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20150814 Political Order and Decay



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The main idea is to identify based on history typical signs of political decay in contemporary societies. These signs are: dramatic decrease of income growth in developed countries, gridlock of democratic polities in solution of various problems, increase in bureaucracies and decrease in their effectiveness. Societies are reviewed based on different paths of development: OECD, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia. Despite Asian model of limited market capitalism under authoritarian rule still being on the rise and OECD model of democracy with free market severely impeded by bureaucratic welfare state being in decline, author seems to believe that East Asian model is not sustainable on the long run and OECD model with democracy has more potential for growth and improvements in human life.



  1. What Is Political Development?

Here author refreshes his definition of political development as total of 3 components: the state, rule of law, and accountability. He stresses the difference between rule of law and rule by law with latter often being a necessary predecessor of the former, but by far not the same. He also briefly points at sources of political decay and presents plan of the book as continuation and expansion of ideas presented in the first volume to the world development after Industrial revolution.

2.The Dimensions of Development

Here author presents data about dramatic change in technological and economy environment and is trying to place political development into framework of overall development of humanity in all relevant areas:

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  1. Bureaucracy

Here author correctly posits that the state is bureaucracy and reviews attempts to measure quality of the bureaucracy across the scope of state functions:

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  1. Prussia Builds a State

In this chapter author reviews history of state development in Prussia: the commonly accepted gold standard of bureaucratic welfare state.

  1. Corruption

Here author reviews phenomenon of corruption as inalienable part of any government and how it impacts development of the state. He differentiates corruption into 2 distinct forms: Patronage and Clientelism. He discusses patronage as more damaging form that is at odds with democracy and impedes development of accountability. He seems to consider Clientelism much more benign form of corruption that actually could be considered a primitive form of democracy that recedes with economic development when voters are too rich and educated to sell their votes to politician in exchange for some small potatoes. In this case the whole population practically becomes clientele because politician has to satisfy increasingly bigger share of voters to get elected.

  1. The Birthplace of Democracy

Here author discusses his thesis that early development of democracy, when country is still very poor, leads to development of low trust society and formation of rigid clientele / politicians combinations, preventing effective development of polity. He uses Southern Italy and Greece as examples.

  1. Italy and the Low-Trust Equilibrium

This is more detailed look at Italy where North and South had very different paths of development with South consistently remaining low-trust corrupted entity, while North developing into much more modern and effective capitalist polity. The special attention is given to issue of low versus high trust societies and how former causes severe problems for development.

  1. Patronages and Reform

This chapter is about American and British development. Both democracies started with government bureaucracies based on patronage, but only America developed fully blown clientele system. British implemented Northcote-Trevelyan reforms in 1854 that ended patronage and implemented system of examinations. This effectively removed aristocracy out of bureaucratic hierarchy and opened door for “meritocratic” elite. In America system of checks and balances prevented decisive reform from the top leading to transformation of patronage system into clientele system. Author sees it as “inherent tension” between democracy and “good governance”, with America being more democratic leading to it being poorly governed.

  1. The United States Invents Clientelism

This chapter is detailed look at American development and its differentiation from all other countries as result of maintaining ancient rules of separation of powers, checks, and balances that greatly complicate functioning of modern bureaucracy. In XIX century and a good part of XX century it led to municipal party politics with whole slides of population becoming clientele of city party machines such as Tammany hall.

  1. The End of the Spoils System

This is continuation of review of American development when the rising bureaucracy in turn defeated the spoils system established with Andrew Jackson’s victory over quasi-aristocratic patronage system that existed from beginning of republic. The Pendleton act of 1883 was a landmark in multi-year efforts to import European ideas of bureaucracy and rule by meritocratic elite. However it took another 60 years before bureaucracy, especially federal bureaucracy in alliance with progressive movement become absolutely dominant force in American society.

