Today’s China Is Communist and Modern, Not High Modernist

This rebuttal to my recent post on China is a cross-post from Jeremy Wallace’s blog, Science of Politics, with his permission. You can see the original here. Thanks to a shout-out from Marginal Revolution, my post got a lot of views, and I hope Jeremy’s response will get the same. He’s the expert on China, so his argument has me reconsidering my views.

The Chinese government released its long-awaited urbanization plan (国家新型城镇化规划) on 16 March. Ian Johnson, who has written extensively about China’s urbanization for the New York Times, begins his piece on the announcement of the plan in grand terms:

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting.

These descriptions of nondemocratic regime’s releasing “sweeping” plans to reshape their economic geography made Jay Ulfelder think of High Modernism, largely from Jim Scott’sSeeing Like a State. Scott describes significant disasters that have emerged out of failed social engineering projects. Ulfelder quotes from a review of Scott’s excellent book by Cass Sunstein:

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

In some ways, then, the summary of the plan in the NYT looks like a classical example of High Modernism. As Ulfelder writes,

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. ”We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

Such a characterization leads Ulfelder to two predictions.

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure.

I disagree with the assessment of the plan as high modernism and with the causal mechanisms underlying the predictions that arise from it. It isn’t high modernist because China doesn’t “plan” like it used to and the described policies incrementally adjust the status quo. The predictions themselves are not wrong so much as they are already correct.

First, the nature of planning in China has gradually moved away from the intense micro-managing of the eponymous Planned Economy to something much more akin to policies that shape the incentive structure of local governments and individuals by allocating marginal resources more to one locale rather than another. That is, China governs like a modern state, not a high modern one. Even the words used in plans have changed, as pointed out by Philipp C.C. Huang:

If one looks to the evolution in the Chinese terms for planning, we can see that the words have changed first from jihua 计划 and zhilingxing jihua 指令性计划 or “commandist planning” to zhidaoxing jihua 指导性计划 or “guidance planning,” and, more recently, to abandoning the old term jihua completely in favor of guihua 规划, now the commonly used term for what the new National Development and Reform Commission (国家发展和改革委员会), which replaced the old National Planning Commission (国家计划委员会), undertakes.

This semantic change reflects a real reduction in the Party’s control of the day-to-day operations of the economy. This can be seen in the fact that this document is often described as “long-awaited.” It is long-awaited because it was supposed to be announced last year. As Jamil Anderlini of the FT put it,

The urbanisation plan was originally expected to be published more than a year ago, but deep divisions between government departments and dissatisfaction from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who has been a strong champion of the scheme, delayed the plan’s publication until now.

I would argue that this slowly rolled out plans like this one are less likely to be sweeping than those that emerge out of nowhere. Additionally, this dissatisfaction implies that, unlike in China under Mao, local implementation of the plan is unlikely to be anything but grudging. There is a growing literature on local resistance to implementing central dictates in China (e.g., Margaret Pearson and Mei Ciqi have a nice forthcoming paper in China Journal entitled “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: Sanctions, Shared Beliefs and Local Defiance in China” that I can’t find online).

Second, the document is not a radical departure from prior policy. Johnson’s statement “the plan [is] the country’s first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history” fits awkwardly with a history of policies regulating and restricting migration that have existed since 1950s (I might have just finished writing a book about China’s management of urbanization).

The household registration (hukou) system was established when Soviet-style industrialization was initiated to control that true high modernist policy’s unintended consequences, namely blind flows of farmers into cities looking for work and escaping rural taxation. This system of effective migration restrictions has been tinkered with at the national and subnational level countless times during China’s post-Mao Reform Era (1978–). Over the past ten years, such reforms have been constantly trumpeted but implemented reality rarely measures up to the hype of policy announcement. Yet reforms have certainly taken place; Tom Miller’s great China’s Urban Billion summarizes many recent changes well.

The newly released document describes policies that are broadly similar to what we have seen time after time in recent years: continued “strict control” of population growth in the largest cities and encouragement of development of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in the country’s central and western regions. What is different here is a central commitment to assist local government’s fund the infrastructure of their cities and efforts to contain “land urbanization,” where local governments claim rural land from village collectives, pay farmers a pittance, and sell it at a huge profit to developers. The urbanization of land causes the “forced urbanization” of individuals that Ian Johnson’s reporting decries, so attempts to reduce its prevalence going forward should be welcomed.

Why does this plan sound high modernist then? Because it emanates from a Communist Party-led regime that still tends to use language more appropriate to the grand pronouncements of Marxism. It is a Communist state. The regime retains the power to manage the economy and guides it towards in desired directions but in general refrains from stating desired ends.

As for the predictions coming from classifying China as high modernist, the country already is dealing with serious problems of ghost cities where any return on investment is questionable. It is certainly possible that aiding the development of small and medium cities will turn out being wasteful economically, even if it might be savvy politically. In terms of urban instability and violence, I’m sanguine. I see this plan as continuing in a long line of policies that the regime has put forward to try to avoid urban unrest–incorporating slums, expanding access to urban social services, and slowing down land confiscations–are all reasonable levers for the center to use to tamp down the possibilities of protest in cities.

