Book review: The Narrow Corridor – states, societies and the fate of liberty



The Narrow Corridor by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Paperback$20.00   Penguin Random House

Sep 22, 2020 | ISBN 9780735224407

by Sarmad Wali Khan     9 November 2023

Why have some societies progressed while others have remained mired in poverty and destitution? Why have the European West and North America become a haven for civil liberties while other countries have not caught up? From the story of Gilgamesh to the power tussle between disparate groups in Syria, Robinson and Acemoglu’s The Narrow Corridor tries to answer this question. It is an interesting read, as it beautifully weaves different events in world history into an interconnected single story. However, the narrative charm of writing outshines the depth that a reader had hoped to find.

Liberty lies at the heart of Robinson and Acemoglu’s theses. Their main argument was that liberty is a precursor to progress. Society consists of people, and people always want liberty, which cannot be secured in anarchy and hence, order becomes a perquisite. Consequently, people need a state to establish such an order. A society without a state or order offers unlimited freedom. Like that of a Hobbesian state of nature; ”war of all against all,” as there are no rules but sheer chaos. Hence, the state serves as a maintainer of order to protect liberty. If the state is all-powerful [omnipotent Leviathan], it can become despotic and curb freedoms, while on the other hand, if society overpowers the state, it is a total anarchy. Hence, between society-led anarchy and state-led despotism, there is a balance, which they refer to as the narrow corridor. It is that fine landing on a thin hair, that once achieved, can secure liberty. Liberty leads to creativity and innovation, which accentuates into economic development. According to the authors, the West developed and the remaining world did not because it went through a narrow corridor and secured individual liberty that ultimately blossomed into economic progress. This is the foundational frame on which the authors explain and evaluate the evolutionary trajectories of developed and non-developed countries.

Furthermore, the books balance the Rousseauian ideas of popular sovereignty and the Hobbesian Leviathan with absolute sovereignty. When it comes to the matter of the state, the authors have put much emphasis on the fact that the state’s power must be curtailed or checked to ensure that liberty is secure. The term ”Shackled Leviathan” describes an ideal state that is both equipped and restrained. However, they accept the necessity of a leviathan like Hobbes but differ in giving it all the powers; hence, it must be shackled by the social forces of society so that liberty can be secured and progress can be attained. Simply put, the narrow corridor is another way of rephrasing John Locke’s idea of responsible and limited government, where liberty and property are safe.

Despite the expanse and breadth of the analytical framework, this study has certain limitations. It is based on broad generalizations about the state and society as two different, disconnected entities. From a sociological perspective, there is a lot that goes on between the state and society, and sometimes, the boundaries become blurred when people working as extensions of state machinery are very active participants in civic life. In addition, a society without a state is not always anarchy, and this can be corroborated by the fact that society predates the state. The nature of its custodial and normative sanctions further underscores that they provide a semblance of order even in the absence of strict state-commanded laws, the so-called social order. The culture and norms, though diverse, offer semblance and harmony to the social structure. A state can borrow from customs, make laws, and ensure a calculated order; however, it must be noted that society before the state was not an orderless anarchy. Assuming that the pre-state world was all-anarchy is equal to denying the existence of any social order. Anarchy as a pre-state condition is rooted in Hobbes’ idea of human nature, which is selfish and brutal, motivated by lust for power, greed, and race for survival. This is a highly reductive view of human nature.

The recent surge in populism across Europe and the Americas unveils a facade of exuberant civility within Western systems. While populism may be a contemporary phenomenon, the stained history of the West, marked by war crimes and genocides, challenges the narrative of its development based solely on the value of liberty. It prompts a critical question: liberty for whom? The authors posit that the West’s development was rooted in the securing of liberty, yet a closer examination reveals a nuanced reality. Liberty, as envisioned by the West, often translates to the freedom of its white citizens, while external interactions reflect a preference for enlightened despotism [see Mill] over those deemed unfit for liberty—often construed as people from the third world. The West’s prosperity, framed as a result of securing abstract values, disregards the historical reality of capitalist expansion and colonial occupation. The accumulation of material wealth through colonial extraction, mass killings, looting, and slave trade contradicts the narrative that the West is rich solely due to its embrace of nuanced values. This framing not only reeks of Euro-centrism but also perpetuates deeply entrenched epistemic orientalism, attempting to cast the world in the shadow of Western ideals. Presenting the capitalist liberal democratic model as the universal panacea is akin to administering a drug to the body politic—initially promising, but with over time, it creates a toxic dependency, as evidenced in various debt trap practices worldwide.  The historical trajectory of Western development cannot be fully explained without referring to its colonial-capitalist past and its extravagantly debilitating, eco-cidal effects on the environment.

While extolling the progressive evolution of Western democracies, the authors suggest that the UK became a first-world country because it was able to strike a nuanced balance between the state and society, the weight of which was rolled by the ‘Magna Carta’ that set the sail for progress. This is too simplistic an explanation, as Magna Carta was achieved as a result of an intra-elite struggle that forced the king to allow certain rights to barons. This means general public was out of the purview of this document. Second, if Magna Carta had set the sails, then what is the explanation for the 100-year war, the thirty-year war, and then the two world wars? Was liberty in Western societies secured during this period? If not, then from where did all the wealth come? If it were the industrial revolution and capitalism, then from where did they get the raw materials? The answers to these questions have the potential to put a dent into the Western story of progress. For the authors, Europe was able to shackle Leviathan, go through Renaissance and secure liberty because it combined the strict Roman legalist tradition with German democratic tribal values. Again, this begs the question: If the West has been on the right path for hundreds of years, then how did fascism emerge in European Germany, Italy, and Spain? Some of these responses are not grounded in a sophisticated theory; rather, they present mere cherry-picked facts from the archives of an otherwise racialized imperial history.

As far as the story of Western material progress is concerned, it cannot be divorced from colonial violence and extraction. The fable of a shackled leviathan is insufficient, as history cannot be lulled into silence. It has just been three decades since apartheid, one of the most discriminatory exports of colonialism, was abolished in South Africa.

Similarly, even if it is accepted that the way to go in the third world is to follow a narrow corridor, the problem still remains. As third-world countries are economically tied to world order in a toxic dynamic, they cannot escape. There is no independence in following that narrow corridor, too, as superpowers interfere in the affairs of poor countries. Many of these states are in debt cycles and have lost their freedom to the IMF or World Bank. The author’s framework does not consider the role of interference in poor countries’ political systems. It is a well-documented fact that the USA supported dictatorial regimes throughout the world during the Cold War, as per its interests.

To conclude, Robinson and Acemoglu have given a fresh jargon to an otherwise time-told story of Western progress. Credit must be given to the overall framing of the book, as it connects different narratives from history, making it entertaining enough for pleasure reading. However, when it comes to analysis, it falls short of the rigorous depth. Framing is reductive and exclusive. In other words, it is a flowery defense of liberalism. As the story goes, the security of liberty leads to industrial capitalism and, hence, to progress. The prescriptive path is problematic and ignores its baffling consequences. At best, it is a fascinating story, while at worst it is a liberal apologia for the vagaries of modernity. Perhaps the narrow corridor is not wide enough to allow colored people to pass!