  1. Railroads, Forests, and American State Building

This is review of specific battles and victories of bureaucracy in railroad dealings with plutocracy and in building exemplary bureaucracy of Forest Service. Author looks at this from point of view of Principal/Agent framework, stressing that capture of public resources by special interest had never been far away from everyday reality.

  1. Nation Building

This is review of role of nationalism and identity politics in nation building. It provides an interesting classification of routes to national identity:

  1. Territorial expansion
  2. Genocide or ethnic cleansing to create homogeneous population on national territory
  3. Cultural Assimilation
  4. Adjustment of national identities to political realities.
  5. Good Government, Bad Government

This is discussion about quality of government with special attention of its variance and its dependence of the path of development. Author seems to believe that the best way is building a strong state first with rule by law supporting economic development and only later and gradually switch to rule of law and democracy (German way), with American way of starting with rule of law, effective market economy, and democracy and only later adding strong state being inferior, and Greek / South Italian way of starting with democracy and never really getting neither to the rule of law nor to the free market economy, being quite a lousy way to proceed.


  1. Nigeria

This is a brief case study of Nigeria as a typical example of undeveloped society where deep corruption and absence of democracy keep people in poverty despite or maybe even because of wealth of its natural resources.

  1. Geography

This chapter is discussion of influence of geography with reference to work of Montesquieu on nature of laws and contemporary economist Jeffrey Sachs and anthropologist Jarred Diamond both of whom seems to overstate this influence. Here author also defines 3 regions he will use to discuss political development: Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia

  1. Silver, Gold, and Sugar

This chapter is about development in Latin America where Spain at least partially transferred its institutions by imposing them on local population of mixed ethnicity and culture, creating in process policy week in both accountability and rule of law.

  1. That Didn’t Bark

The main point of this chapter is that in China’s as well as in Europe’s extensive wars facilitated creation of powerful states, especially in comparison with peaceful development of Latin America that paradoxically led to problems caused by weakness of the state.

  1. The Clean Slate

This is review of two exceptions to typical development of Latin American countries: Costa Rica that despite all odds did not become “banana republic” and Argentina that started very well and was on its way to becoming Denmark when it degraded dramatically to typical Latin American level of corruption and stagnation.

  1. Storms in Africa

This chapter is about reasons for weakness of Sub-Saharan states coming from absence of any developed states.

  1. Indirect Rule

This is continuation of the discussion with stress on corruption development during colonial period when very small numbers of European administrators dealt with local tribal kings.

  1. Institutions, Domestic or Imported

This chapter is about another type of powerful external intervention implemented by United States and Japan. It is also form of indirect rule, but mainly via international financial and political organizations.

  1. Lingua Franca

This chapter is about importance of creating national identity for political development. It reviews success story in Indonesia and Tanzania in comparison with failure in Nigeria and Kenya.

  1. The Strong Asian State

Contrary to Latin America and Africa, Asian Countries had highly developed and powerful states long before colonial intervention. Despite being technologically far behind these policies where able survive colonialism and in case of Japan even repulse it at early stages. Author also reviews an interesting case in Japan before and during WWII when military bureaucracy went completely out of control by existing structures of the state, leading to nearly complete destruction of the country.

  1. The Struggle for Law in China

This is review of XX century metamorphoses of highly bureaucratic Chinese state going through revolutions, civil war, totalitarian communist rule by Mao, and eventually arriving to bureaucratic rule by law combined with relatively free market of contemporary China.

  1. The Reinvention of the Chinese State

This is continuation of discussion on China, with stress on specific problem of bad imperator and challenge that complex bureaucracy represents for accountability. Author seems to believe that it will be eventually resolved via some form of democratic development.

  1. Three Regions

This is summary of 3 regions discussion with some interesting data presented for comparison:

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  1. Why Did Democracy Spread?

