The Narrow Corridor | Daron Acemoğlu

Summary of: The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty
By: Daron Acemoğlu


In the book ‘The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty’ by Daron Acemoğlu, readers are taken on a journey that explores the balance between state and society in the pursuit of liberty. The key message of the book is that the path to liberty is a narrow corridor, requiring a delicate equilibrium between a strong centralized government and an empowered society. Throughout the book, various historical and modern examples are provided to demonstrate how the balance can shift and result in either despotism or lawlessness. The summary reveals the complex challenges faced by societies in maneuvering through this narrow corridor and emphasizes the importance of maintaining this fragile harmony for sustained liberty.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Narrow Corridor to Liberty

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest texts, tells a tale of a powerful king, Gilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk with pride and tyranny. The people pleaded with the god Anu to save them, and he created a counterpart to Gilgamesh named Enkidu. Though at first successful in pushing back against the tyrannical king, the two eventually conspired together, leading to despotism. The key message of the epic is that the path to liberty is narrow and requires a balance between state and society. When society fails to mobilize, the result can be dire.

Leviathan and the Narrow Corridor

A strong central government is necessary for a society to have any chance at liberty. Without it, societies may fall into violence and insecurity. However, not all Leviathans guarantee freedom. Despotic Leviathans dominate and subjugate society, while Absent Leviathans have a weak or nonexistent central state, leading to no liberty. The narrow corridor of liberty lies between these two extremes, where an ideal type of Leviathan exists, protecting the rights of citizens while also allowing for economic growth and innovation.

Solon’s Athenian Leviathan

In ancient Athens, conflicts between elites and society were growing, but when Solon became Archon, he knew he needed to enact reforms that would satisfy both sides. Through a series of reforms and new laws, Solon forged an Athenian Leviathan, a state with the authority to enforce his new laws. Common citizens could now rely on courts to administer justice, and the same laws applied to everyone –⁠ elite or not. By implementing these reforms, Solon activated what the authors call the Red Queen effect, where society and the state remain in perfect balance. Under Solon, the newly mobilized citizenry was empowered to enact checks on the state, while the state gained the ability to control violence and resolve conflicts. With its new Shackled Leviathan, Solon’s Athens finally achieved liberty.

The Cage of Norms

The “cage of norms” refers to a set of cultural traditions and practices that prevent certain societies from having a strong central government and experiencing economic prosperity. In some cases, this phenomenon is perpetuated by a lack of chiefs or elites in the society, making it impossible to establish a hierarchy of power. This is exemplified by the Tiv ethnic group in rural Nigeria, where British colonial ruler Lord Lugard attempted to impose his own chiefs on a society devoid of any. The emergence of a cult called Nyambua, which prevented the chiefs appointed by Lugard from exercising any authority, is a clear example of how the “cage of norms” can be a dominating force that keeps societies locked in with an Absent Leviathan.

The Imperfect Red Queen

The American Red Queen effect, which operates in favor of those with the loudest voices in politics, has had reverberating consequences on disadvantaged groups within society. The heavy shackles on the central state mean that the Leviathan isn’t always able to provide effective solutions to problems like health care or infrastructure, resulting in a political system that doesn’t always work for everyone. To get southern states on board with the state-building project, the Founding Fathers allowed for the continued practice of slavery, depriving an entire segment of the population of their liberties. This summary explores the consequences of the imperfect Red Queen effect on the political and social landscape of the United States.

The Despotic Leviathan and the Limits of Economic Growth

The Despotic Leviathan is a form of government that can instigate its own version of Warre. In China, Mao Zedong’s rule of the Communist Party systematically used violence to eliminate opposition. The Reeducation Through Labor system, established to carry out Mao’s plan to modernize the Chinese economy, was a textbook example of the Despotic Leviathan. Under this type of government, economic growth can be achieved, but not liberty. The organizational structures, laws, public services, and education designed to foster economic activity are often present in Despotic Leviathans, but their lack of trustworthiness and rampant corruption lead to insecure property rights, making investment and innovation a risky proposition. The Despotic growth may lead to economic success for a time, but it is unsustainable in the long run.

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