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Democracy on a Knife-Edge

The failure to protect minority rights is a readily understood consequence of the political logic behind the emergence of democracy. What requires explanation is not the relative rarity of liberal democracy, but its existence.

CAMBRIDGE – In Mohammed Hanif’s novel Red Birds, an American bomber pilot crashes his plane in the Arabian desert and is stranded among the locals in a nearby refugee camp. He finds himself talking about thieves with a local shopkeeper. “Our government is the biggest thief,” he explains. “It steals from the living, it steals from the dead.” The shopkeeper replies, “Thank God we don’t have that problem. We just steal from each other.”

This little vignette just about summarizes the key message of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s new book, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis is that prospects for freedom and prosperity balance on a knife-edge between state oppression and the lawlessness and violence that society so often inflicts on itself. Give the state too much of an upper hand over society, and you have despotism. Render the state weak vis-à-vis society, and you get anarchy.

As the book’s title signals, there is only a “narrow corridor” between these two dystopias, a slender path that only a few countries, mostly in the industrialized West, have managed to find. Furthermore, getting on the path does not guarantee staying on it. Acemoglu and Robinson emphasize that unless civil society remains vigilant and is able to mobilize against would-be autocrats, authoritarian regress always remains a possibility.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s new book builds on their previous blockbuster, Why Nations Fail. In that book and other writings, they identified what they call “inclusive institutions” as the principal driver of economic and political progress. These institutions, such as secure property rights and the rule of law, are accessible to all (or most) citizens and do not favor a narrow group of elites over the rest of society.

One country that has always given the Acemoglu-Robinson thesis some trouble is China. The Communist Party of China’s monopoly of political power, the country’s rampant corruption, and the ease with which the Party’s economic competitors and political opponents can be dispossessed hardly smack of inclusive institutions. Yet it is undeniable that over the last four decades the Chinese regime has achieved unprecedented rates of economic growth and the most impressive reduction in poverty in recorded history.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson argued that Chinese economic growth will run out of steam unless extractive political institutions give way to inclusive institutions. They double down on this thesis in The Narrow Corridor. They characterize China as a country where a strong state has dominated society for almost two and a half millennia. Having spent so much time outside the corridor, they argue, it is unlikely that China can make a smooth entry back in. Neither political reform nor continued rapid economic growth seems likely.

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The other large country that now seems to sit ill at ease with the original Acemoglu-Robinson thesis is the United States. At the time Why Nations Fail was written, many still considered the US a prime example of inclusive institutions – a country that got rich and became democratic through the development of secure property rights and the rule of law. Today, the income distribution of the US is as skewed as in any plutocracy. And the country’s representative political institutions, under attack from a demagogue, look decidedly brittle.

The Narrow Corridor seems to be written in part to provide an account of the apparent fragility of liberal democracies. The authors coin the term “Red Queen Effect” to denote the ever-continuing struggle to uphold open political institutions. Like the character in the Lewis Carroll book, civil society has to run ever faster to keep up with authoritarian leaders and restrain their despotic tendencies.

The ability of civil society to stand up to “Leviathan” may in turn depend on social divisions and their evolution. Democracy typically emerges from the rise of popular groups that can challenge the power of the elites or from splits among elites. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, industrialization, world wars, and de-colonization led to the mobilization of such groups. Ruling elites acceded to their opponents’ demands that the franchise be extended, without property qualifications, (usually) to all males. In return, the newly enfranchised groups accepted limits on their ability to expropriate property holders. In short, voting rights were exchanged for property rights.

But, as I discuss in joint work with Sharun Mukand, liberal democracy requires more: rights that protect minorities (what we may call civil rights). The defining characteristic of the political settlement that generates democracy is that it excludes the main beneficiary of civil rights – minorities – from the bargaining table. These minorities have neither resources (like the elite) nor numbers (like the majority) behind them. The political settlement thus favors an impoverished kind of democracy – what one might call electoral democracy – over liberal democracy.

This helps explain why liberal democracy is such a rare beast. The failure to protect minority rights is a readily understood consequence of the political logic behind the emergence of democracy. What requires explanation is not the relative rarity of liberal democracy, but its existence. The surprise is not that few democracies are liberal, but that there are any liberal democracies at all.

This is hardly a comforting conclusion at a time when liberal democracy seems very much under threat, even in those parts of the world where it seems to have been permanently entrenched. But by appreciating the fragility of liberal democracy, we can perhaps avoid the lassitude induced by taking it for granted.

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