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Prelude to Seeing Like a State

A recurring theme in this blog — and in our recent work — is the nature of the state, why vary so much in different parts of the world and how this matters for economic development.

If you want to think about this question, you will sooner or later have to study the body of work produced by the Yale anthropologist/political scientist James Scott since the 1970s. In the next few posts, we will discuss some of this work and its implications for the nature and development of the state in modern societies.

In his early work, such as the book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Scott argued that revolutions occurred in Southeast Asia when the expansion of the state threatened the “moral economy” of peasants.

The idea of a “moral economy” came from the work of the English historian E.P. Thompson’s whose work features heavily in Why Nations Fail. Indeed, our argument about how a broad coalition is critical for leading to a transition from extractive to inclusive institutions was originally inspired by Thompson’s great book Whigs and Hunters, which is about the emergence of the rule of law in England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.

Thompson introduced the idea of the moral economy in his paper “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”. His aim was to critique the existing historical literature about riots in 18th century England. This literature saw them as short-run violent responses to price fluctuations and hard economic times. Thompson argued that they were part of a much more systematic social equilibrium in English society. Even if this was the same society that generated the Industrial Revolution, Thompson suggested that the economy was embedded in a set of social norms about fair and just prices and poor people acted collectively to enforce these social norms. This did not rule out an important role for economic fluctuations. Such collective action was particularly necessary in periods of dearth when there were large market pressures to increase prices, but he showed it operated all the time. Moreover, these social norms were accepted by elites as part of the social contract of 18th century England. Thompson’s argument is obviously influenced by the substantivist school of anthropology and the research of Karl Polanyi that we discussed in a previous post.

What Scott did in The Moral Economy of the Peasant was to extend this argument from rioting to revolution arguing that revolutions happen when “modernization” threatens to undermine the moral economy of the peasant, particularly his subsistence.

Modernization is conceived of here very broadly to include the impact of colonialism and the commercialization of agriculture and the spread of the market. But it also includes the introduction of modern tax systems that are insensitive to the needs and problems of the peasant. At least part of these transformations then constitutes the expansion of the state into rural areas. As the state expands and tries to exert control over rural territories it naturally tends to be insensitive to and violate the nature of the moral economy, hence leading to rebellion (why the state needs to behave this way is an interesting question we will return to).

This behavior of the state is picked up much more systematically in Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which we discuss in our next post.


Why Nations Fail in China

We have been in negotiations with a publishing house, Hunan Science and Technology Press, for the Chinese translation of Why Nations Fail. Perhaps not surprisingly, they said many parts of the book could not be published. More surprising was that this not only included our discussion of extractive institutions in China, but also: Gary Becker’s praise for the book, our discussion of South and North Korea, our discussion of the current state of North Korea, our discussion of Uzbekistan as well as any mention of China in the book.

After negotiations, we were able to save much of this material, but not our discussion of Chinese economic growth and institutions, which were deemed to be unacceptable by “higher authorities”.

After much hesitation, we decided to go ahead with this censored version rather than refuse publication entirely.

We are now hoping that they will accept to print at the beginning of the book that this is a censored version of the book and direct Chinese readers to this website for further information.

For interested readers, we would also like to point to the Taiwanese edition of our book, which could be found here.


Why Nations Fail on Colombian TV

With beautiful World Cup victories (so far!) and a historic presidential election, Colombians have their plates full. But in their spare time, they can also watch a TV program about Why Nations Fail.

The link is here (though it cannot be streamed everywhere around the world).


Turkey at Crossroads

The twists and turns of politics in Turkey have been head-spinning since December 17, when prosecutors and policemen moved in to arrest the sons of three high-ranking ministers, the head of a large public bank, and a shady Iranian-Azerbaijani businessman. This was followed by evidence allegedly implicating Prime Minister Erdoğan and his son in massive corruption and documenting extensive meddling in judicial cases.

Erdoğan’s response was swift. He argued that this was a coup attempt by his erstwhile ally and current foe, Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, whose supporters had come to dominate key positions in the police and the judiciary.  The court cases against Erdoğan’s allies were halted, and thousands of prosecutors, judges and policemen, suspected of being associated with Gülen and un-loyal to the government were relocated or cast aside.

This all went hand-in-hand with a crackdown on the media, further curbs on civil liberties, and the blocking of Twitter and YouTube, where many recordings purportedly related to these high-stakes corruption cases were being released.

It was enough to make even the most optimistic observers of Turkish democracy, or whatever was left of it, despair. And then the government got a decisive victory in the local elections in March, deepening the despair of many.

Is it possible to see some rays of hope for the future of Turkish democracy in this pile of gloom?

Daron’s article in Foreign Affairs argues that there is still hope because this is part of a painful process of institutional rebalancing away from the dominance of the military-bureaucratic elite. However perilous this process may be — all the more so because of the weakness of Turkish institutions and the authoritarian tendencies of Erdoğan — there was probably no other path for Turkey then going through it and hoping to survive it with the help of a newly-emerging vibrant civil society.

Erik Meyersson and Dani Rodrik in a thoughtful, if more pessimistic piece also in Foreign Affairs, disagreed, seeing the rise of Erdoğan and his party as an unblemished bad for Turkish institutions in society.



Back After an Extended Break

The Why Nations Fail blog took a semi-planned break as both of us got overwhelmed with other obligations.

We are now resuming our regular posts, first catching up with a few things that have been going on during our break.