Foreign Policy and the Fund For Peace have just published an index of “failed states”. It includes a list of 60 countries posing a threat to world security.

This commendable exercise has triggered a debate about the definition of a failed state, whether the countries on the list are ranked in the right order, and whether some of them should be there at all. But the more important issue is that this study equates “failure” with the absence or insufficiency of state power, thereby contributing to the idea that centralization is the best way to fight lawlessness –a view that can translate into backing authoritarian rule in countries where that type of rule is at the heart of the problem.

The study defines a “failed state” as one that loses the control of a territory or the monopoly of legitimate force, lacks the capacity to make collective decisions or deliver public services, presides over a society that relies on the black market, or fails to collect taxes.

It is true that these manifestations of state failure are present in many of the countries that make up the list. But these failures constitute symptoms rather than root causes. Symptoms of what? Essentially, symptoms of too much concentrated power. By overextending their reach at various stages of their recent history, the political apparatuses of these countries have caused factional or tribal disputes, often compounded by international armies intervening on behalf of this or that group. The origin of the breakdown of law and order has often been the stratification of society into an oligarchy at the top and a destitute majority at the bottom by whatever party, tribe or faction was able to take control of the state.

Let’s examine a few cases.

Ivory Coast tops the index. After its independence, this country was ruled for 33 years by Felix Houphouet-Boigny., who installed a centralized autocracy until he was replaced by Bédié, another thug. Violence among various factions linked to the state followed. The current struggle between President Gbagbo and general Doué is just another power strife within a state whose centralization has caused society to divide into various factions vying for its control.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was a highly centralized dictatorship under Mobutu for three decades. Kabila, who took power in 1997, simply replaced the man at the top while the structure of power remained intact. The problem was compounded by Rwandan interference because that Tutsi-controlled government resented the fact that many Hutus took refuge in the Congo. The resulting violence has made the transition effort impossible.

The case of Rwanda and Burundi is also one of stratification caused by too much state power. After independence in 1962, the Tutsi minority used the state to enslave Hutus in Burundi. Once Hutus gained power, murder and discrimination continued through the coups and counter-coups organized by various Hutu leaders. In Rwanda, after a long period of Tutsi domination under Belgian rule, the Hutus gained independence. They used government power to oppress the Tutsis during the next two decades, sparking the creation of a Tutsi guerrilla. The Tutsis, after suffering a veritable genocide, eventually came to power and, using the political apparatus taken over from their predecessors, terrorized the Hutus, forcing them to flee to Congo.

In Bangladesh, independence in the early 1970s was followed by a military dictatorship. In the 1990s, the Bangladesh National Party took control, through elections, of the same, centralized state machinery that had at its disposal, among other things, vast economic resources, including natural gas. The current conflict between the BNP and the Awami League is again a struggle between two state-related factions for control of the political apparatus already in place.

In Haiti too the excess of state power caused the problem. For decades, the Duvalier family governed the country as if it were their estate. When democracy arrived in the 1990s, President Aristide preserved the structure of the government, using it for his own benefit. A reaction ensued and the rest is history.

The index of “failed states” also includes Peru, where excessive government rather than the absence of state power is the cause of instability. Centralization means that Lima, the capital, dominates the economy. Arequipa, the second most important city, does not produce more than 6 percent of the nation’s GDP. Naturally, this is a source of frustration in the provinces, where political radicalism is back. Almost 70 percent of the economy is illegal, but that is the result of too many taxes and regulations.

Cuba and Venezuela are included in the index. Castro has been accused of many things but never of losing control of his territory. As for Venezuela, Mr. Chávez’s grip on power is so stable that he has time to meddle in other countries, including Bolivia, where he has close ties with troublemaker Evo Morales. Venezuela is a textbook case of too much state power. The government owns the oil, a source of 85 percent of the country’s exports.

Foreign Policy is right to warn that “2 billion people live in insecure states”. However, it make’s one’s hair stand on end to hear the statement that world leaders, who once worried about who was amassing power, now worry “about the absence of it.” The issue is not the absence of state power, but rather, the absence of individual-based rights, protecting people from the authoritarian tool used by successive factions over time to control them: too much government.