Liberty in "The Narrow Corridor" compared to Liberty by Buchanan

Term Paper, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1 Introduction

"The Narrow Corridor - States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty” from Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson describes their concept of Liberty in detail based on several partly wide historical examples. This concept of Liberty is an ideal, which explains why some societies run through Liberty and others through authoritarianism. Following John Locke’s definition of Liberty Ace- moglu and Robinson argue that all human beings strive for liberty in some form. In a short chapter I want to point out the link to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the three versions of the Leviathan Acemoglu and Robinson present and that Liberty is a fragile thing. You will see that reaching the narrow corridor where Liberty flourishes is already a big challenge. Staying there, however, is the much bigger one. Since it is very important to understand the reclassification of the Hobbesian Leviathan I will spend another chapter to exemplify the three versions of Leviathans. For each version I will explain one example given in the book that I consider to be important. The fourth chapter will start with the Thereupon The fourth chapter first presents James Buchanan’s view of freedom in general. His view on Liberty is based on his book "The Limits of Liberty - between anarchy and Leviathan” published 1975. The goal of this term paper is to relate the argumentation from Acemoglu and Robinson to that from James Buchanan. We will see both similarities and differences. A final chapter summarises the main arguments of Acemoglu and Robinson and their concept of Liberty and how it can be related to the perspective of Buchanan. At the end I will try to explain why both perspectives may have differences in the distribution of the roles of the state and society. But sill, the approaches have the same goal and significant similarities.

2 The main argument

Acemoglu and Robinson try to explain briefly what Liberty is and how societies different societies experience it in their own way. In their own words, "Liberty originates from a delicate balance of power between state and society”. With this statement the authors make clear that liberty is neither emerged by state nor by society alone. It is a product of contestation between both.1 The authors broadly base their definition of liberty on the Princeton philosopher Philip Pettit. He defines liberty as non-dominance. Being dominated from Pettit’s view means to be bound to the arbitrary of another group. Acemoglu and Robinson conclude from this view that "liberty needs the end of dominance, whatever its source.”2 The authors link this perspective to the concept of the Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who described a theoretic approach of an optimal state in his book "Leviathan” from 1651. Hobbes described a state that stops and prevents anyone from of violence, what he called "Warre”. The sea monster, the famous metaphor from Hobbes that the state is supposed to embody, was necessary to eliminate the situation of violence or to say it in Hobbes’ words: "every men against every man”. Government intervention and centralization of power individuals was indispensable. Otherwise citizen would be pushed around in anarchy without any protections of their basic freedoms. Therefore, the state should have the monopoly of power and violence to protect its citizens. At this point it is important to understand that dominance does not necessarily mean real violence but the threat which constraints people in their decision making. Hobbes means an all-powerful state that rules over society.

Acemoglu and Robinson do agree with Hobbes only to a limited extent. Every society needs a powerful state that has capacities to protect its citizens. But they do disagree on the other hand with Hobbes’ advancement for a great state power. Such a great state power would dominate the society and consequently disagree with Pettit’s conception. The authors illustrate on various examples why such an all-powerful state would be as bad as anarchy. The Chinese Leviathan as well as the Leviathan in the Third Reich both had capacities to resolve conflicts and to protect their citizens. It is a "working bureaucratic Leviathan” as the authors call it. In this context "working” does not mean that the state really uses its capacity to promote liberty but to replace it with a different nightmare. We see, it is not only about elaborating any sort of a working Leviathan. On the other hand if the society gets too powerful, the authors argue the society will fall into the cage of norms. This cage of norms would prevent economic growth and innovation in any form, because individuals fear to break the norms. The authors show a couple of examples to clarify why societies end up in the Absent Leviathan like a Nigerian tribe, Lebanon today or even when Muhammad founded Islam. Their conclusion is that a state which dominates its society because of not being held accountable, will constitute despotism. The only solution to reach liberty in their opinion is a strong society that always tries to compete the state and vice versa. The idea of a challenge for both the society and the state, is the backbone of the author’s argument. They spin this idea further and create the concept of the narrow corridor. This corridor is only achievable if state and society always continue running just to maintain their situation, which represents the Red Queen Effect. If the power of the society is too strong, individuals trap in a cage of social norms and rules and laws getting weak or are not even existing. If the state gets too strong, society has no chance to control the state and its elites, who will probably exploit this to dominate the society.

Since balance of power are the key words to reach Liberty in the meaning of the authors, the Red Queen Effect portrays the difficult path that culminates right into the narrow corridor. This effect refers to Lewis Caroll, who described a situation where you have to keep on running (effort) just to maintain your current position.3 So, the situation will not change if you run further, but it will change if you stop running. It is, as already mentioned before, all about a competition between society and state. The authors mention that we all depend on the Red Queen effect, because we only then have a state with huge capacities to protect its citizens from violence and simultaneously a strong society which can shackle the Leviathan. However, this becomes a messy process and requires a lot of energy and many resources. History has shown various examples like the origin of the U.S. constitution. The constitution, formed with a great societal power with a constant balancing of power between state and society, was a cornerstone for the foundation of liberty in the U.S. Meanwhile the constitution took the rights for African Americans. The Red Queen dynamics can mostly only employ over a time of a messy process. The powers would correct each other over time and lead therefore to a stabilized experience of liberty. This and many other examples suggest that the Red Queen effect works and that it flows into the narrow corridor.

After getting to know the way into the narrow corridor, it is important to understand that the authors do not see reaching the corridor as a final goal. It is much more difficult to stay in the corridor. Liberty is not a steady state that has arisen through a process of enlightenment. The authors argue, that the corridor to liberty is narrow and is only open for societies with a fundamental competition between state and society. In fact, the capacity to contest the power of political institutions and elites that control them is the definition of liberty. But it is built on a fragile balance between state and society. As soon as one side gains too much power, liberty begins to falter. Liberty depends on mobilization of society but needs state institutions as well to meet new economic and social challenges that can lose off the corridor to liberty.

A big theme of the book is the role of predatory elites in preventing the emergence of a Shackled Leviathan. It highlights the contrast between Costa Rica and Guatemala. Costa Rica is the winner, while Guatemala is "a continuing catastrophe of predatory elites”4. Guatemala failed with developing a Shackled state, because the elites forced the citizens. They call it the Paper Leviathan, which is as a state that is both oppressive and ineffective. The Paper Leviathan emerges in many developing countries that act like despots without having the capacity of the Despotic Leviathan as the authors describe it.

The book also questions the future and todays problems. Today the world is in a time of massive destabilization in many societies. The authors make out many societies that missed it to stay in the narrow corridor like Russia and Poland. We need liberty more than ever and the corridor is getting narrower over time. Not only is our political liberty at stake. Rather, it is also about the loss of wealth and security. The corridor cannot be reached without these elements.


1 Wolf (2019), p. 1.

2 Acemoglu et al. (2019), p. 7.

3 Wolf (2019), p. 2.

4 Wolf (2019), p. 4

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Liberty in "The Narrow Corridor" compared to Liberty by Buchanan
University of Marburg
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liberty, narrow, corridor, buchanan
Quote paper
Asim Mahmud (Author), 2019, Liberty in "The Narrow Corridor" compared to Liberty by Buchanan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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