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violence and social orders, ch. 1

D North, J Wallis, and B Weingast (NWW) offer a “conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history” in their new work Violence and Social Orders. As a fan of North’s defining institutional economics work, as well as Weingast’s papers on China, I was pleased that Arnold Kling found so much to like about the new book, and decided to pick it up myself. I am happy to say that Violence lives up to its potential, crystallizing NWW’s earlier work in a simple and useful framework and clearly explaining its application. I found so much to like about the book, that I’ve decided to write up a post on each of the seven chapters. (Will I have the endurance? We’ll see.)

The next post will highlight my favorite insights from the second chapter on natural societies, but first it’s necessary to define our terms. To that end, Chapter 1 “lays out a set of concepts that show how societies have used the control of political, economic, religious, and educational activities to limit and contain violence over the last ten thousand years. In most societies, political, economic, religious and military powers are created through institutions that structure human organizations and relationships. These institutions simultaneously give individuals control over resources and social functions and, by doing so, limit the use of violence by shaping the incentives faced by individuals and groups who have access to violence. We call these patterns of social organization social orders.”

WIth the title explained, NWW introduce their taxonomy of natural and open access societies:

Natural states use the political system to regulate economic competition and create economic rents; the rents order social relations, control violence, and establish social cooperation. … Open access societies regulate economic and political competition in a way that uses the entry and competition to order social relations.

The character of a particular state and society is formed by the process by which its elites have managed to monopolize violence.

NWW differentiate their analysis in their treatment of the state as a multi-faceted and often delicate balance of interests, rather than as a “single actor “representative agent””.  When the state is assumed away as a single actor, the “fundamental problem of how the state achieves a monopoly on violence” is missed, and it is that very process by which the structure of the society emerges. Indeed, you must “begin with the problem of structuring the internal relationships among the individuals who make up the organization of (potential) enforcers.” Violence treats the state as an organization, with its defining feature being a monopoly on violence. Organizations, in turn, are defined “tools that individuals use to increase their productivity, to seek and create human contact and relationships, to coordinate the actions of many individuals and groups, and to dominate and coerce others.”

Taking the natural state for an example, NWW explain:

By overlooking the reality that all states are organizations, this approach misses how the internal dynamics among elites within the dominant coalition affect how states interact with the larger society. Systematic rent creation through limited access in a natural state is not simply a method of lining the pockets of the dominant coalition; it is the essential means of controlling violence. Rent-creation, limits on competition, and access to organizations are central to the nature of the state, its institutions, and the society’s performance. Limiting the ability to form contractual organizations only to members of the coalition ties the interests of powerful elites directly to the survival of the coalition, thus ensuring their continued cooperation within the coalition.

Finally, to keep this intro brief, a quick overview reveals the principal differentiating characteristics between the open access and natural societies:

Open access societies

1. Political and economic development.
2. Economies that experience much less negative economic growth.
3. Rich and vibrant civil societies with lots of organizations.
4. Bigger, more decentralized governments.
5. Widespread impersonal social relationships, including rule of law, secure property rights, fairness, and equality — all aspects of treating everyone the same.

Limited access or natural societies

1. Slow-growing economies vulnerable to shocks.
2. Polities without generalized consent of the governed.
3. Relatively small numbers of organizations.
4. Smaller and more centralized governments. A predominance of social relationships organized along personal lines, including privileges, social hierarchies, laws that are enforced unequally, insecure property rights, and a pervasive sense that not all individuals were created or are equal.

Next stop, I’ll explore NWW’s chapter on the natural society, and possible lessons for fragile and failed states.


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