In the end, the Chinese regime speaks with archaic language–that is indeed, occasionally frightening–but acts like a modern state. Today’s CCP leadership certainly prefers to depoliticize and to quantify, to argue that it is pursuing “development,” “progress,” and “modernization” without giving the Chinese people much of a voice to prevent them from doing so. But so do other modern states. China today is far from the catastrophes of its high modern era, namely the Great Leap Forward. Let us all be thankful that this is so.

China Isn’t Socialist, It’s High Modernist

In today’s New York Times, Ian Johnson reports that

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting…

[The plan] states that “urbanization is modernization” and “urbanization is an inevitable requirement for promoting social progress,” noting that every developed country is urbanized and industrialized.

In certain circles of development studies, it’s become almost cliché to invoke James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have FailedI’m going to do it anyway—because the book is that good, but also because Scott’s framework suggests two important predictions about where China’s process of managed urbanization is headed.

For a quick synopsis of Scott’s masterwork, I’ll turn to a 1998 review of it by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein describes Scott’s book as a study of social engineering, or “selective interventions into complex systems,” and the moral of the story is that these interventions rarely end well.

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

The intellectual core of Scott’s book is a theory of incremental state-building, but its moral core is a set of observations about cases where high modernist ideology and authoritarian states have come together to produce especially disastrous social outcomes.

So what is this ideology? As Scott explains (pp. 89-90), high modernism

is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity… The high-modernist state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.

High modernism was on full display in many of the USSR’s grand developmental schemes, from the agricultural collectivization drives that killed millions to the massive river diversion project that was finally abandoned in 1986. High modernism has also afflicted Western state-building efforts in Afghanistan (here), and those efforts have often foundered in the very ways that Scott’s book anticipates (here).

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. “We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure. The capacity of Chinese civil society to resist these schemes is not great, but it also varies a great deal across issues and locales and appears to be strengthening. We see hints of this resistance and its coming intensification in Johnson’s story:

Separately, state television reported on Sunday night that 4.75 million people living in shantytowns would have their housing improved this year. These areas are often villages that have been swallowed up by cities, and at times have been flashpoints of violence between municipal officials who want to demolish them and residents unwilling to move. It is unclear whether the plan will significantly raise relocation compensation for the residents of these areas.

Now, I can think of at least two ways these predictions might not come true. First, the CPC might not really try to implement this plan, or it might abandon the plan if and when conflict arises. I have a hard time imagining that outcome, though, precisely because the Party has now become so publicly invested in high modernist ideology. The Party’s claim to public authority is now lashed to the idea of it as a benevolent and capable modernizer, so any obvious slackening of that commitment would open the door to conflict over what or who should replace it.

Second, these predictions might not come true because the Chinese Communist Party might succeed where all others have failed. So, has the Chinese Communist Party cracked the code on “how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves”, as Sunstein put it? And has it married that never-before-achieved understanding with an unprecedented capacity for design and implementation? If you don’t say yes to both of those questions, it’s hard to see how this scheme manages to pull off what no other comparable scheme before it has done.

China’s Houses of Cards?

Today’s New York Times includes a feature article that spotlights two major weak points in China’s massive government-led urbanization scheme.

The first is the presumption that state planners can manufacture a social transformation that occurred more organically in the societies those planners are trying to emulate—and on an unprecedented scale, too. As Jane Jacobs could have told them, urbanization isn’t just about moving people into cities or sprucing up the cities they’re in. How those spaces grow, how they fit into the larger economy, and how people feel about being there turn out to matter, too.

The situation in these new towns contrasts with the makeshift housing where other migrants live. Many of those are created by farmers who chose to leave their land for jobs in the city. Although cramped and messy, they are full of vitality and upward mobility, said Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at Oxford University who has studied migrant communities.

“These migrant neighborhoods in big cities are often called slums, but it’s the new resettlement communities that will be harder to revive, partly because they are not related to any productive economic activity,” Professor Xiang said. “And the population tend to be homogeneous, disadvantaged communities.”

The second major weak point is the quality of the construction itself. According to the Times,

The new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

As for why the work is so shoddy, University of Toronto political scientist Lynette Ong tells the Times that,

There was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.

The nexus of authoritarian government and corruption, and the sloppy construction it produces, was the central theme of a talk I gave at TEDx Tbilisi earlier this year, called “Why dictators build things that crumble.” As I said in the talk, authoritarian regimes often do shoddy building—even on projects that are politically and economically important to them—because those things aren’t just built to keep citizens happy. They are also built to keep the dictators’ important friends in the construction and real estate and banking businesses happy, and those friends aren’t always so interested in making sure that the things they build actually work. Reading this article, I wondered again if the Communist Party of China has set its society up for failures of infrastructure on an unprecedented scale, and what the socioeconomic and political consequences of those failures might be.

