Liberty: Hard to Achieve, Easy to Squander

Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota
Reading Time: 16 minutes

We live with the belief that political liberty is a durable construct, arrived at by some process of “enlightenment,” and that the architecture of the Constitution will somehow save us. Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economics professor and the guest of this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, thinks this view is a fantasy.

He argues that there is a reason that liberty flourishes in some nations but turns to authoritarianism or anarchy in others. He believes that countries rise and fall based not on culture, or geography, or change, but on the power and strength of their institutions.

Further, the elements that came together to create our governmental system are just as delicate and unique as the circumstances that led to the creation of life on this planet. And, as climate change is showing us, both are seriously at risk.

For Acemoglu, liberty is hardly the natural order of things: it emerges only when there exists a delicate balance between “state” and “society.” Given the destabilization we are experiencing today, there is no reason to assume that the institutions or their societal foundations will hold.

The danger on the horizon, Acemoglu says, is not just the loss of our political freedom, however grim that is in itself: it is also the disintegration of our prosperity and safety, which critically depend on liberty.

Even if President Donald Trump were gone tomorrow, Acemoglu argues, we would need new and stronger civic mobilization and participation in society. What we have experienced is, in Acemoglu’s opinion, like a severe heart attack. The muscles of the heart have been weakened, and without a course of civic exercise and rehabilitation, the patient will die.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

I think we all understand that as far as we know life exists on Earth as opposed to so many other planets in places in the galaxy because a certain combination of elements came together to create carbon-based lifeforms that could flourish and evolve in the environment that is Earth. That combination of elements is unique, delicate and not the natural order of the universe.

