Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.
New York: Penguin, 2019. 558 pages.

Economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James A. Robinson – authors of the bestseller Why Nations Fail: Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy – have crowned their earlier achievements by producing a book that is a fascinating read. Using a simple figure with two axes – “power of the state” and “power of society” – they construct a grand narrative using hundreds of anecdotes and stories, starting with Gilgamesh and ending with the Swedish Rehn-Meidner model.

“The narrow corridor” is determined by the balance between the strength of the state and that of society. If the state is too weak, liberty is blocked by “the cage of norms” – or worse, “warre,” an “absent Leviathan” where, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, human life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” If, on the other hand, the state is too strong in relation to society, it becomes despotic and extractive. Elites enrich themselves by using their control of the state and limit freedom in the society at large. Such a “despotic Leviathan,” the authors write, “silences its citizens, it is impervious to their wishes. It dominates them, maims them, and murders them. It steals the fruit of their labor or helps others do so.”

Only inside the corridor can liberty prosper. Only if the balance between state and society is sustained can “the Red Queen effect” – you must keep on running just to stay in the same place – prevail. The Red Queen effect keeps the state and society in tension, and the concurrence between a stronger and more effective state and a better organized and trusting society “becomes an instrument for the political and social development of society, for the blossoming of civic engagement, institutions and capabilities, for the dismantling of the cage of norms, and for economic prosperity.” 
      As the state strengthens and takes on ever more demanding tasks, society must reinforce itself to keep the Leviathan shackled. A “shackled Leviathan” that allows the Red Queen effect is the way to increase prosperity in the long run. In terms of the story Acemoglu and Robinson told in Why Nations Fail, where they distinguished between “extractive” and “inclusive” growth, inclusive growth is maintained thanks to a shackled Leviathan. If society is unable to check Leviathan, the country will leave the corridor and gradually turn tyrannical. Economic growth becomes “despotic” and “extractive.” On the other hand, if the state is unable to sufficiently control society and grinds down into a “paper Leviathan,” lawlessness and anarchy arise, resulting in loss of both liberty and prosperity.

As can be seen from this sketchy introduction, Acemoglu and Robinson bring to their narrative a range of vivid new concepts. The authors hardly bother to define or describe them by other means than numerous examples. China – both imperial and Communist – exemplifies the “despotic Leviathan.” The “absent Leviathan” and “the cage of norms” is first represented by the Tiw, a stateless ethnic group in Nigeria organized by kin relations. Lebanon also counts as an absent Leviathan, but since it formally constitutes a state, it is also a “paper Leviathan” like those of many African countries today.

The United Kingdom and United States serve as archetypes to highlight “the narrow corridor”, “the shackled Leviathan” and “the Red Queen effect.” As the authors broaden their narrative, using numerous historical and anthropological cases, they illustrate the various pathways to and from the position of a given country. How can you get into the corridor? What can lead you to tumble out of it? What factors determine the breadth of the corridor? Bringing these together, they address the question of how globalization is affecting the fate of liberal democracy.

The Narrow Corridor seldom engages with earlier theories and scholars. The only identified inspiration comes from Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich von Hayek, each pulling in a different direction. Hobbes saw the importance of a strong state but missed the importance of a vibrant civil society. Hayek noted the necessity of a state but feared its strengthening even as it developed new means to enhance people’s life and liberty. The authors write,

Hayek’s astute analysis misses a vital force – the Red Queen effect. The only option of society against an expanding state capacity is not to rein it back completely. It can alternatively increase its own capacity, its own checks over the state. That is what happened in Britain and in most of Europe in the decades following World War II.

Acemoglu and Robinson avoid the conventional capitalism/socialism dichotomy. They also avoid referring to Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Instead, they draw attention to the work of lesser-known authorities from earlier times such as the Arab medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun, the Chinese philosopher and political adviser Shang Yang, born in 390 BCE, and the Indian political adviser Kautilya, who around 324 BCE wrote Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft and the duties of the four main castes. These authorities’ works still contribute to keeping three grand civilizations outside the corridor: the Arab lands suffer from “the cycle of despotism”; China endures the “legalist model” according to which order is to be achieved by an all-powerful ruler; India is held back by “the caged economy of caste.”

Among the stories of countries inside and outside the corridor there are some fascinating contrasts between pairs of neighbours. On one side we have Costa Rica, democratic, demilitarized and prosperous, and on the other Guatemala, brutal, violent and corrupt. The original difference between them was the way coffee production was organized. In Costa Rica small holders were dominant, while in Guatemala the finca, estates reminiscent of the old encomienda system,1 prevailed. Another pair is Poland and Russia after the shock treatment in the 1990s. Poland managed to get into the corridor, while Russia did not, despite the weakening of state power. A third historically interesting couple is the Swiss Confederation and Brandenburg-Prussia, both of which had to respond to threats from stronger neighbours. In creating its citizen-based defence capacity, Switzerland became a federation and moved into the corridor, whereas aggressive militarization pushed Brandenburg out of the corridor and its successor, Prussia, “rapidly progressed along the despotic path.”

The impact of the position of labour on the shape of the corridor is exemplified by the differences between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The existence of wage labour relations in the South African industrial sector ultimately helped bring about a compromise between the races, whereas Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe had only mines and farms, which were dependent on coerced labour.