The Green Lantern Theory of State-Building

In a recent post on Human Rights Watch’s World Policy Blog, Hanan Salah nicely summarizes the poor state of state-building in post-Qaddafi Libya:

The main problem affecting both justice and security is that armed militias still maintain the upper hand. They have various agendas—financial, territorial, political, religious—and operate with impunity two years after the Qaddafi regime ended. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. Consequently, they retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break their financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations, and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors.

This passage gets at the chicken-and-egg problem that makes state-building so hard, not just in Libya but everywhere. “Justice and security” are the chief public goods a state exists to provide, but the provision of those goods depends on widespread obedience of state authority, and that authority is hard to construct.

What bugged me about Salah’s otherwise excellent post was the use of the verb “prefer” to indicate why this authority isn’t cohering faster in Libya. “Prefer” connotes choice, and I’m not convinced that the officials comprising Libya’s internationally recognized government have very much of that. They face an array of entrenched militias that are probably profiting handsomely from control of their various fiefdoms. Those officials supposedly command an army and police force of their own, but those organizations are still small and under-resourced. Worse, the revenue streams that could make the national army and state police stronger—including oil—are often controlled by the very militias those forces are supposed to be beefing up to defeat. Under these circumstances, how exactly are Libyan officials supposed to persuade these militias to cooperate? Give them a stern talking-to?

To be fair, Salah’s post is hardly the first place I’ve seen this line. Actually, I think it’s fair to say that this is comparative politics’ version of the Green Lantern Theory that Matt Yglesias coined to describe neoconservative U.S. foreign policy and Brendan Nyhan has since extended to the American presidency. In the Green Lantern Theory, political outcomes are mostly a matter of will. If the state doesn’t cohere, it’s because the people tasked with doing it lack the spine to fulfill their charge as duly chosen leaders.

If we reject the Green Lantern Theory of state-building and recognize that power is at least as important as will, it’s tempting to think that outsiders can goose the process with an infusion of armed forces, or at least the money and training an internationally recognized government needs to build up its own. The growth of the state is stunted, so a few costly doses of hormone therapy should do the trick. In fact, as Reuters reported, Libya’s prime minister recently made just this plea at an investment conference in London:

If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long… The situation is not going to improve unless we get real and practical assistance.

In fact, politics isn’t nearly as mechanical and modular as this idea implies. Before embarking on a new state-boosting mission in Libya, foreign governments would do well to take another look at Somalia, which has been the target of similar treatments for the past two decades. As Alex de Waal describes in a recent post on the LRB Blog,

[President] Hassan’s Western backers have not yet squared the circle of pouring money and guns into a client government to fight a counterinsurgency, and preventing that government from becoming rentierist, militaristic and corrupt. Rent-seeking pervades the whole system: the president or defence minister must bargain separately with each military unit to secure its loyalty for each operation. And even then, he cannot order a Somali unit to enter a ‘liberated’ town where the locals won’t welcome it. It’s no surprise that Somalis hedge their bets against the time when the [Somali Federal Government's] international sponsors tire of a Sisyphean counterinsurgency and sell out their erstwhile proxies. Even if al-Shabab were defeated, it wouldn’t solve Somalia’s problems. The corrupt rentierist system of government, which gave rise to al-Shabab in the first place, would be more entrenched than before.

Much the same could be said of Afghanistan, too.

And this is the Great Frustration of applied social science: prescription doesn’t always follow from explanation. Even if we can understand pretty well why state-building is so hard, we still can’t figure out how to control it. Whether that’s a curse or a blessing will depend on whom you ask, and therein lies the essence of politics.

Legitimacy Revisited…and Still Found Wanting

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that “legitimacy” is a solution to a theoretical puzzle that isn’t really so puzzling.

One of the central concerns of contemporary political science is political development—that is, understanding how and why different systems of government emerge, survive, and change.  Many of the theories we’ve crafted to address this topic start by assuming that those dynamics depend, in no small part, on the consent of the governed. Yes, all states sometimes coerce subjects into obedience, but coercion alone can’t explain why people don’t more often ignore or overthrow governments that fail to make them as happy as they could be. Taxes are costly, there are always some laws we don’t like, and subjects usually outnumber state security forces by a large margin.

Legitimacy is the idea we’ve concocted to fill that space between the amount of cooperation we think we can explain with coercion and the amount of cooperation we actually see. In its contemporary form, legitimacy has two layers. The first and supposedly deeper layer is a moral judgment about the justice of the current form of government; the second, surface layer is an instrumental judgment about the utility that government is providing. If we imagine the relationship between a state and its subjects as a marriage of sorts, we might think of the two layers of legitimacy as answers to two different questions: “Do you deserve my love?” and “What have you done for me lately?”