Jeff Schechtman: The same idea applies to freedom and liberty. Liberty is not the natural order of man, as historically the strong have always sought to dominate the weak. Liberty flourishes like life itself when the right combination of elements come together in a delicate balance of politics, men, and institutions. And like life itself as we are discovering with the threat of climate change, it is not necessarily inevitable or forever.
Jeff Schechtman: That analogy is at the heart of the work by my guest, MIT professor Daron Acemoglu. Daron Acemoglu is an institute professor at MIT, where in 2005 he received the John Bates Clark Medal given to economists judged to have made a most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. It is my pleasure to welcome Daron Acemoglu here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about his new work, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. Daron, thanks so much for joining us.
Daron Acemoglu: Jeff, the pleasure is all mine and thanks for that great introduction.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to start with this idea that liberty, that freedom is really, we think of it simply, but it’s really a very sophisticated idea. Talk about that first.
Daron Acemoglu: Yeah, I think that’s a very … you put your finger on this critical idea. And the reason why liberty is so difficult to achieve is that you need many things for it to emerge. Take most of our human existence, which happened in the context of small scale, stateless societies. It’s impossible to have liberty there. First of all, you don’t have laws. You don’t have the ability for people to peacefully resolve disputes, and if you are able to sort of put a lid on conflict, you do that by developing these very strict, very restrictive traditions and norms. And of course the sort of what we understand from liberty, ability to make choices without the undue influence of others, or other … the society on your choices, that really doesn’t exist in much of human history when you go that back.
Daron Acemoglu: And then when finally states start emerging in human history, you have these very powerful military leaders that impose their will on people and you have some sort of state institutions, laws emerging, but they’re not conducive to liberty either. They’re imposed by the state for the benefit of rulers and elites, and they’re not really trying to further the choices, the welfare, the protection of individuals. So what you need for liberty, it’s almost miraculous, just like life itself as you pointed out, is that when you have the right combination of these laws and state institutions, society’s desire to avoid that hierarchy, that imposition, the two together can provide the conditions for liberty to start to emerge and then to flourish.
Jeff Schechtman: And as we look historically, how do we reverse engineer this? How do we look at it to find those right combinations of elements, and is it the same all the time? Is it the same in any situation where freedom and liberty have emerged?
Daron Acemoglu: I think understanding how liberty comes about is critical for us to have the right tools for protecting it. But I don’t think you can engineer liberty in the same way that you cannot engineer any complex social phenomenon. You need the buy-in from society. And that is actually critical. In the US, for instance, you have this narrative that our democracy, rights, liberty, are protected by the brilliant designs of the founding fathers and the constitution and so therefore we are fortunate and that’s it. We can go home now. And that’s completely wrong at some level. You know what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in particular do is create an architecture that enables society to be active and participant, and sometimes disobedient to laws in order to protect its liberty. And that’s really the critical part, that the reason why you cannot engineer it through institutions, through constitutions, simply is because you need society’s mobilization, its ability to actually keep state institutions responsive, elites responsive and accountable, and monitor everything.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the idea of not just state institutions, but state power and the way that that ebb and flows to allow liberty to flourish?
Daron Acemoglu: Yeah, I think one of the things that gives the book its name, The Narrow Corridor, is not only that it is squeezed between these power of state institutions and states, and not only that it’s narrow, which means that this balance as you put it is delicate, but also it’s a process. Think of somebody like Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, who was a very interventionist politician, wanted to have more federal power, more state role in the economy and so on. He would not even imagine the type of state power we have today, in the international domain, in the state’s ability to read our emails, our messages, and the state’s ability to tax, regulate, understand everything about society, impose its laws. It’s a complete sea change that has happened over the last 250 years.
Daron Acemoglu: That deepening of state power, it was very threatening to many people. Many social scientists, perhaps most prominently Friedrich Hayek were alarmed by it. That’s why for Friedrich Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, which became an instant bestseller in the United States. He worried that as the states were becoming more intrusive, for example, with The Beveridge Report in the UK, which asked for national insurance, social security, minimum wages, regulations and so on, that will be the end of the democratic order. But actually what has happened is that pretty much everywhere in Western Europe, those institutions have been reformed in the way that The Beveridge Report articulated. But then society became more involved in politics to keep those institutions responsive, and generally well-functioning. So that’s the critical realization about state power. We need state power, but we need that state power to be shackled.
Jeff Schechtman: And to what extent was the effectiveness and the genius of the founders and this whole … the Madisonian idea of balancing this state power in such a way that no individual or no branch could become too dominant, ideally?
Daron Acemoglu: Well, I would be the last person to say that institutional architecture is not important. And I think there were some really amazing designs in the Constitution, especially in the separation of power. But again, my perspective here is that that wasn’t sufficient. And in fact, the way that many of these things came about was more complex than sometimes we remember. It wasn’t that the founding fathers wanted to just create the best protection for individual liberties. They were quite suspicious of democratic participation. If you recall, after the Revolutionary War, there was a general democratic fervor. People were getting involved in politics, they were protesting, there were rebellions, all the state legislatures were articulating policies and pulling in different directions, and the founding fathers, Hamilton, Madison, Washington, they all felt this was subversive. So they wanted to put a lid on it.
Daron Acemoglu: But the way that they did that, especially because they got pushback from a lot of people who were suspicious of federal power … for example, they were dismayed that there wasn’t a Bill of Rights and they asked, then got a Bill of Rights. So all of these things came together to create that balance. So that architecture I think has some really nice features to recommend it. But it is also important to realize that what that architecture does is that it just gives us the tool for society to be vigilant and protect those liberties. It’s not by itself a guarantor of the liberty.
Jeff Schechtman: Where do social norms fit into the equation?
