The Narrow Corridor to Liberty: An Interview with Daron Acemoglu

Daron Acemoglu is the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A prolific author renowned for his work in the field of political economy, he co-wrote “Why Nations Fail” (2012) and, more recently, “The Narrow Corridor” (2019) with University of Chicago Professor James A. Robinson.

Harvard Political Review: “The Narrow Corridor” provides a framework for conceiving paths to achieving liberty within different types of nations. What drove you to write this book with Professor Robinson, and what gap were you setting out to fill in the existing literature?

Daron Acemoglu: “The Narrow Corridor” is, in some sense, a continuation of what James [Robinson] and I tried to do in “Why Nations Fail,” in that we are trying to get to grips with the factors which are critical to political development. In our mind, two aspects of “Why Nations Fail” were too narrow. First of all, we focused just on economics, and not on many of the things that political and economic development bring, such as greater freedom and better protection for the individual. Secondly, we wanted to delve deeper into the dynamics of institutions: how what we call “inclusive institutions” actually emerged and what their tumultuous process of developing looks like.

The balance which maintains liberty, democracy, and inclusive types of institutions is difficult and fragile in practice. That is what the idea of a “narrow corridor” towards liberty is supposed to emphasize. The emphasis is in equal part on the difficulty of getting into this corridor as a nation, and the difficulty of staying in the corridor. But I think that given the situations we are undergoing right now in late 2019 and the first half of 2020, perhaps the difficulties of staying in the corridor are even more visceral for people.

HPR: You seem to argue that states accede to this “narrow corridor” of expanding liberties with constructive competition between civil society and the state. How does this square with the immediacy of human rights concerns across much of the world, and do you think that there is a way in which this process can be expedited?

DA: Take instead China or Hong Kong, which are in the news as we speak. It is difficult to come up with strategies to prod China to respect human rights and political rights in Hong Kong. One of the perspectives of the book is that, as opposed to “end of history” narratives, there is no natural process that will bring all countries or economies to a liberal democratic state. As a result, China – which has 2,500 years of history that is very different from, say, the U.K. or France – is going to have its own dynamics which are not going to be very easy to influence. Once Hong Kong is part of China, defending human rights there is not going to be feasible.

There was a doctrine in the George W. Bush presidency – which no one would have applied to China anyway – that you could export democracy to Afghanistan or Iraq. That has not worked out so well for the obvious reasons that a small intervention in the complexity of a country with its own institutions, tradition, and shortcomings of state capacity and civil society participation is not going to create an overnight change. This is even more true for China.

On the other hand, I think that there are lessons which the framework emphasizes. For instance, once you have this view of the corridor, in which you may be out of the corridor either because your civil society is too weak or because your state is too strong, or conversely because your state is too weak relative to the strength of civil society, then we understand that state-building is not a crazy strategy in some places. However, we also understand that state-building would be completely counterproductive in other places, where the problem is already that the state is too dominant and does not give enough breathing room for societal flourishing.

HPR: You recently penned a piece for Foreign Affairs entitled “America’s Democratic Unravelling.” In it, you bemoan the violation of norms of compromise and restraint under Trump’s presidency, as well as the more direct unfurling of institutional checks and balances under his purview. While your article is primarily about what the presidency portends for the U.S. itself, what does this “democratic unravelling” mean for states who are dependent either militarily or economically on America? How do you wrestle back your agency as a state when your fate is so profoundly enmeshed in the political whims of the U.S., and when the only outside option seems to be what you call the “Despotic Leviathan” of China?

DA: There is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. is going through one of the most critical periods in its history, and that its institutions are truly in danger –  some of them have been damaged in a way that is going to be very difficult to repair. To be sure, though we have said that the U.S. was in the corridor and is an example of this gap between state elites and society elites, as we also stress in the book, it has always had many shortcomings.

The U.S. was never comfortably in the corridor, partly because of the “original sin” of the Constitution which, (a) empowered slave owners against slaves, (b) as part of the federal deal piled the hands of the states too much, and (c) did not really develop the means for providing public services and other help for the most disadvantaged citizens until much later than, say, other Western countries have.

All of those factors have always made the U.S. case a challenging one, because the U.S. is subject to more gyrations in the corridor than a country that might have been more firmly ensconced in it. That being said, the U.S. has weathered various difficult transitions quite well, such as during the Progressive Era, when the increasing power of both economic and political monopolies and trusts were reversed. But I think that right now we have the perfect storm. We have an authoritarian part of this president, who is corrupt and willing to destroy norms. And then on top of that, we have the current virus crisis.

In this perfect storm, I am genuinely worried about the future of the U.S. and its institutions. I wouldn’t say that the odds are against the U.S. surviving as a democracy, and I think that if the collapse happens it will be somewhat slower than the courts completely collapsing and jackboots of generals on the streets as has happened in Latin America or Turkey in the past. I also wouldn’t say that failure is much more likely than some sort of misdirection. But I do think that institutional failure and collapse is certainly not an unlikely event. It is something we really have to prepare for, understand, and take precautions against.