The historical sequence of countries entering the corridor and taking advantage of the Red Queen effect, advancing liberty and economic prosperity, starts with Athens, in the constitutions of Solon and Cleisthenes:

Athens gradually … built one of the world’s first Shackled Leviathans, a powerful, capable state effectively controlled by its citizens … The state could not dominate society, but society could not dominate the state either; progress by each was met with resistance and innovation by the other, and society’s shackles enabled the state to expand its remit and capacity into new areas … To shackle a Leviathan, society needs to cooperate, organize collectively, and take up political participation. That’s hard to do if it’s divided into pawns and their masters, phratries, tribes, or kinship groups. The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes gradually eliminated these competing identities and made room for a broader axis of cooperation. This is a feature we’ll see time and time again in the creation of Shackled Leviathans.

In Athens, ostracism was a key means of restraining the political dominance of powerful individuals. Good government and the Red Queen appear anew in the city-states of northern Italy, where the notion of commune emerged gradually as citizens began to challenge and overthrow their ecclesiastical and aristocratic authorities. Modena, Turin, Cremona, Treviso and Brescia revolted in the 10th century; Pisa, Siena, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Pavia, Bergamo and Bologna in the 11th.

On the walls of Sala dei Nove in Palazzo Pubblico at the famous Piazza del Campo in Siena are three frescoes commissioned by “the Nine,” Siena’s governors – Allegory of Good Government, Effects of Good Government and the gruesome Allegory of Bad Government. These frescoes beguile the authors, who analyze their symbolism over several fascinating pages accompanied by pictures. The story continues with the social and technological innovations that characterized this period, from the adoption of the Arabic numeral system and the invention of spectacles and mechanical clocks to the advent of double-entry bookkeeping and joint-stock companies. In an anecdote about how St. Francis got his name, the reader is taken from Assisi in Italy to the Champagne fairs in northern France.

Acemoglu and Robinson single out what they call “the European Scissors” – the combination of Roman state administration and the assembly politics of the Germanic tribes, in particular the Lombards in Italy and the Franks in western Europe. Among the various theories as to why it was western Europe that led the way into the corridor, it is this “scissors” effect that they find decisive. France, the Low Countries, Germany and Scandinavia entered the narrow corridor and remained there and prospered thanks to the Red Queen effect. So too did England, the story of which is told from the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the Magna Carta in 1215, with a focus on the evolution of one village, Swallowfield, as well that of the English Parliament.

The story then moves to the other side of the Atlantic, where another narrative in which successful development is seen as taking place within the narrow corridor unfolds. But it is a development challenged by slavery and racism. Like most chapters, it begins with a dramatic anecdote, in this case the killing of a black man by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. A central theme in the book is how liberty for important groups – blacks, “untouchables,” women – has been restrained, with disturbing consequences for the whole society. The authors see the challenges faced today by the United States – and the West in general – as worrisome, pointing to “unshared prosperity”, “unhinged Wall Street” and “supersized firms,” with their implications in the form of deepening inequality. Such inequality combined with lost economic dynamism results in a loss of trust in democratic institutions, in both the state and civil society.

The hero at the end of this grand narrative is Swedish social democracy and its tradeoff among workers, peasants and industrialists. After the Great Depression, in the words of the authors, Sweden embarked on a road that became “an iconic example of the simultaneous expansion of the state’s and society’s capacities powered by the Red Queen effect.”

Overall, I found the argument convincing, and appreciated the quality of the writing. The rapid shifts from individual experiences to societies and histories distant in time and space, and from ancient myths to today’s problems, catch the reader’s imagination. It is hard to believe that academic economists have written such a book: not a single mathematical formula, not one statistical table, only the repeated simple figure with the narrow corridor and arrows that point the way societies have developed outside or inside and into or out of the corridor. There are no references in the text, but each chapter is supported by an extensive bibliographical essay at the end of the book. The reference list, in quite small type, stretches over 32 pages.

Was I disappointed that The Narrow Corridor contained little theoretical pondering, that it was mute on how to empirically gauge the two crucial power-variables or the advance of liberty and prosperity? Not really. The value and importance of the narrative gradually emerged through the cascade of different cases.

However, the book does have omissions that bother me. What about the role of nationalism and imperialism? Even though the authors maintain that (capitalist) globalization will tend to broaden the corridor, I am afraid that it hurts the power of both the state and society, making it more likely that a country might fall out of the corridor. I also missed a deeper discussion of the ecological aspects. The existence of an unequal exchange between countries, in terms of labour efforts and ecological sustainability, assist the strong ones to stay inside the corridor.

The authors also leave the question of what to do if you are far from the narrow corridor. If the state is too strong (China) or too weak (India) in relation to society, Acemoglu and Robinson see it in simple negative terms. A strong state, however, has the option of delivering basic education and health services and eliminating mass poverty. This option could be foreclosed if it tried to get into the corridor by giving “society” more influence. The fear that religious traditionalists, regional independence movements, rebellious youth and maybe external destabilization could cause chaos and armed conflicts is real. Half of today’s Russians think the best period was that of Brezhnevite stagnation, whereas Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s is rated best by only 1 per cent.

On the other side, if a state aggressively starts to reform a society governed by strong norms and traditions (Kemalist Turkey), the result may either be an oppressive state or a weakened one, leaving the country even further away from the Red Queen effect and liberty.

The book is an effort to explain the road we have travelled, not to find solutions to our current problems. It will be put to the test in the coming years. Is China’s miraculous growth – called “despotic” by the authors – doomed to failure? Will India preserve its democracy with a state that is too weak to overcome the “cage of norms” attached to the caste system? Will the European Union be able to enter the narrow corridor, and what if it fails? Can the United States keep from sliding down the slippery slope toward the edge of the corridor? There will be a lot of serious discussions and new research emanating from this captivating work.


1 The Spanish system that rewarded conquerors with the labour of particular groups of subject people, applied during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the 16th century, a grant was considered a monopoly on the labour of particular groups of indigenous peoples, held in perpetuity by the grant-holder and his descendants.