This two-layered notion of legitimacy is made clearest in contemporary thinking about the origins and survival of democratic regimes. According to Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset in Politics in Developing Countries (p. 9, emphasis mine),

All governments rest on some mixture of coercion and consent, but democracies are unique in the degree to which their stability depends on the consent of a majority of those governed…Democratic stability requires a widespread belief among elites and masses in the legitimacy of the democratic system: that it is the best form of government (or the “least evil”), “that in spite of shortcomings and failures, the existing political institutions are better than any others that might be established,” and hence that the democratic regime is morally entitled to demand obedience—to tax and draft, to make laws and enforce them, even “if necessary, by the use of force.”

Democratic legitimacy derives, when it is most stable and secure, from an intrinsic value commitment rooted in the political culture at all levels of society, but it is also shaped (particularly in the early years of democracy) by the performance of the democratic regime, both economically and politically (through the “maintenance of civil order, personal security, adjudication and arbitration of conflicts, and a minimum of predictability in the making and implementing of decisions”). Historically, the more successful a regime has been in providing what people want, the greater and more deeply rooted tends to be its legitimacy. A long record of successful performance tends to build a large reservoir of legitimacy, enabling the system better to endure crises and challenges.

So, to recap, legitimacy is a common answer to a question about the roots of consent, and this question about consent, in turn, emerges from a particular understanding of the relationship between governments and subjects. We think that forms of government only survive so long as subjects choose to keep cooperating, and we expect that subjects will only choose to keep cooperating as long as their moral beliefs and evaluations of regime performance tell them it is in their interest to do so. The math is a bit fuzzy, but the two layers of legitimacy are basically additive. As long as the sum of the moral and instrumental judgments is above some threshold, people will cooperate.

But what if this underlying model isn’t true? What if people actually don’t scan the world that way and actively choose between cooperation and rebellion on a regular basis? What if most of us are just busy getting on with our lives, operating on something more like autopilot, unconcerned with this world of high politics as long as it doesn’t disrupt our local routines and compel us to attend to it?

The more I read about how we as humans actually think—and the more I reflect on my own lived experience—the more convinced I become that the “active optimizer” assumption on which the puzzle of consent depends is bunk. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 394-395),

Our emotional state is largely determined by what we attend to, and we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment. There are exceptions, where the quality of subjective experience is dominated by recurrent thoughts rather than by the events of the moment. When happily in love, we may feel joy even when caught in traffic, and if grieving, we may remain depressed when watching a funny movie. In normal circumstances, however, we draw pleasure and pain from what is happening at the moment, if we attend to it.

One big reason “we are normally focused on our current activity and immediate environment” is that we are creatures of habit and routine with limited cognitive resources. Most of the time, most of us don’t have the energy or the impetus to attend to big, hard, abstract questions about the morality of the current form of government, the available alternatives, and ways to get from one to the other. As Kahneman surmises (p. 354),

We normally experience life in the between-subjects mode, in which contrasting alternatives that might change your mind are absent, and of course [what you see is all there is]. As a consequence, the beliefs that you endorse when you reflect about morality do not necessarily govern your emotional reactions, and the moral intuitions that come to your mind in different situations are not internally consistent.

Put all of this together, and it looks like the active assessments of moral and instrumental value on which “legitimacy” supposedly depends are rarely made, and when they are made, they’re highly contingent. We mostly take things as they come and add the stories and meaning when prompted to do so. A lot of what looks like consent is just people going about their local business in a highly path-dependent world. If you ask us questions about various forms of government, we’ll offer answers, but those answers aren’t very reliable indicators of what’s actually guiding our behavior before or after you asked.

Put another way, I’m saying that the survival of political regimes depends not only on coercion and consent, but also, in large part, on inattention and indifference.

I think we find this hard to accept because (when we bother to think about it) we’ve bought the Hobbesian idea that, without a sovereign state, there would be no order. Hobbes’ State of Nature is philosophically useful, but empirically it’s absurd. As James Scott observes (p. 3) in The Art of Not Being Governed,

Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.

Clearly, nation-states aren’t the “natural” condition of the human animal, and they certainly aren’t a prerequisite for cooperation. Instead, they are a specific social technology that has emerged very recently and has so far proven highly effective at organizing coercive power and, in some cases, at helping to solve certain dilemmas of coordination and cooperation. But that doesn’t mean that we need to refer to national political regimes to explain all coordination and cooperation that happens within their territorial boundaries.

The irrelevance of legitimacy is the other side of that coin. We don’t need to refer to states to explain most of the cooperation that occurs among their putative subjects. Likewise, we don’t need a whole lot of consent to explain why those subjects don’t spend more time trying to change the forms of the nation-states they inhabit. We’ve concocted legitimacy to explain why people seemingly choose to go along with governments that don’t meet their expectations, when really most of the time people are just stumbling from immediate task to task, largely indifferent to the state-level politics on which we focus in our theories of regime survival and change. “Legitimacy” is a hypothesis in response to a question predicated on the false belief that we’re routinely more attentive to, and active in, this arena than we really are.

