Sunday, May 22, 2011

Violence and political change

I finished all 483 pages of Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order today. What a great book! I highly recommend it if you're interested in human history and political, social, and economic development.

Given the scope of the book and the many millenia it spans, I don't feel up to the task of summarizing it right now. So I'll just share this quote on the role of violence in political change that I found interesting:
The ability of societies to innovate institutionally thus depends on whether they can neutralize existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform....

The stability of dysfunctional equilibria suggests one reason why violence has played such an important role in institutional innovation and reform. Violence is classically seen as the problem that politics seeks to solve, but sometimes violence is the only way to displace entrenched stakeholders who are blocking institutional change. The fear of violent death is a stronger emotion that the desire for material gain and is capable of motivating more far-reaching changes in behavior. We already noted ... that economic motives like the desire to put in place a large irrigation system were highly implausible causes of pristine state formation. Incessant tribal warfare or fear of conquest by better-organized groups is, by contrast, a very understandable reason why free and proud tribesmen might agree to live in a centralized state.
Fukuyama cites the disagreement over slavery in the U.S. as a conflict that "could not be solved under the Constitution and necessitated a war that claimed more than six hundred thousand American lives." And as a consequence, the power of the federal government expanded significantly.

He also makes the claim that accountability in political systems is not sufficient to support good governance, arguing that the emergence of modern liberal democracies requires "a relative balance of power between a cohesive state and an equally well-organized society that can defend its interests." While the rarity of that condition explains why the English parliamentary case is unique rather than typical, the increasingly free flow of ideas since the Industrial Revolution has allowed other nations to more readily borrow and adapt such institutions to their own needs. Still, the success of externally imposed nation building is limited by the degree to which a society can be mobilized on its own behalf...

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