Further Reader Comments on Arab Spring
Monday, March 26, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

One of our readers sent the following comment:

I took some interest in the reader comment today about monarchy and the Arab Spring. Could it be that monarchies, to a greater extent than mere despoties, spend some time on justifying or clarifying the role of the royal family? And that such efforts may translate into what we can call a social contract?

If you look at European history, many royal families, and monarchies, still exists even in the face of democracy. The Norwegian royal family was even elected as late as in 1905, at a time were the country was rapidly transforming into a modern democratic state.

Without having any academic expertise on the issue of European monarchies, I have the feeling the traditional royal families managed to stay in power by changing the social contracts they had with their populace as times changed. Today they stripped of most constitutional powers, but still function as national symbols. The social contracts has obviously changed.

Which brings me to my point: The importance is, perhaps, not about monarchy vs despotism per se, but rather about the existence of a social contract or not, and how this contract is honoured and adapted to changing times and challenges.

The same idea may also spur an interesting debate on the issue of ‘democratic India’ vs ‘autocratic China’:

Could it be that, while India does, at least in theory, have free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, China may still have a more functional social contract? The democratic nature of the political and economic system in both countries should be questioned, of course, but is it sure that India would stand up to scrutiny and really perform better democratically than China?

Especially, there appears to be no such thing as an effective social contract in India, while there appears to be a rather clear social contract in China. In the absence of elections and the said freedoms, the government has still committed to honour a social contract: The creation of jobs and prosperity. Furthermore, criticism aimed at the inability of the authorities to honour hits contract is considered legitimate. Other criticism not so much, of course. Which also limits the space for re-negotiation of the contract, in case citizens have other aspirations than jobs and prosperity.

I hope I make myself understandable, even when writing in some kind of a hurry… And thanks again for the blog!

The issue of “social contract” is important and certainly could be investigated further. But perhaps the important question is this: what makes a social contract stick? Our perspective is that a social contract also needs to be backed up by political power. The British and Norwegian model, with the monarchy playing a figurehead role, is feasible precisely because these monarchies have been stripped from their political power, facilitating a social contract in which they respect the workings of electoral institutions. It would be difficult to imagine the same working out with the Stuart kings before the Glorious Revolution took away their military, economic and judicial power, and destroyed the social coalitions supporting them. For this reason, there are grounds to be skeptical that there is a social contract in China where the Communist Party will refrain from acting in ways that damages the economy. The Party controls the judiciary, the military, the bureaucracy and the media. So even if they claim their authority from a social contract, the moment this supposed contract strongly conflicts with the interests of those at the helm, the chances are that it will be worth not much more than the paper it’s written on.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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