Of Subservient Peasants and Economic Booms

Here is a sentence I never thought I would see in 2013:

Peasants, many of whom still long for absolute rule, remain remarkably subservient.

That’s from a new bit in Foreign Affairs called “Booming Bhutan,” part of a five-part series looking at the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2012.

I know only the vaguest outlines of Bhutan’s recent history, but I’m instantly suspicious of any claim that a large group of people longs for absolutism. As the article describes, Bhutan has experienced a lot of political and socioeconomic disruptions in the past decade, and many of those changes have directly not benefited the small farmers who comprise a substantial share of the country’s population:

Karga Lama, a journalist who has covered Bhutan, wrote to me that he wonders whether “people at the grassroots [are] really enjoying and benefitting from the process of democracy, or [if] the few people at the upper echelon of political structure [are] taking the cream.” Indeed, 40 percent of the population are still subsistence farmers, crowded on the country’s small portion of arable land. Seeking better opportunities, many young Bhutanese are moving to Thimpu, the capital, but few are finding gainful employment. Cheaply constructed commercial and residential buildings have been erected to house new inhabitants and the city is losing its unique architectural character. Traffic jams and petty crimes have also become more frequent.

I read that passage and I think: Maybe it’s not “absolute rule” these “peasants” long for but the relative assurance of the life that came before these developmental push of the past 10 years. I think of pensioners in the former Soviet Union who are often described as yearning for tyranny because they vote for the Communist Party and talk wistfully about the benefits they enjoyed in the old days. A distaste for uncertainty about one’s ability to produce or afford food and shelter should not be conflated with an affirmation of all aspects of an old order that predictably delivered those things. Maybe it isn’t absolutism these farmers want so much as freedom from the intrusions of the developmental state those “few people at the upper echelon of political structure” are attempting to construct for their own aggrandizement.

More generally, I wonder about the premise of the series of which this essay is a part. You see this kind of “best practices” logic a lot in writing about development—find the cases that are doing something you’d like, see what’s making them tick so you can try to replicate or emulate it elsewhere. In the case of economic growth, though, this approach is almost always going to be misleading. Economic growth is measured as a percentage, and as Charles Wheelan writes in Naked Statistics,

Percentages don’t lie—but they can exaggerate. One way to make growth look explosive is to use percentage change to describe some change relative to a very low starting point.

The countries at the top of the IMF’s 2012 list nicely illustrate this principle in action. According to the IMF, the five fastest-growing economies in 2012 were Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan, Guinea, Bhutan, and Mongolia. What does that set of cases tell us about the causes of exceptionally rapid economic growth? Just start from a low baseline—in other words, be poor—and possess copious natural resources that are currently in high demand! (In Bhutan’s case, that natural resource is hydropower,which it sells to its power-hungry neighbor, India). Or, if you’re not especially poor now, you can always knock output down and set yourself up for a nice rebound effect with a civil war and state collapse, like #8 Libya did. Lessons learned, indeed.

Egypt’s Constitution as a “Used Future”

Leaning on the musings of artist John Powers, I wrote a post a couple of days ago about states as political manifestations of what John called a “used future”—a world that shows its provenance. Drawing on John’s discussion of the used future George Lucas self-consciously constructed for Star Wars, I suggested that states are more like the Millennium Falcon in their guided but messy assembly of disparate elements than they are like the Death Star and the grandiose Modernist ideals it represented.

Egypt’s draft constitution nicely encapsulates this idea of states, and constitutions in particular, as used futures. Constitutions are schemata for the future practice of politics within states, and political scientists and policy-makers often lade the drafting of these schemes with heavy expectations. The rewriting of basic rules is seen as an opportunity to reboot whole societies—to end old conflicts, to prevent new ones from emerging, and to channel officials’ and citizens’ behavior in more fruitful directions. If we just get the rules right, the thinking goes, we can knock a previously troubled society onto a new and more desirable equilibrium path.

As Egypt is reminding us, though, real-world constitutions are not elegant constructs that have been meticulously designed to guide the development of a harmonious new society. More often, they are collages composed of disparate elements, each with its own historical provenance. A constitution is meant to embody a specific vision of the future, but that document can’t escape the pasts and presents of the people who actually draft it. Constitutional provisions aren’t produced by actuaries armed with formulae whose elements and solutions are objectively known. Instead, they are haggled over by human beings who arrive at the negotiating table with their own interests and prejudices and who fear what the uncertainties of the future they are crafting may bring for themselves and their families and friends.

Partly because they are written by committee, constitutions often contain inconsistencies and even contradictions. In a recent press release, Human Rights Watch identifies several of these in Egypt’s draft constitution. For example, on the question of free speech:

Article 45 protects freedom of expression without stating what legitimate limitations are permissible and how to balance this right against article 31, which states that, “The individual person may not be insulted,” and article 44 prohibiting “the insulting of prophets.” Articles 31 and 44 are not legitimate limitations on freedom of expression under human rights law, and they would appear to make difficult, if not impossible, any meaningful reform to existing penal code provisions that criminalize “insult” and defamation, provisions frequently used in the past to prosecute critics of the government.

