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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.

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