Monday, March 7, 2022

The Narrow Corridor

The authors, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson contend that the pursuit of liberty takes us down a narrow corridor.  They use an analogy based on a book written during the English Civil War by Thomas Hobbes who felt a strong state, or "Leviathan" was necessary for liberty.  The authors agree, but it must be balanced by a strong society.  Otherwise what we get are such things as oppression, apathy, and corruption.  They use many examples of the problems to negotiate   The goal for liberty is a Shackled Leviathan which may seen a strange conception, but it is  well explained and carried on through the entire book.  This is perhaps the most serious, practical discussion of how societies and governments are organized to provide real liberty I have read in a long time.

Another part of their analogy is what they call the "Red Queen Effect" taken from Alice in Wonderland where there is a lot of activity that doesn't achieve anything.  But they use it to indicate activity that often does achieve something, specifically moving society from complacency to participatory and often somewhere in between.  What are considered "norms" are too often details that prevent real liberty.  One example was the tool of ostracism used in ancient Greece to improve life conditions.  The "Narrow Corridor" is that difficult part where liberty can be achieved if individual can push a Red Queen effect in the right direction.

John Locke is quoted, "Where there is no law there is no freedom."  On the other hand if the people do not control the state there is no freedom.  Justice is a key element.  Many leaders are chosen because they are able to mediate disputes.  A society that cannot resolve disputes is in effect fighting against itself. The book covers a wide range of nations and groups and how they fail or in a few cases succeed. in mastering the narrow corridor. 

Taxes are needed to provide services and help with inequality.  From another source it was pointed out that it can only work if wealthy people accept higher taxes and as we know there is much deception and political resistance that lessens liberty for the rest of the population.  The irony is that public services such as military, roads, etc benefit everyone.

Chile was an example of how a country could go off the right path.  They had large landlords who forced their workers to vote their preferred slate.  In 1958 Chile adopted secret ballots and started to open up.  Salvatore Allende was an avowed socialists who failed to get elected in 1952, but gradually improved his electoral standing until in 1970 with a coalition and support from a third party he became the president.  However his plans for land reform and other progressive steps upset the opposition.  Not only that, the American CIA became involved with financial support and advice (possibly more, but some of the records are still sealed) Allende was murdered and deposed allowing a dictator to take over.  It was their version of 9/11 taking place on September 11, 1973.  Eventually overturned which was nicely told in a movie, "No."

A little after this I was working for the Oakville Journal Record.  My department boss told me about the head of classified ads, Alan Lathrop who had befriended my boss.  I learned that Alan had come from Chile where he had been a journalist, good enough to have interviewed Charles de Gaulle, but had to flee after the assassination.

Another example is a contrast involving Costa Rica and Guatemala.  They both had been ruled by Spain and they both gained independence at about the same time and furthermore both had fertile land.  Costa Rica encouraged farming coffee with free land, allowing for many small farms.  They were very successful in their marketing and decided to do not build up their military eventually  discarding their army.  Instead their money was invested in education and have raised their literacy rates to the highest in Central America.  Baraulio Carrillo made key decisions in the 1830's and 1840's that enabled Costa Rica to negotiate the difficult narrow corridor that led to what the authors would label a Shackled Leviathan meaning a strong state and a participatory society.   Over the past several years they have drawn attention to themselves  as a a tourist destination with an uniquely uncommon strategy:

Contrast that to their Central American neighbor Guatemala.  They opted for large landowners that kept wages down and the peasants with no real political power.  Several generations later I befriended the son of one large landowner and two of his siblings.  Hector was a good friend who I once hitch hiked from Guelph to North Bay with in the winter time and I feel confident has made a contribution to society mainly due to the fact that his father saw value in education and sent three of his children to Canada to get one.  Other friends who visited his family in Guatemala all emphasized how much overwhelming poverty struck them.

Another interesting, telling example was with Lagos, Nigeria.  They were noted for trash in the streets which was the result of an inept bureaucracy.  New leaders made a decision to appoint qualified people for government positions instead of political cronies.  They also adopted electronic tax payments which reduced  corruption by tax collectors and increased revenue to provide public services, notably trash, pickup but also lowered crime and improved the economy.

Sweden set up a welfare state during the 1930's Depression by coordinating business, agriculture, labor and other stake holders.  One early agreement was there would be no nationalizations which put business at ease.  All decisions that affected society were made after many consultations were made.  They learned that unemployment insurance and other government payments kept the economy going while unions did not press for heavy wage increases, but better working conditions.  

Another illustrative contrast was between the United States and Denmark over public attitudes regarding security surveillance.  When Edward Snowden revealed how much surveillance was used on American citizens he was denounced as a traitor while many people became upset over the invasion of their privacy.  The Danes were also made aware of similar surveillance, but were more accepting as their government had been more transparent about it and it was thought necessary to protect individuals.  The main difference was that the Danes trusted their government unlike Americans.

Yuval Noah Harari claimed that the world is headed to digital dictatorship if we don't take steps to stop it.  Daron and James are able to point on some counter trends, but we have to be on our guard. Yuval is one of my favorite thinkers: 

There are many concerns that society needs to encourage.  The authors suggest human rights and voter rights are critical.  Redistricting (gerrymandering) is a means of twarting voter's will and in some American jurisdictions is opening advocated.  When lobbyists have too much power they undercut what people really want.  Some thoughts on lobbyists: 

Money has too much power and needs to be drastically curtailed for many political jurisdictions.  Education is necessary to make good decisions and needs to be open.

The authors give many more historical examples of dynamics from different times and all the continents (except Antarctica) of how some societies were steered into dictatorships, poverty  and an unsatisfactory life.  On the other hand there are a few positive examples of how some societies were able to identify the narrow corridor and steer down it.  There are varying degrees of success and it is an ongoing battle to keep in the narrow corridor which is the balance between a strong state and a participatory society.

Identifying oneself as a stakeholder is a step towards building coalitions.  Shareholders, employees, consumers, neighbors, minorities all have a stake in the government and should have their concerns be respected.  They need freedom to organize and to see common interests.

To understand how we get or don't get personal liberty I would say  this book has more insights than I have encountered in a very long time.

The two men, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson had an earlier interesting book on its own merits, but served as useful research for this one.

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