HPR: Much of the rhetoric of the current Black Lives Matter protests in the United States has been that of upheaval, around how defective institutions have consistently failed African American citizens. When does your theory of the “narrow corridor” leave scope for institutional overhaul, rather than a tentative procession in this very deliberate process of push and pull between state and civil society?

DA: I wouldn’t say that the process of push and pull is exactly deliberate. These movements have a lot of elements. Let’s look at the example I gave with the Progressive movement: it was a coalition of earlier movements, some of which had racist and anti-immigrant elements. This is a very complex process of push and pull. So institutional overhaul is, at some level, inevitable. Good institutions will sometimes fall prey to exactly the same forces that bring better reforms, and I do not think that is out of the question now. For instance, what we’re seeing in places like Mexico right now, with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a situation in which someone who came to power because of a deep discontent – perhaps similar to that felt by minorities and disadvantaged groups in the U.S. – among many Indigenous groups and other poor Mexicans. These groups felt that political institutions were not working for them, and were, on the contrary, biased against them. But López Obrador is not trying to resolve their issues by building these institutions; instead he has an agenda of demolishing many aspects of the institutions.  

Ultimately, even though the grievances that brought him to power are completely justified, López Obrador may damage Mexican institutions such as they are. That sort of dynamic is never out of the question, even in a country like the United States.

HPR: Civil society in America seems to be mobilizing in divergent directions. How does your theory of the “narrow corridor” square with these divergences within the direction of civil society? Can such a divided and incoherent civil society map onto a “creative competition” with the state?

DA: In some sense, in societies where there are deep divisions, one of the biggest challenges is to overcome those divisions so that the conflict turns from being “minority versus majority” – or “cross-caste” in the case of India, as we discussed in the book – to building institutions against state overreach, and prodding the state to build better, rather than repressive, capacity.  The argument that we make in the book is that when society is divided against itself, it becomes much harder for any positive-sum competition between civil society and the state to emerge.

Part of the genius of the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was to find a way of framing what was an existential struggle for them in a way that did not alienate the white majority. But because of America’s “original sin” or “Faustian bargain,” it has a long history of fraught race relations. There is a lot of evidence that when a segment of the white majority thinks that social welfare programs benefit minorities – especially African Americans, but also recent immigrants – then the white majority does not support those programs. This is one of the deep fault lines of U.S. politics and will be a barrier to be overcome as we move forward.

I think that in some sense, the onus is on both sides and that, just as the civil rights leaders did, the African American community and the Dreamers community have to find ways of framing their grievances in a manner which appeals to the broader community around them. I believe that the Dreamers have done that beautifully. For instance, they have a very strong case as people who grew up in the United States, and have all the culture and political citizenship, and yet, against the American ethos, are so unfairly excluded from all functional rights. I think that narrative works reasonably well, even though the president and his more extremist advisors are still on an anti-Dreamer agenda. Likewise, the cruel murder of George Floyd has generated a much greater unity among diverse segments of the population, as a moment for people to wake up to the explicit and implicit racism that still permeates our society.

So I do not think that civil society cohesion is impossible, but it is a challenge, even more so when some politicians seek to exploit division and polarize American society along these axes.

HPR: How does the entry point into the narrow corridor change when you are not the “first mover” on this path but instead, a people who, especially with social media, observe liberties afforded abroad and compare your standing to what you could access elsewhere? How do transnational movements impact how rapidly people seek to win the sort of sweeping change which you posit takes a long time to attain?

DA: I think that’s an important question, and that’s why we come back to it in the book. I would say that the force you describe is an important but weak one. It creates the demand for liberty, democratic institutions, and more inclusive economic arrangements, but it doesn’t necessarily bring a feasible path to it. Take Hong Kong. It was, of course, a British colony. They did not really have full democracy or full liberty under Britain; rather, they had some liberties within a good economy.

Really, what crystallized the demands of the Hong Kong people for greater freedoms and better democracy was this demonstration effect of knowing what was going on in the rest of the world and thus having increasing aspirations. Had it not been for that effect, Hong Kong might be like Tibet or Xinjiang, with nothing to defend whatever rights individuals have except for the fact that it’s a financial hub.

These people’s demands kept the place going as two systems under one state, as the Chinese like to say. But I think you see that it’s a weak force for the reason that once the political equilibrium changes, and opportunities for the Chinese leadership change and so on, it is not by itself enough to defend those rights. In some sense, this is the tragedy of social media and the globalized world: the demands for rights are very widespread, but the means are not there.

And the same forces that create the demonstration effect also empower authoritarian states to suppress in the form of internet control and greater military might which sovereign states can acquire from arms dealers. This is why I’m calling it a weak force.

Image Credit: “File:Acemoglu 2016.png” by MeJudice1 is licensed under CC BY 3.0

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