"Squeezed between the fear and repression wrought by despotic states and the violence and lawlessness that emerge in their absence is a narrow corridor of liberty."
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen many instances of leaders around the world using the state of emergency to consolidate their power over society.
According to The New York Times, the governments of countries like Thailand imposed curfews, censored the media and used intimidation tactics to crackdown on any criticism about how the government was handling the outbreak. Similarly, Hungary's Prime Minister went as far as to suspend the country's laws and declare an indefinite state of emergency with the ability to crack down on 'fake news' as he pleased.
Even in countries like Singapore, extensive mass surveillance under the guise of social security was deemed acceptable to curb the virus. This goes to show how fragile the liberty of citizens is especially during a state of emergency. One can even argue that the most basic liberties we take for granted are constantly at the risk of being undermined by an opportunistic state given the right circumstances.
In that regard, the authors of the international bestseller 'Why Nations Fail,' Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explore liberty through a unique framework developed in their book, 'The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty' detailing why some nations have achieved it while others have failed trying.
The duo identifies three main types of states a country can fall into based on the level of power the country's government and society possess which determine its situation of liberty: a despotic state ('Despotic Leviathan'), anarchy/weak state ('Absent Leviathan') and the accountable and effective state ('Shackled Leviathan').
Here the term 'Leviathan' refers to the government which can bring order, resolve disputes and monopolise violence to keep a nation in the corridor of liberty.
Using this framework, the authors posit that liberty or the ability of citizens to live their lives in peace and free from violence or intimidation is rare in our present time and history. Liberty, which is a driving force for innovation, higher standards of living and economic prosperity cannot be engineered with checks and balances in the government the same way the democratic constitution of a country does not automatically ensure the rights and freedom of its citizens.
Instead, the authors argue that liberty is a continuous process that emerges and even flourishes when both the state and the society controlling it are strong. In other words, a strong, capable state is essential to uphold laws, provide public services and maintain the citizens' rights while working alongside a mobilised society that can participate in politics, raise its voice, and can vote the government out of power - if necessary - to ensure liberty.
More importantly, the balance of power between the two as they develop and improve their capacities is so important that if one advances over the other, countries can leave the 'narrow corridor of liberty' and become despotic like China or North Korea or devolve into anarchy like in Syria or the tribes in Africa, which use societal norms and taboos to uphold a hierarchical status quo.
Only a Leviathan shackled by a mobilised, participating society like that of the US, Sweden or that of ancient Athens can overcome societal norms (like the caste system in India or the gender segregation in Saudi Arabia), maintain order by monopolising violence and ensure liberty for its citizens according to the book.
Moreover, the authors explore the history of many different countries and societies - from the evolution of the House of Saud or the Qing dynasty to Nelson Mandela's South Africa and Hitler's Nazi Germany - to fully exemplify the various takeaways from their theory.
Through their exploration we find out how Despotic Leviathans in the Middle East abused the institutional structure of Islam to trap society in a 'cage of norms,' how Lebanon's Absent Leviathan caused trash to pile up and why the Danes trusted their government to collect and monitor their data.
Overall, I found the framework developed in the book quite insightful in explaining the prosperity and the liberty (or the lack thereof) of many countries. Anyone interested in history, politics and economics will find this book worthwhile although the 500-page read might prove daunting for some.
The most interesting part of the book for me was its take on China and India. Readers may be interested in knowing why China will not be a liberal democracy anytime soon despite its economic might and how India is held back by its caste system despite its democratic institutions.
Furthermore, while there is no guarantee whether the countries of the world will become more like liberal democracies, digital dictatorships or devolve into anarchy, the theory professed in the book shows us the trajectories of each while optimistically reminding us that there are multiple paths to the narrow corridor where freedom lies.
On a different note, the photography section of the book adds much needed context and visual representation to the many historical events of the different nations discussed in the book which is definitely a plus point.
However, the book is not without its flaws, while history buffs like me did enjoy the long rich explorations into the history of remote societies and world superpowers alike, the points made by the authors may feel repetitive and arduous over the 500 pages of the book.
Similarly, the applications of the theory placed forth by the book are quite limited due to its qualitative nature (we do not know where the corridor leads other than prosperity) making it hamstrung in its capacity to chart the course of the nations in the future (as the authors put it, if the corridor is narrowed by war, demographic changes or any other external shocks then any free society could leave the corridor toward despotism).
Furthermore, the book was too American-centric in my opinion although some of the points the authors made were interesting (including the implications of mass surveillance of the NSA and operations of the FBI undermining the liberty of the Shackled American Leviathan) nonetheless.
Finally, you might be curious about where Bangladesh falls within this framework, the book provides enough clues for a clear answer. Let us just say that when people stop believing in the fairness of elections and polling booths turn up empty, the shackles of the Leviathan have already come off and turned despotic. Then again, you should read the book and find out.
(The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, New York: Penguin Press, 2019. pp.576)