the forms of “revolts, protests, petitons, and general pressure on elites via associations or the media”. It could also be via participation in elections to elect or be elected. A society’s power rests on its ability to “impose [its] wishes on major social and political decisions” through these means. When the state is too powerful and society is not able to exercise its power, liberty is similarly stifled.

The edge
Since state-building is essentially a countervailing force to cultural hegemony, “would-be state builders are more likely to succeed and emasculate the norms meant to restrain them if they have an ‘edge’.” That is, “something special, making it possible for them to overcome the barriers in their way.” This “edge” could be religious, organisational, technological or personality-related.

An African example of one such state-builder, whose edge was organisational, is King Shaka of Zululand in what is today’s KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. The Zulu’s dominance in today’s South Africa is a testimony to Shaka’s state-building legacy. But for Shaka to succeed, he “had to break parts of the cage of norms” in Zululand, especially “kin relations and supernatural beliefs, in order to weaken sources of competing power.”

“Restrictions based on norms, traditions and customs dull economic incentives and opportunities, and need to be loosened for economic growth to flourish.” This is because “innovation needs creativity and creativity needs liberty.” That is, individuals should be able to act and go about their affairs without fear and experiment with ideas, whether they are pleasant to others or not. Put another way, “prosperity and economic growth originate” from “incentives for people to invest, experiment, and innovate.”

A state is required to bring all these about. In the absence of one, norms or culture prop up their influential custodians at the expense of the rest. Because like the authors put it, “you need opportunities to be widely and fairly distributed in society, so that whoever has a good idea for an innovation or valuable investment gets a chance to carry it out.” Thus, “liberty in the economic domain necessitates the leveling of the playing field and the lifting of these restrictions.” Social mobility and prosperity for all would be elusive otherwise.

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