Ideas & Debate

Balancing the State and people power

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Summary

  • It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.
  • New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.