This is about the reasons for democracy’s expansion around the world. Author seems to be connecting it to division of labor, expansion of market, and individualization of population that participates in it. Consequently it led to expansion of political participation in the struggle over control of the state, which at the long run defines resource allocations and transfer. Here is graphic representation of these ideas:

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  1. The Long Road to Democracy

This is a brief history of democratic expansion with some data:

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  1. From 1848 to the Arab Spring

This chapter is attempt to link democratic movements in Europe in XIX century with recent Arab Spring with pretty sad conclusion that as European movement turned into nationalistic nightmare so Arab spring has all signs of turning into movement of religious supremacy of Islam because economic foundation of stable democracy is yet to be achieved.

  1. The Middle Class and Democracy’s Future

This chapter is about middle class, its role in democratization and politics. Most important it recognizes problem of disappearance of middle class as result of technological advancement including transportation and communications that allowed cheap immigrant labor inside developed country or cheap foreign labor in offshore installations directly compete with local middle class. Author believes that the only solution capable to save middle class is expansion of education.


  1. Political Decay

This chapter provides a shining example of political decay using US Forest Service, which went from exemplary government agency to unruly congregation of bureaucratic hierarchies serving mainly to provide living for its bureaucrats, lobbyists, and special interests protected by them.   At the end of chapter author provides generalization of political decay process using historical examples, but most important looking at what author believes deficiencies of Madisonian version of democracy with its checks and balances that far from being reliable safeguards against corruption.

  1. A State of Courts and Parties

This chapter looks at judicial capture of administrative process, which often gets ground down to stoppage by checks and balances in hands of competing parties with polar ideologies. It provides an interesting table for Ratio of Tax revenues to GDP:

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  1. Congress and the Repatrimonialization of American Politics

This is closer look at capture of legislature by special interests, as it is done in USA, working via lobbying process and how it accelerates political decay.

  1. America the Vetocracy

That’s how author characterized contemporary decay of American polity where quite a few groups have veto power and practically nobody can get things done as result. Author provides a very nice graph for this process:

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Author also discusses difference of United States from other countries and organization like EU coming to conclusion that America is trapped in bad equilibrium of Vetocracy. The Madisonian republic slowed advance of welfare state and author understands that Americans consider it a blessing. However the same factors made it difficult to rebuild system now when such state proved its inefficiency.

  1. Autonomy and Subordination

This chapter is about differences between governance of private business and government bureaucracies, stressing a need to find a balance between enterprises and democratic control. It also discusses issue of bureaucratic control, capacity of the state, and their relation to quality of government. It is supplied with a nice graph:

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  1. Political Orders and Political Decay

The last chapter somewhat summarizes author’s ideas presented in two books on political order and decay. It also presents a brief look at the future development when author discusses alternatives to democracy, especially Chinese model, eventually coming to conclusion that despite all problems democracy is still the best model available even if there is no guaranty that it will eventually win everywhere. There are just too many unpredictable random events and turns that could derail even highly developed society into political decay and degradation. Nevertheless democracy contains a very strong universal appeal attracting more and more peoples and countries to its side.


I find this book very interesting not only due to the thorough research and wealth of data accumulated, but also because it is all plugged in well thought through model of development of society and its polity. My main difference with the author probably relates to his disgust with Madisonian Democracy with its checks and balances that prevent effective government actions. I do not believe in wise politicians and all knowing and benevolent bureaucrats who would fix all problems if not overburdened with checks and balances. I believe in self-centered power hungry politicians and bureaucrats whose main purpose is to control other people’s lives for psychological satisfaction and transfer as many resources to selves for material satisfaction using government power. Moreover, I believe that no system of checks and balances would be able to contain these people in their strive to satisfy their own needs and wishes at the expense of everybody else, so the only solution is to restrict role of government and therefore violence, coercion, deception, and indoctrination to absolute minimum of protection against violence, coercion, deception, and indoctrination by other players: foreign governments, criminals, and crooks. In other words the best way to prevent political decay is to diminish importance of political power in all areas of our lives.

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