Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Let them eat dark chocolate

A recent issue of Perspectives on Politics (vol. 8, no. 1, March 2010) carries a symposium on Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), by Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NW&W).

The first review in the symposium is by Jack Snyder, who writes that NW&W "aim at nothing less than explaining democracy, economic development, and domestic social peace, which, they say, tend to go together for reasons that have heretofore eluded explanation by social science. The 'omitted factor' that they say causes these good outcomes is the 'open access' pattern of social relationships, based on impersonal rules that provide universal access to the benefits of political and economic organizations (p.13)."

Snyder hastens to assure us that this is more than "an all-too-familiar paean to the benign efficiency of democratic and market institutions, which," he notes with considerable understatement, "might be off-putting to some readers in the wake of the global financial meltdown." Rather, NW&W's distinction between open-access societies and limited-access societies (which they call "natural states") has, according to Snyder, "profound implications for efforts to engineer democratic and economic development."
"Like recent research on red wine and dark chocolate, everything you thought was bad for you turns out to be good, and vice versa. Orderly corruption and electoral manipulation turn out to be good in natural states, because they preserve social peace and allow the gradual development of rule-governed relations among elites [except, one might think, in places where civil wars are already ongoing, but never mind that--LFC]. Natural states advance toward impersonal social relations by partial steps as they mature. Instead of making an unsustainable leap to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen,' they create semi-impersonal categories that treat all individuals of a given status -- nobles, clerics, whites, party members -- as juridical equals. Once rule of law and impersonal forms of organization are established among elites in this way, such practices can be extended to the entire population, if an elite faction sees an advantage in it."
Snyder observes that this supports "the view that successful democratic transitions need to be carried out in a sequence," starting with the construction of administrative and legal institutions and only then moving to "unfettered mass electoral politics."

Fair enough, I suppose -- but it seems to me that the stuff about natural states advancing gradually rather than "leap[ing] to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen'" fails to capture certain important events in "recorded human history" -- such as, say, the French Revolution. Since I've only read the review, not the book itself, I hesitate to be too critical. Still, it does give one pause.

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