And on the inviolability of citizens’ rights:

Article 81 states that no law may limit the essence of the rights and freedoms set out in the constitution but goes on to say that, “These rights and freedoms shall be exercised insofar as they do not contradict the principles set out in the Chapter on State and Society in this constitution.” The provisions in that chapter include article 10, which states that, “The state and society shall commit to preserving the true nature of the Egyptian family,” and article 11, which states that, “The state shall protect ethics and morals and public order.” The language in both these provisions is overly broad, open to interpretation, and available to justify wide-ranging limitations on key rights, Human Rights Watch said. It appears to place the “true nature of the family” and morals and public orders above fundamental rights.

Philosophically, I’m a liberal, so I believe HRW is right to suggest that Egypt would be better off if its constitution-writers resolved those inconsistencies now in a liberal direction. Still, as a purely analytical matter, it’s fascinating to see liberalism, Islamism, and other forms of traditionalism colliding so awkwardly in a single document. Different chunks of this text clearly signify distinct streams of Egyptian and world history. Instead of the Modernist ideal of an urban machine built from the ground up, we get the architecture of an old city in which buildings from many eras stand side by side.

Actually, Americans should be more familiar with this conundrum than we are. More than 200 years after our founding documents were written, we’re still arguing over what they mean, often phrase by phrase, sometimes even word by word. Curiously, in spite of this unending and intense debate, we’ve constructed a national myth in which the rules of American politics were delivered unto us like sacred texts by a cabal of farsighted and public-minded men. In the construction and repetition of that myth, we gloss over the diverse historical origins of those texts, the profound disagreements they elided, and the many messes they have since failed to prevent or even created.

Maybe Egyptians today can learn from our mistakes—not just in the wording of the constitution they adopt (or don’t) now, but also in acknowledging the inevitability of ambiguities in that document and recognizing that the future will keep delivering opportunities to haggle over them anew.

States Are Like the Millennium Falcon

Last week, artist John Powers wrote a wonderful blog post on how the original Star Wars movie pioneered American cinematic representations of a “used future”—that is, “a future with a past.”

The visual program of Star Wars is unique because it was chronologically stratified. Lucas borrowed from real machine age periods to give his cinematic future an immediately recognizable depth of time. We [are] meant to see that the oldest elements of the film, like Obi Wan Kenobi with his Samurai robes, and Darth Vader…were hold-overs from an older order…Luke’s Landspeeder and C3PO stood in for what was clearly an entire machine age…Luke and his rebel cohorts were flying into battle in the Star Wars equivalent of an old WWII surplus.

I’m a fan of Star Wars—well, of the first two and a half movies, anyway—but I’m also a political scientist, and John’s post got me thinking again about how political scientists think about states.

In American political science, the conventional (Modernist) view of states and their origins are embodied in Lucas’ Death Star. Hierarchically organized communities draw up and execute elaborate plans for a system that performs a clear set of functions. Everything in the whole serves a unique purpose, and each component was presumably built just for that purpose. The engineered system is complicated, but it is not complex. The whole is the sum of its modular parts.  Like Le Corbusier’s radiant city as described by James Scott, the ideal Modernist state is “a lyrical marriage between Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the machine.”

death star power trench plans

In fact, states are more the Millennium Falcon. States are not built de novo to fill political vacuums. Instead, like the hot rods Lucas celebrates in American Graffiti, states are motley assemblages of formal and informal institutions cobbled together on the go. Many of those parts were designed at some time for some purpose, but not necessarily the one for which they’re actually being used. Change often occurs at the margins in response to specific problems that are solved imperfectly. Instead of a spacecraft carefully designed to execute of series of specific tasks, we get a mostly functional “hunk of junk.”

Millennium Falcon

The builders of these assemblages are more craftsmen than engineers. They don’t have the luxury of time, the know-how, or the resources to build a new ship from the ground up, so they tinker at the margins as they go and hope the whole thing doesn’t disintegrate out from under them. Not trivially, they also have some attachment to the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the system they’ve cobbled together. Even if they could scrap it for a newer and cleaner model, they probably wouldn’t want to. The Millennium Falcon may be a hunk of junk, but to its pilot, it’s “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

The aesthetic of a “used future” George Lucas pioneered for American moviegoers in Star Wars is echoed in Paul Pierson’s call for social scientists to situate politics in time:

Contemporary social scientists typically take a snapshot view of political life, but there is often a strong case to be made for shifting from snapshots to moving pictures. This means systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes stretching over extended periods.

Moving pictures of the Hollywood kind often help us see the world differently. Lucas’ vision of a “used future” reminds us that the present is really an accretion of many pasts, and we shouldn’t ignore those origins in our theories of political development.

