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Weak States, Poor Countries

The absence of state capacity – that is, of the services and protections that people in rich countries take for granted – is one of the major causes of poverty and deprivation around the world. Unfortunately, the world’s rich countries currently are making things worse.

This commentary was originally published in September 2013.

PRINCETON – In Scotland, I was brought up to think of policemen as allies and to ask one for help when I needed it. Imagine my surprise when, as a 19-year-old on my first visit to the United States, I was met by a stream of obscenities from a New York City cop who was directing traffic in Times Square after I asked him for directions to the nearest post office. In my subsequent confusion, I inserted my employer’s urgent documents into a trash bin that, to me, looked a lot like a mailbox.

Europeans tend to feel more positively about their governments than do Americans, for whom the failures and unpopularity of their federal, state, and local politicians are a commonplace. Yet Americans’ various governments collect taxes and, in return, provide services without which they could not easily live their lives.

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