What is Good Government, and Why Is It So Rare and Precious?

Navigating between the despotic extreme of authoritarianism and the unbridled liberty of anarchism is the challenge of society in its quest for good government. A new book looks at the choices facing policymakers to achieve the proper balance and to improve the prospects of those countries outside the “narrow corridor” of effective governance that lies between those extremes.

Before economists were economists, they were called philosophers. (Adam Smith is the best-known example.) And, in that role, they focused not so much on production and consumption as on what John Laughland called “the mystery of state power.”1 They asked, “Why do people organize governments? How do they manage to collectively agree to give up part of their freedom to achieve some other goal, such as security or cooperation? Does this agreement bubble up from below or is it imposed from above? Does it work? Under what conditions are governments more helpful than harmful, and under what conditions are they the opposite?”

Those are big questions, and it takes authors of the stature of Daron Acemoglu, one of the world’s leading economists, and James Robinson, held in equal regard in the field of political science, to tackle them. Acemoglu and Robinson have done that in The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. It is an encyclopedic, provocative, and sometimes maddening book that is well worth reading – if you have lots of time. Readers with a more modest time budget should focus on specific sections, which I’ll summarize individually.

Many of us in the business world fret about the expansive and costly role of government and don’t fully appreciate what our lives would be without it. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher (and economist!), said in Leviathan that without a strong, effective state, human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and “a war of all against all.”2 (He had a knack for aphorisms.) Readers who have lived in modern failed states, where gangs, rogue soldiers, corrupt policemen, and thugs ruled, can relate.

Exhibit 1
The Benevolent Despot Rules Over a Peaceable Kingdom
(Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 classic, Leviathan)

Note: The title is mine; the original artwork is untitled. Note that the ruler’s body is depicted as consisting of human faces, representing (I suppose) the body politic that gives him legitimate authority. (Note that the ruler looks a little like Charles I of England. King during Hobbes’ lifetime, Charles “lost his head’ in 1649.) Source: Detail of image from here

What is the optimum role of government – not just the optimum form, about which much has been written, but the right scope of its power? Acemoglu and Robinson argue that, to help more than it harms, it needs to stay within narrow bounds:

Squeezed between the fear and repression wrought by despotic states and the violence and lawlessness that emerge in their absence is a narrow corridor to liberty. It is in this corridor that the state and society balance each other out.

On first reading, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s wisecrack that “mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”3