Book Review: 'The Narrow Corridor' is a Work of Staggering Ambition on the Tightwire Act Democracy Requires

The Narrow Corridor: States, Society And The Fate Of Liberty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, is one of those books that everyone will praise and many will quote, but few will read—at least in its entirety.

It will get a lot of praise (indeed, it already has from three Nobel Laureates), because it is a work of staggering ambition—aiming to explain why liberty has or has not existed at every moment in time in every geography in the world. It will be widely quoted because it offers a stinging critique of Trumpism and capitalism as practiced in America today, along with a stern warning that, "Yes, despotism could happen here." Some will delight in the book's debunking of American exceptionalism. And the book is even-handed enough that those from every point on the political spectrum will be able to cite scripture to their particular purpose. The problem, though, is it's a hard slog, even for someone who's interested in the subject and loved their last book Why Nations Fail.

The premise of Narrow Corridor is straightforward. Democracy is the best of all possible political worlds, one which fosters innovation and prosperity. However, democracy is not a higher state to which all nations will evolve as leaders become more enlightened. Rather, it is a delicate and fragile outcome, as unstable as a tightwire walker on a windy day. Democracy requires both a strong state and a strong society and can only endure when the two are in perfect balance, a precarious condition that few nations have ever achieved and even fewer maintained. Getting into the corridor isn't easy. Staying there is even harder. The default political condition is anarchy and chaos, a situation most societies will do anything to avoid, even if it means choosing between autocracy (too much state) or tribalism (too little.) Despotism is better for a country than anarchy, but despotic growth has limited upside because it stifles innovation and fosters corruption. (Example: It costs as much as $130,000 in bribes to get into China's prestigious Renmin University.)

The great strength and ultimately the great weakness of this book are its piece parts. It is chock full of delightful detours and brilliant nuggets. My copy is full of highlighted passages, scribbled notes, and little plastic stickers. There's a fascinating section on the outlook for China as a world power which argues that China will stall out because it's unlikely to evolve into a democracy. It lacks a democratic tradition, having always cycled between hard despotism (Shang Yang and Communism) and soft (Confucianism). The best part is that the authors make their argument by citing the world's first economist, Ibn Khaldun from Tunis, famous today for having invented what we know as the Laffer Curve. It's this sort of breathtaking erudition, linking ideas and events across geographies and time periods, that makes this book special.

China America Democracy Flag
A US flag is displayed in front of the portrait of China's late communist leader Mao Zedong outside the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. Getty/NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

But of course most American readers will be more interested in what the book says about us. And that's plenty. Many (myself included) have made the argument that corporations in America need to do more.

This book argues that part of the problem is that businesses do too much already. In a nutshell, they believe that because of a deeply-flawed Constitution, the federal government is unable to do many things it should and can do efficiently, like healthcare. Which results in it leaning on public-private partnerships to take on too many tasks. It also causes the federal government to go overboard in those areas where it has (or has simply taken) the license to operate, like internal security and war-making.

Another particularly interesting section is devoted to the American approach to running an economy, which the authors describe as "let the market work and use redistributive taxation to move toward the desired distribution." The authors argue this is an artificial separation of politics from economics, and the smarter way to do it would be to fiddle with market prices so that less redistribution is required. But some of their best insights are around the rise of Trumpism, where the authors argue that Trump's playbook, taking advantage of a gridlocked political system, posturing as the defender of the people, co-opting elites who think they can ride the tiger, delegitimizing institutions, and so forth is the same one used by dictators from Adolf Hitler in Germany to Alberto Fujimori in Peru. They warn we should not be confident that our institutions will protect us. And they cite numerous examples of democracies that have either simply collapsed, like the Weimar Republic, or voted themselves out of existence.

Their overarching framework defines history as a trade-off between the power of the state and the power of the people. It is intuitively appealing, but to make everything fit requires too many exceptions and explanations. My takeaway was that successful democracies seem to be as much historical happenchance as the result of wise choices. That is, those who learn from history may be doomed to
repeat it anyway. The authors disagree, "Nonetheless, that history matters doesn't mean that history is destiny." But they fail to provide much support. Just as in their last book, Acemoglu and Robinson prove adept at describing history, but less good at prescribing how to shape it.

I found myself flipping forwards and backwards—backwards to go back to something that was said earlier, and forwards to see how many pages were left. Many of the arguments are nuanced. It takes reading and rereading to fully understand what the authors are saying. And they don't make it easier by using a vocabulary borrowed from Thomas Hobbes and embellished with their own euphemisms: Paper Leviathan, Red Queen Effect, Gilgamesh Problem, Cage of Norms, The Blades of Scissors. Acemoglu and Robinson list 45 "coauthors" in the acknowledgements. I'd guess the terminology is an attempt to glue together many small essays into one cohesive whole. It didn't quite work for me. Saul Bellow said, "All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location and avoid originality." Using a vocabulary we're already familiar with would have made this book a bit easier to digest.

Perhaps it's harsh to criticize this book for failing to live up to the absurdly high standard it set for itself, and instead we should appreciate it for what it is: smart and timely book on an important topic.