One of the upsides of being locked down in Danistan was the opportunity to read lots of books while contributing to the safety of the state. (OK, I’m joking about that last bit, but what the heck.) Along with those page-turning trashy thrillers, I have read a few more serious books, including The Narrow Corridor.
It’s written by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson and the sub-title is States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty. I had enjoyed their previous thought-provoking book, Why Nations Fail (hint: it’s not because of lack of resources) and so I thought I’d give this one a shot. The book was finished (just) before Covid and the associated restrictions, but it is all the more compelling because of this tragi-comedy – otherwise known as the pandemic.
The main hypothesis of the authors, who are both highly respected academics, is that there is a narrow corridor between the dominance of self-serving elites and the will of ordinary folk. Liberty is not a natural state of affairs, at either a point in time or over time. Without agreed rules of governance and constant vigilance, it’s very easy for a bunch of bent elites to seize power and oppress the population. Don’t we know it?
The book starts very promisingly. ‘This book is about liberty. Liberty depends on the different types of leviathans and their evolution – whether a society will live without an effective state, put up with a despotic one or manage to forge a balance of power that opens the way for the emergence of a shackled leviathan and the gradual flourishing of liberty’.
Acemoglu and Davidson recount numerous instances from around the world, both historic and current, to demonstrate the fragile balance between having an effective state – there are some activities that have to be undertaken collectively – and the scope for people to live according to their own preferences and avoid unnecessary warfare. They also highlight the importance of norms, to which societies or groups in society often adhere, but can quickly descend into forms of oppression. Think here religious groups and cults.
One example given is Lebanon, a constructed state in which the constitution dictates the division of government positions between the three main groups: the Christians and the two Islamic ones. There is no provision in the constitution for this division to alter according to changing proportions of these groups within the population and there is zero trust between the groups. (A census has never been conducted in modern Lebanon.) The result is effectively a failed state.
There are also examples given from the ancient world in which early forms of democracy grappled with the challenge of establishing and maintaining the narrow corridor. In Ancient Greece, for instance, there were often limits placed on the length of time men – yep, women didn’t get a look-in – could hold leadership positions. It was also important to avoid becoming unpopular lest a group of citizens get together to ostracise you, forcing you to leave Athens for ten years.
The story of the Tiv people who live in Nigeria and Cameroon is also fascinating. Traditionally, there wasn’t really any sort of state governing these people – there were no administrative divisions and no chiefs or councils. When the British arrived, the local people were presented with the normal command: take me to your leader. But this simply didn’t compute. Mind you, the Tiv were into witchcraft and sorcery with cruel and arbitrary punishment meted out if the finger was pointed in your direction.
According to the two authors, the challenge in societies – a challenge which is ongoing – is to maintain a shackled leviathan rather than a despotic one. The best outcome is a combination of a capable state and a strong society in which ‘the leviathan is more accountable and responsive to the citizens. In the process, it transforms people’s lives, not just because it removes the dominance of states and elites over them, but also because it relaxes and even breaks down the cage of norms, advancing individual liberty and enabling more effective popular participation in politics’.
The question that kept cropping up in my mind while reading this book is: how much has the corridor between an over-weaning state and the will of the people narrowed in the past nearly two years? No one would dispute that the political elites, aided by unelected officials, have deliberately sought to restrict the freedoms of the citizens – in the name of public health and safety, of course.
The scariest part has been the unquestioning compliance of so many people – far beyond the hysterical ‘I stand with Dan’ mob (and the ABC cheer squad). This was notwithstanding so many nonsensical restrictions such as the nightly curfew, the five-kilometre travel limit, the closure of playgrounds, the fining of people sitting alone on park benches and the arrest of a pregnant woman for posting on Facebook.
Of course, it was clear, particularly in Victoria but also in Western Australia and Queensland, that the political leaders were having the best time of their lives. They could lord it over ordinary folk, bark out constant orders, spend taxpayer dollars as if there were no tomorrow and there was barely a squeak, either from the public or the press. That corridor wasn’t really narrowed; it was effectively closed.
The hope is that it will now reopen. But whether it will return to a pre-Covid position, who knows? The expansion in the size of the state during the course of the pandemic has been astronomical. Federal government spending rose by 13.4 per cent in 2020-21 and by a further 18.4 per cent in 2021-22. Payments as a percentage of GDP rose to 32.1 per cent, the highest proportion in the post-war period.
As far as government debt is concerned, federal government net debt was under half a trillion dollars going into the pandemic. In 2021-22, it will reach around $729 billion and be close to a trillion dollars by 2024-25. The rise in the size of the federal government is mirrored in the increases in the size of state governments.
The fear is that people have become accustomed to overbearing governments handing out ‘free’ money for the deserving and not-so-deserving. Too many people turned into sycophantic, dibber-dobbers unprepared to query the dictates of their political masters. It will be a long road back – that’s if we ever get there.
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