Amid heightened economic, social, and political divides, social unrest, and rising
popularity of antiliberty arguments, Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson write a
book that unapologetically emphasizes the importance of liberty. Liberty not only
creates prosperity but also is the foundation that provides individuals with what they
wantthe opportunity to create and live the lives they want to live. Good old-fashioned
liberty. The kind of liberty discussed by John Locke, where individuals can act, buy, sell,
think, and speak without having to ask for permission as long as these actions do not
directly harm others. People must be free from violence, intimidation, punishment, and
social sanctions in order to make free choices about their lives.
Yet this kind of freedom is rarely observed across the world or throughout history.
Acemoglu and Robinson ask why. Like many moral philosophers, political economists,
and political scientists before them, this book addresses the age-old question Why is
liberty so hard to achieve and sustain? To address this daunting political economy
question, a crash course on the history of human societies is provided, focusing on when
liberty has taken hold and where it failed to do so. The authors key ingredient to
making liberty last is the state. Liberty needs the state. But theres a huge catch. The
state must be controlled. We must shackle Leviathan. And theres the problem.
Throughout history, individuals have not been very good at constraining Leviathan,
which leads to a conundrum. People want liberty but need the state to provide
necessary protections so that private citizens do not infringe on each others rights.
However, once the state is granted power, the main infringement on liberty is the state.
Therefore, the authors title their book The Narrow Corridor because the pathway that
avoids tyranny by the state or tyranny by statelessness is narrow indeed.
The book presents a framework to assess alternative forms of governance with the
overall goal to attain and keep a free society. To summarize, societies are classified as (1)
absent Leviathan, (2) despotic Leviathan, or (3) shackled Leviathan. Under the first
scenario, statelessness, life is either nasty, brutish and short or peaceful but relies solely
on norms to govern that can stifle liberty. With a despotic Leviathan, peace and
economic growth are possible, but they usually create an unequal society where liberty
and prosperity are shared by only an elite few. Shackled Leviathan creates a path for
liberty with a state not only providing necessary protections and safeguards but also
including social safety nets and providing public goods.
To get the benefits of liberty and freedom, we need option three, shackled Leviathan.
But, first, certain norms and institutions must exist before state building ensues;
otherwise, we end up with despotic Leviathan. These preconditions are bottom-up,
participatory institutions and egalitarian norms grounded in liberty that usually exist
first under statelessness, such as those norms that existed in Germanic tribes or Italian
city-states. A government can make this type of stateless society better off by codifying
liberty-grounded norms, breaking illiberal norms, and centralizing law making and
bureaucratic enforcement, as was done under the Roman Empire. This unique balance
of power between state and society is the narrow corridor where a powerful state and
liberty coexist. Here, state capacity and individual liberties increase, creating a prosperous
and flourishing society, such as ancient Greece or the United States.
Anyone who is interested in economics, philosophy, politics, history, liberty, and
wealth creation should read this book. The authors do a fantastic job of outlining a
framework to compare alternative means of governing and using historical case studies
to provide the evidence for their arguments. Scholars and policy makers too often treat a
society like a blank canvas that can be reconstructed, ignoring the historical determinants
that shape present-day culture, traditions, economic incentives, and the political
structure (for a similar critique, see William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts:
Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor [New York: Basic Books,
2014]). Acemoglu and Robinson avoid this trap by crafting a narrative that asserts
historical inertia as a main explanatory factor of the tug-of-war between liberty and
The work, however, isnt without flaws and oversights. The authors walk us
through myriad examples where some societies never enter the corridor, some move in
and out, and a few maintain the balance between liberty and state power. If state power
is too strong, a society moves toward despotism. If social norms are too powerful, a
society shifts toward statelessness. It is unclear, however, exactly what drives this balance
or what pulls a society in one direction versus another.
The authors miss an opportunity to deepen their theoretical contribution and help
explain shifts toward despotism by ignoring insights from the public-choice literature.
All politicians, including autocrats and those democratically elected, are driven by selfinterest.
Political self-interest often does not align with granting and protecting individual
liberty. Constraining Leviathan requires controlling special interests and rent
seeking, limiting bureaucratic growth and overall growth of government, minimizing regulatory capture, and curtailing redistribution. Utilizing contributions from these
bodies of works could provide deeper understanding on how to limit state power.
The framework assumes that once Leviathan is shackled, it gives people what
they wantin this case liberty. Thus, the solution appears to be baked into the question
with a circular argument. Society must want liberty and currently govern with norms
that support individual rights, including property rights, and a spirit of innovation. But
this society still needs a state to achieve even better economic and social outcomes. The
state, however, must be constrained, or society runs the risk of despotism, which could
be worse than statelessness. These necessary shackles that will avoid state tyranny are
generated from the norms that governed during statelessness. So why do we need a
state? Weighing the marginal costs and benefits of statelessness versus Leviathan would
have been a welcome addition to the framework and historical analysis.
The shackled Leviathan theory heavily relies on a cultural explanation, which begs
the question: Why not consider another option under absent Leviathan? That the
peaceful, liberty-loving norms necessary to create shackled Leviathan may in fact be
capable of creating a society not considered by Acemoglu and Robinson. Statelessness
can generate a prosperous society where norms arent stifling and life isnt in a constant
state of warfare. This version of statelessness is not considered. Statelessness is too easily
equated to lawlessness, which isnt a fair representation of stateless societies as described
in the anarchy literature that has emerged over the past several decades, as reviewed by
Benjamin Powell and Edward P. Stringham (Public Choice and the Economic Analysis
of Anarchy: A Survey, Public Choice 140 : 50338).
Governance mechanisms in stateless societies can be viewed as being effective
and efficient given the context in which they are operating and compared to the
feasible alternatives available (see, for instance, Peter T. Leeson, Anarchy Unbound:
Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think [Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2014]). It is easy to criticize stateless societies when the benchmark is a
truly shackled Leviathan; however, by Acemoglu and Robisons own account, the
latter form of government is so rare that perhaps it shouldnt be our point of
comparison. Anarchy can be a second-best solution and should be discussed more
seriously, as Peter T. Leeson and Claudia R. Williamson argue (Anarchy and Development:
An Application of the Theory of Second Best, Law and Development
Review 2, no. 1 : 7796).
Similarly, historical and present-day societies that experience hellish conditions
from living under dictatorships could be better off without such a tyrannical state. If
such societies were to become stateless, they might achieve more liberties and freedoms,
a possibility that Acemoglu and Robinson too easily dismiss because of their fear of the
cage of normsa fear that is not sufficiently established.
By attempting to answer the political economy question, Acemoglu and Robinsons
work may have generated more questions than it answers. I anticipate that scholars
across the social sciences will write many subsequent journal articles and books engaging
in numerous interesting and important debates. For example, instead of looking to the
state as the only source of sustainable liberty, a more fruitful research agenda is to
examine alternative forms of governance that do not involve the state.