Libya Revisited

Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime a little more than a year ago, Libya has served as a Rorschach test for American and European observers of international relations—a complex and disorderly swirl of political events onto which we typically project our prior beliefs about the circumstances under which military intervention in other country’s conflicts is smart and just. Where observers whose biases tilt toward the “justice” part of that equation tend to see averted atrocities and nascent democracy, self-described “realists” usually spotlight the persistence of militia-fed violence and the secondary effects of Libya’s collapse on its neighbors in the Sahel as grounds for arguing that NATO should never have stepped in.

A recent article in the Economist offers fresh support for proponents of that intervention. In a dispatch entitled “Rising from the Ruins,” a magazine not known for its bleeding heart informs us that,

Since the colonel’s death in October last year at the hands of rebel fighters, Libya has not only held national elections, followed a fortnight ago by the presentation of a diverse government, albeit that not all of its members have been endorsed. It has also started to build a new system of civil administration that may one day form the backbone of a law-abiding and prosperous society.

The piece nods in the direction of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the fears of terrorism and religious extremism that were amplified by that assault, but it goes on to suggest that those fears may be misplaced.

On the ground, the picture, though far from uniformly rosy, is more hopeful. Many of the new state structures and services…are being created from the bottom up rather than handed down by a central government that is still only embryonic. The new powers in the land are council leaders, a sort of cross between mayors and regional governors. Some are doing well.

By “doing well,” the author seems to mean “doing what governments are supposed to do,” namely, providing order and delivering basic public goods:

Regional structures are taking shape. Rickety they may be, but they increasingly trump those in the capital, where political rivalries and the fear of being accused of corruption have led ministers to duck hard decisions. Some cities are creating their own economic links with the outside world…Dynamic local leaders have improved services. The streets of a range of coastal towns are far cleaner than in Cairo or Tunis. Rubbish-collecting lorries and street sweepers in tidy overalls are out every morning. Hospitals have reopened. Most important for ordinary Libyans, services such as tap water and electricity—disrupted during the rebellion—are working just about everywhere. Children are back at school.

I’m not a Libya pro, and I can’t offer any first-hand accounts of developments there from my desk in suburban Maryland. What I can bring to the table is the perspective of a longtime observer of democratization and state collapse. From that perch, I think the skeptics are mostly wrong. Critics of NATO’s intervention are right to bemoan the violence and injustice and spillover that Libya’s collapse has brought. The mistake they make, I think, lies in their failure to consider a realistic set of alternatives to NATO intervention and where they would have led.

My sense of the plausible alternatives starts from the observation that the Libyan state under Gaddafi was a personalist regime—a system in which political authority is almost wholly concentrated in the hands of single individual—and all personalist regimes collapse eventually. As Barbara Geddes has shown in her excellent work on authoritarian breakdown, personalist regimes rarely survive the death of their “big man,” and the ensuing breakdowns are often bloody.

Given these facts, the idea that would-be interveners were choosing between fomenting instability or returning to authoritarian stability is false. Without any nudge from NATO forces, Libya in 2011 had already slipped into civil war. At that point, its possible futures included a quick and brutal restoration of order under Gaddafi, a quick rebel victory, or a protracted civil war. Absent foreign intervention, either brutal repression or a protracted civil war appeared to be the most likely trajectories, while a quick rebel victory seemed highly unlikely.

It’s easy to see that every one of these scenarios would have been bloody. What’s more often overlooked, I think, is that every one of these scenarios would also have led to state collapse followed by a long and messy period of state-building. The only real difference is in the timing. Even if the Gadaffi regime had managed to restore control in 2011, Geddes’ research suggests that it would merely have postponed its day of reckoning; the factional scrambles we’re seeing today would have occurred eventually, only after another episode of brutal repression and probably after another eruption of civil war. Meanwhile, a prolonged version of the conflict that started in 2011 would have entailed its own form of state collapse, de facto partition, that would have produced many of the same negative repercussions we’re now lamenting (militia justice, spillover effects) while merely delaying the arrival of the positive ones. By helping to hasten the rebels’ victory in a fight that started without them, NATO’s intervention merely accelerated the arrival of a tumultuous but inevitable period of political transformation.

Some critics of the NATO intervention are comfortable with the decision to intrude in Libya’s civil war but critical of the hands-off approach the United States and Europe have taken to state-building. What I think we’re seeing in dispatches like the one in this week’s Economist, however, is that the absence of a heavy foreign footprint in post-Gaddafi Libyan politics is actually serving the country pretty well. Rather than weakly empowering a favored cadre and encouraging massive rent-seeking, the less intrusive posture the United States and Europe have adopted in Libya is allowing state-building to proceed of its own accord.

Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.

