Why Lebanon Has a Very Ineffective State (with thanks to Ishac Diwan and Danyel Reiche)

In our last post we argued that a problem with the approach to state formation pioneered by James Scott is that he takes it for granted that states want to expand and dominate society. It turns out that this is not true in much of the world.

Still in other dimensions we think that he actually undersells his ideas. For instance in the Art of Not Being Governed he states that the analysis is of historical importance mostly and not relevant to the recent past.

Scott rules out the applicability of his ideas to modern times because he does not consider the possibility that people can sometimes politically control the state and its functionaries —a possibility which we will discuss extensively in the next few posts. His main argument is that people mostly resist the state and flee from it because they see it as tyrannical. But what happens if society could control the state? If it could, maybe they could tolerate it, and even under some conditions they would be happy to see it expand. Therefore the governance — the politics — of the state is critical.

This perspective then suggests that we should try to link resistance to the expansion of the state to the inability of the people to control it. This is exactly the lesson one can draw from the Lebanese case.

In Lebanon there is a state but it is very ineffective. The parliament has not voted on a budget for eight years, letting the Cabinet write its own. The country’s lawmakers and politicians took nearly a year to agree on a new government after the prime minister resigned in March 2013. Since the current parliament of 128 lawmakers was elected in June 2009, the lawmakers have met 21 times — an average of 4 times a year. In 2013, lawmakers met only twice and passed two laws. One of them was to extend their mandate for 18 months, pushing back elections. The last time Lebanese parliament ratified the budget set by the government was in 2005. Lawmakers have never met to discuss government policies to deal with the refugee influx from the Syrian civil war that has strained social services including education, health and electricity to their limit.

So the Lebanese legislature and executive is pretty inactive to say the least. But there are deeper problems with the Lebanese state, to get an idea of this have a look at the following picture.

From the picture, it looks like Lebanon at least has a serious army with well-dressed and armed soldiers. But look closer, that flag doesn’t seem to have the cedars of Lebanon on it. What is it? In fact it is the flag of Hezbollah and these soldiers are not the Lebanese national army, they are the army of Hezbollah. So the Lebanese state does not have the most basic characteristic of a state — the monopoly of violence (and perhaps even the monopoly of legitimate violence, since Hezbollah is viewed as legitimate by a significant fraction of the Lebanese population.

Lebanese society is divided into 18 recognized communities, mostly along religious lines, of which the largest are the Sunnis, the Shias, the Druze, the Maronites and the Orthodox Christians. An agreement reached after Lebanon’s independence in 1943 ensures that the president is a Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shiite Muslim. This agreement and the underlying distribution of power in the electoral system is so brittle that Lebanon has not conducted a census since 1932 since learning that the distribution of population between the different communities has changed could destabilize the whole equilibrium. So there is a huge lack of “legibility” in Lebanon because of the politics of state formation.)

The state does not have a monopoly of violence and most communities used to have armed militias, though they are demobilized now except for Hezbollah. Each community taxes its members, but Lebanon itself has no income tax system. There is no national health care plan and no nationwide electricity grid, because each community provides health care and electricity to its members. The nature and politics of all of this is analyzed in the new book by Melani Cammett Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon.

The main point we are emphasizing is that in Lebanon society is well organized and the society does not seem to demand a strong state because it is worried about not being able to control it once this state is in operation. And if in fact people cannot control the state, then it will be constructed and used in ways that are inimical to their interests, just as Scott envisaged it.

At the root of this is the fact that the different Lebanese communities have never been able to agree on an institutional architecture that generates enough consensus to implement a program of state building. Despite the parallels with Scott’s emphasis, politics, largely ignored by Scott, is also key: the demand for a state and the services that it provides is conditional on the governance structures that will be in place. 

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