Daron Acemoglu: Well, I think they are absolutely critical and they’re critical in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin, but let me begin with the stateless societies that I mentioned a second ago. So how do they actually create an existence? How do they manage to put a lid on the violence in so many societies that have existed throughout our history? Well, they do that through social norms. They have very strict norms that say if there’s a conflict between a man and a woman, between an old person and a young person between this group and that group, this is how we’re going to resolve it. And there’re lots of things we can cannot do. For example, in the economic sphere, you cannot trade those things, you cannot engage in those type of economic activities because they’re afraid that those things will generate more conflict.
Daron Acemoglu: So you see the norms are an integral part of how we regulate activity. But it’s more than that. Today, when we think of life in the corridor, and again, this goes back to my discussion of the US a second ago. What maintains that balance isn’t just the Constitution and the law, but it’s also our political norms. The norms that say we’re not going to put up with certain injustices. We’re not going to put up with the rights of certain groups being disregarded. And then those social norms enable some political organizations, some political mobilization, that then support the institutions. But those norms can turn in the opposite direction. You have many societies where norms become sort of a tool in the hands of the elite to pacify society, or they state they separate society against itself. So we have India, which talks about how the norm, especially around social hierarchies and the caste system have done that.
Jeff Schechtman: And norms, even when the goal is not nefarious, norms can simply be dynamic and change over time.
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely, absolutely. And part of that is very important. Look, I mean, any reasonable definition of liberty will say that well into the 20th century, women were not free. They were often denied political voice. They were discriminated against in the workplace. They were discriminated against in the laws. In the marriage, they were in a subservient position and there were very strict norms that regulated their social behavior that were much more draconian than what men were subjected to. So it was critical for liberty to evolve in a positive direction that those norms start changing.
Daron Acemoglu: But how do you change norms? You can’t do that in just a top down manner. You cannot say … again, this comes back to the engineering question. You cannot say, “Okay, from now on I’m saying women are equal and everything, elders, social norms that are going to change.” That just never ever works, and in fact the Indian case, again the casts relations have been a problem. The bane of existence of Indian society. And when the Indian independence came and the constitution was articulated, one of the leaders, one of the architects of that Constitution was Ambedkar, who was himself from the untouchable Dalit caste and he was really focused on making sure that the caste hierarchies disappeared and you created a greater economic and social opportunities for low caste people. So the Indian constitution does that, but it doesn’t help unless norms start changing, and that’s a very slow process.
Jeff Schechtman: And because cultural norms are different from place to place. I mean, this goes back to your point earlier, that there is no single institutional architecture that will work, that it also has to-
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely.
Jeff Schechtman: … mesh with whatever those cultural norms might be.
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely, absolutely. So there are certain things that are universal. The balance between state and society is universal. You need that for liberty. And in fact, the Hong Kong protests show the demand for liberty is universal. People everywhere don’t want to be dominated, they don’t want to be told what to do, what not to do. They don’t want to live under the threat of violence. And you see that people in Hong Kong cut from the same cultural cloth as mainland China are so much more active and they sort of reveal that stories that say the Chinese are educated in that Confucian culture, therefore they don’t value liberty and individualism. I think those are not … those are just too simplistic.
Daron Acemoglu: But on the other hand, details of how those traditions and norms work really determine how you create the tools work for protecting yourself, or how do you create the tools for keeping politicians accountable? That’s going to be different in the US than in Italy, it’s going to be different in Italy than in Scandinavia, and I think understanding how you build the coalitions and how to build the institutions for doing that is really critical. And one of the things, and I won’t go on on this one, but perhaps we can come back to it, one of the things that we tried to do in the book is go back in history in order to show how very different types of institutional arrangements have been developed to deal with these issues.
Jeff Schechtman: The one thing that we’ve left out of this discussion so far is the role that economics plays and the role that economic upheaval plays. I mean, we could argue that with respect even to Hong Kong right now, to your point before, in terms of the differences between what’s going on in Hong Kong versus what’s going on in the mainland, talk a little bit about that.
Daron Acemoglu: Well, I mean, the economics is really critical. First of all, it’s completely intertwined with liberty. How you shape your liberty depends on what happens in the economy, because when we talk about people not having power over you, that means economic power too. If you’re starving, if you have no way of feeding your family so you have to submit yourself to the arbitrary sway of your boss, that’s a loss of liberty. But also the economy creates conditions for different types of liberty and it also destabilizes the institutions. If you look at the history of how societies have actually lost their foothold in the corridor, it has not always often happened during periods of upheaval.
Daron Acemoglu: And I think … James and I didn’t start writing this book five years ago because we foresaw so what the world was going to turn into today, which is pretty shocking at least from the vantage point of five, six years ago. But we wrote it because we thought that liberty was always fragile. And part of that fragility actually comes from economic reasons exactly as you have articulated. We’ve had three decades of mind-boggling technological change, completely transformative globalization. But at the end, we’ve created a lot of wealth and riches, but the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, the middle-class haven’t really benefited from all of those changes, and that has really created deep-rooted dissatisfaction, embitterment within the population and has eroded the trust in institutions destabilizing the corridor much more than one could have imagined perhaps a decade or two decades ago.
Jeff Schechtman: Coming back to this idea before that in order for liberty to flourish, that the social norms and the institutional architecture need to be in some kind of sync. When you put globalization on top of that, when you’re dealing with a more homogenized economic structure in different cultures, in different architectural environments, it seems to me there’s an inherent conflict built into that, that is another threat to liberty.
Daron Acemoglu: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think every change, economic, social, trading, every change creates a discombobulation. And I think some of them we have to manage. Some of them we have no way, but we have to live with them, like for example, from technological changes, it would be a mistake for us to turn back the technological clock and reject new technologies. But we have to find ways of managing many of these things.
