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States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty
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A wide-ranging survey of the conditions of liberty required to steer the world away from the Hobbesian war of each against all.

Why do nations fail? So Acemoglu and Robinson, economists at MIT and the University of Chicago respectively, asked in their 2012 collaboration, Why Nations Fail. Their answer is complex, but it falls largely on the absence or failure of democratic institutions. In this continuation of their previous book, they examine how liberty works: It is not “natural,” not widespread, “is rare in history and is rare today,” and is a fairly recent phenomenon that balances the competing demands of state and society while being reinforced by that balance. For instance, the Athenian constitutional reforms of Cleisthenes “were helpful for strengthening the political power of Athenian citizens while also battling the cage of norms”—that cage of norms being the informal body of customs supplanted by state institutions. Those norms in turn “constrained what the state could do and how far state building could go,” providing their own set of checks. Though somewhat fluid in its definition, liberty, as Acemoglu and Robinson show, is expressed differently under various “leviathans,” to extend the Hobbesian critique. The American Leviathan, for example, does not contend properly with inequality and racial oppression, two enemies of liberty, while the “Paper Leviathan” is a bureaucratic machine favoring the privileged class, serving as both a political and economic brake on development and yielding “fear, violence, and dominance for most of its citizens.” So it is with China, a “Despotic Leviathan” that commands the economy and coerces political conformity. The authors trace a link between democratic states and what they call “Shackled Leviathans,” the beast in restraints being the best of all possible scenarios. Though the argument is a little jargon-y, it is, as with the authors’ previous books, provocative and intuitively correct.

An endlessly rewarding book full of takeaways, including the thought that the best societies protect everyone’s rights.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2438-4
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2019