Democracy and Development Revisited…Again

Over the weekend, I started reading Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth, a book that attempts to reinterpret the whole of economics through the lens of complexity theory. I’m only a couple of chapters in at this point, but the most striking thing in the book so far is a chart that shows how absurdly uneven the growth in human wealth has been over time. As he describes (pp. 9-11, emphasis added),

If we use the appearance of the first tools as our starting point, it took about 2,485,000 years, or 99.4 percent, of our economic history to go from the first tools to the hunter-gatherer level of economic and social sophistication… The economic journey between the hunter-gatherer world and the modern world was also very slow over most of the 15,000-year period, and then progress exploded in the last 250 years… To summarize 2.5 million years of economic history in brief: for a very, very, very long time not much happened; then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose.

Just a few days after I read that passage, political scientist Xavier Marquez dropped a tremendous blog post on the global diffusion of democracy over the past two centuries. Marquez opens the post this way (again, emphasis added):

People sometimes do not realize how total has been the normative triumph of some of the ideas typically associated with democracy, even if one thinks that democracy itself has not succeeded quite as spectacularly. Take, for instance, the norm that rulers of states should be selected through some process that involves voting by all adults in society (I’m being deliberately vague here) rather than, say, inheriting their position by succeeding their fathers. In 1788 there were only a couple of countries in the world that could even claim to publicly recognize something remotely like this norm. Most people could not vote, and voting was not generally recognized as something that needed to happen before rulers could rule; rulers could and did claim to have authority to rule on other grounds. Norms of hereditary selection structured the symbolic universe in which political competition took place, and defined its ultimate boundaries for most people (at least those who lived in state spaces). Yet by 2008 there were only four or five countries in the world that did not publicly acknowledge universal voting rights.

If you consider the timing, pace, and character of those two trends side by side, it’s very hard to believe that they aren’t interrelated. Take a look at this figure below. The red line replicates a portion of Beinhocker’s aforementioned plot, using world GDP estimates produced by economist Brad De Long (PDF) to show the exponential growth in human wealth over the past 200 years. The blue line plots the spread of universal suffrage across states in the international political system, as recorded in the Political Institutions and Political Events (PIPE) data set Marquez used in his blog post.

I do not read this chart as evidence in favor of modernization theory, which posits a causal arrow running from economic development to democracy and envisions that changes within specific nation-states unfold in a particular sequence: industrialization –> urbanization + education –> value changes –> democratization. In fact, the chart of long-term global trends masks lots of short-term churn in the status of specific countries and regions. Many countries have diverged sharply from the developmental sequence posited by modernization theory, and that’s a serious problem for a theory of change.

Instead, I see the chart as evidence that human society at the global level has become a complex adaptive system that is currently experiencing a period of radical transformation, or “state shift.” These trends in wealth and governance aren’t cause and effect in the traditional sense, nor are they spuriously correlated. Instead, they are twin streams of single evolutionary process that is driven, in part, by the creation, selection, and modification of a rapidly widening array of physical and social technologies. Economic complexity is simultaneously a product and a catalyst of this process, and political institutions—including the ones we use to select national rule-makers—are among the most influential social technologies also involved in this “reciprocal dance,” as Beinhocker calls it. (N.B. Weapons are one of the more influential physical technologies in this system that economists often ignore, and their interplay with the evolution of political institutions is a crucial part of this wider story, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Why would democracy and wealth grow hand in hand? On this point, I take my cues from Owen Barder, Henry Farrell, and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi. In a brilliant online talk, Barder follows Beinhocker’s lead and argues that economic development is an evolutionary process which depends heavily on processes of innovation and selection. Farrell and Shalizi describe why democracy is generally better than other forms of government at supporting those processes:

Democracy has unique benefits as a form of collective problem solving in that it potentially allows people with highly diverse perspectives to come together in order collectively to solve problems. Democracy can do this better than either markets and hierarchies, because it brings these diverse perceptions into direct contact with each other, allowing forms of learning that are unlikely either through the price mechanism of markets or the hierarchical arrangements of bureaucracy. Furthermore, democracy can, by experimenting, take advantage of novel forms of collective cognition that are facilitated by new media.

One point I would like to amplify in this line of thinking is that democracy isn’t really a specific “thing” so much as the label we stick on a cluster of seemingly similar things. Like human “races,” political regime types are a set of concepts we’ve developed to organize our thinking about similarities and differences in forms of the social technology we call government. These concepts are neither natural nor inevitable, and they often obscure a tremendous diversity within the categories they establish. Our decision to classify something as a “democracy” depends on many different features, each of which can take a wide variety of forms without violating our mental classification scheme. On electoral systems alone, you’ll be hard pressed to find two cases that look exactly alike, and that’s just one of many relevant attributes. And, of course, even in cases we might consider archetypal, these rules are constantly evolving.

One practical implication of this point is the political version of Owen Barder’s advice to purveyors of foreign aid: instead of searching for “best practices” we can copy from one context and paste onto another, we should think about how to facilitate appropriate experimentation, feedback, and learning within societies we wish to assist, and about what kinds of changes we might make in our own rules and organizations that will further support those processes. These institutions are not modular, and we cannot control the systems in which they’re embedded. We don’t build states, we perturb them, and we should never lose sight of that difference.

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