Daron Acemoglu: One thing that I did not foresee ten years ago, or even five years ago, is how much of a backlash immigration, for example in Europe, would create. And that is an example of this sort of social change that you’re pointing out that you have to find better ways of dealing with these problems and finding the right compromises because obviously it really destabilizes the political system. It makes some people unhappy. You have to find the ways of balancing the needs of different communities and different people around the world in dealing with these problems. I think that’s why social institutions, state institutions have to change and become more complex and we have to run together with them to make them more accountable in this changing, more complex age that we’re living in.
Jeff Schechtman: There is the other aspect of this which is human nature and fear, I suppose, which is the overriding emotion that enters the equation sometimes where the fear of this change, the fear of this instability, plays against liberty in many cases and there’s a desire for a greater authoritarian role for more power on the part of the state.
Daron Acemoglu: I think that’s right, but I don’t know whether that’s universal, or whether that’s because of the failure of state institutions. This is something we don’t have a definitive answer in the book, but we do spend quite a bit of time talking about periods in which that sort of upheaval happens. And one that’s very telling is, of course, that many people are familiar with, is the collapse of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism. And that was a period of upheaval and the fear that you mentioned was very important at the end.
Daron Acemoglu: But that fear was itself constructed, came about, because of the failure of the institutions. There was a 10 year period in which the police force, the bureaucracy, the judges, the army did not put the lid on violence. By the end, in the streets people were killing each other and there was more violence because of the failure of these political and judicial institutions. And that was exacerbated because the great depression came and the wrong economic policies deepened the recession, and now you have a picture where economic institutions are failing. Political institutions are failing, judicial institutions are failing. So it’s perhaps more natural to understand that that fear becomes all-encompassing and people say, “The system is not working. We have to turn to an alternative.” And the alternative becomes of course, much, much worse than any failure of the … any sin of the system.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean, we certainly saw our version of that with the fall of the Soviet Union and what subsequently happened in Russia.
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely. But again, the fall of the Soviet Union is so interesting, especially when looked at it through the lenses of our framework, because you have the whole diversity of different types of arrangements emerging. And how one emerges in one place and not in another, it’s actually quite informative. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was uncertainty, but countries like Poland for example, they managed to navigate that partly thanks to the European Union, but mostly thanks to their societal organization, the fact that solidarity, the trade union movement, became involved in the political and economic process right from the beginning and they were able to build democratic political processes for society to get engaged and much better protection for individuals. Whereas in China … sorry, in Russia things were done behind closed doors with deals, with oligarchs, with corrupt privatization that created the billion dollar oligarchs, and then people became completely disillusioned with the system and that prepared the grounds for the rise of the KGB essentially, Putin. And that cannot be understood without the different choices, different institutional arrangements that the countries really developed in response to the same process, the collapse of communism.
Jeff Schechtman: And the other point that you make in the book with regard to all of that we’ve been talking about is that even in those places where those combination of elements have come together to create liberty, and to create it successfully, that doesn’t mean that it is either permanent or inevitable.
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely. And it goes back to your introductory comments. This is a very delicate balance and it’s a delicate social balance. It’s not like a delicate balance of different chemical elements, once they are there, they’re going to be there all the time. It is a delicate social balance. You need state institutions to function, to provide public services, to provide regulations. You need the laws to solve disputes and conflicts and rise up to the new challenges. But at the same time, you need society to get engaged in politics the right way. And the right way means that society doesn’t lose its trust in institutions, it’s able to compromise, it’s able to form broad coalitions. It’s able to remain vigilant and not lose its focus, and all of those are very, very difficult.
Daron Acemoglu: We live in a world that has so many challenges, so many different interests. Everybody’s pulling in different directions. You see that in the United States today. I think every reasonable person would agree in the United States that we need some sort of compromise and ability for different people to come together and try to work to rebuild institutions and rebuild our ability to create shared prosperity, better education, better healthcare, better labor market opportunities for people. But then the ability to articulate the leadership to put those coalitions, those compromises together is completely missing. Everybody’s pulling in different directions.
Jeff Schechtman: Part of it is that it’s not just rebuilding the institutions, it’s redefining the institutions for economic and social structures that have changed during time.
Daron Acemoglu: Absolutely. I think you’ve put your finger on the problem. Of course, if it was just recreating what we had in the 1950s it would be much easier, and in fact, some of the real confusion comes because some groups are trying to take … dial the clock back to the 1950s, 1940s or whatever that is. But what we need is different. It’s quite clear that the workers union, trade unions, are not going to look anything similar to what they did in the 1950s. But that doesn’t mean that we have to completely abandon worker organization and worker voice in the workplace and in the political sphere. You have to find better, more adaptable, more modern ways for workers to actually have a voice.
Daron Acemoglu: It’s also quite clear that our education system is not working. It’s quite clear that our media system is not working in the age of social media, Twitter and Facebook. It’s also quite clear that the way that free money into politics, which sort of wasn’t managed for quite a while in the US, has become much more problematic. So we have to redefine, redesign institutions in exactly the way that you’re articulating.
Jeff Schechtman: Daron Acemoglu. His book is The Narrow Corridor. Daron, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Daron Acemoglu: Jeff, thank you for having me on the program and thanks for your questions.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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One response to “Liberty: Hard to Achieve, Easy to Squander”

  1. Jim Terr says:

    Small argument only: I wouldn’t say it’s not the natural order; it IS part of the natural order. It’s evidently not the most COMMON situation, though.