James A. Robinson Keynote Lecture

Why does freedom flourish in some countries and authoritarianism in others?

On 29 October 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the Master Conference live on www.frdelpino.es entitled "Why does freedom flourish in some countries and authoritarianism in others?" to be given by James A. Robinson on the occasion of his latest book "The Narrow Aisle. States, societies and how to achieve freedom" published by Deusto.

A recognised expert on political economy, institutions and economic and political development, Professor Robinson has had an intense and prolific teaching and research career. He trained as an economist at the London School of Economics and Political Science and at Warwick and Yale Universities. Prior to joining the University of Chicago, he held the Wilbur A. Cowett and David Florence Chairs in governance at Harvard University and served as professor of economics and political science at the Universities of California-Berkeley, Southern California, and Melbourne.

Among his numerous works, one of the most important is "Why Nations Fail", which he developed together with Professor Daron Acemoglu, one of the most renowned works on economics, which Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof called "an enduring classic on a par with Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations".


On 29 October 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised the conference "Why freedom flourishes in some countries and authoritarianism in others", given by James E. Robinson, Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies, University Professor and Director of the Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago, on the occasion of the presentation of his book "The Narrow Aisle".

According to Professor Robinson, human beings want to live in freedom. John Locke understands liberty to be a state in which people can act and dispose of their possessions without having to depend on other people or ask their permission. To live in freedom is a human aspiration. Freedom, however, is defined differently depending on where in the world a person lives.

If everyone aspires to live in freedom, why is there so little freedom in the world? Freedom is in short supply when a very powerful state dominates society, for example, China today. There, the government has placed thousands of cameras in the streets, in a tremendous system of control of society that reminds us of Orwell's Big Brother watching us. The Chinese state is an unaccountable state with the technological capacity it has to eradicate freedom.

In other parts of the world, the state does not have such a major presence. Its presence is minimal, but that does not guarantee freedom. This is the case in Yemen. The state hardly exists there, nor does it dominate society, which is organised in its tribes, clans and networks. The state does not control Yemen, but there is no freedom there either.

Sociologist Max Weber defines the state as the human community that has a monopoly on violence in a particular territory. In China it has this monopoly and exercises it, but in Yemen the monopoly of violence is in the hands of society. The Yemeni situation is not conducive to freedom either, for two reasons. The first has to do with what Hobbes says in 'Leviathan', namely that a society without a state is bankrupt because a situation of war will arise. War is a continual fear, a danger of losing one's life, a life that is lonely, unpleasant and short. This does not allow freedom to flourish. In this context, in Yemen and similar societies, rules emerge to prevent wars, but these rules also hinder freedom, they are the second reason that prevents its emergence.

What allows freedom to appear and flourish is the existence of a balance between state and society. In Yemen there is a strong society and a weak state, so there is no freedom. In China there is a strong state and a weak society, so there is no freedom either. In the middle of this narrow corridor, a balance emerges between state and society, which compete with each other, and in doing so, this competition drives both to be strong and in balance. Freedom emerges in this corridor because of the balance between state and society. Outside it, freedom is restricted. When there is balance between state and society, the shackled Leviathan emerges.

From this perspective, why is there more freedom in Northern Europe than in North America? To answer this question, one has to go back to history, way back to the Roman Empire. The Roman historian Tacitus tried to understand why the Romans never managed to conquer the Germanic peoples, and he found the answer in Germanic institutions. Among them, less important matters were debated by their chiefs and resolved by themselves, but important matters were debated in the tribal assembly. This is a very participatory model of governance. When the Roman Empire fell, the Germans and Franks merged this system with the Roman institutions, i.e. law, church, etc., but it was still a very participatory model of governance. The merger was promoted by Clovis, the king of the Merovingians.

Clovis also promulgated the Salic law. He probably could neither read nor write, so he enlisted the services of four Roman lawyers from across the Rhine to draft it. The lawyers met with the assemblies, discussed the cases and their solutions and drafted the law. This was not an autocratic imposition, but a bottom-up codification process that harked back to the traditions of the Merovingians.

The difference between Western and Northern Europe and the rest of the world is these assemblies, which are re-emerging in their history. In the 13th century, the Magna Carta, a constitutional document that attempts to define the rights of the king and his responsibility, was signed in England. The Magna Carta was signed at Runnymeade, a meadow near London, which is a very symbolic place because it was the place where the wheatons, the English version of the Germanic assemblies, were held. Magna Carta does not bring freedom per se, but the process ends up leading to parliamentarism and democracy. King John signs because he is forced to by the barons. The Magna Carta, however, gives rights not only to them, but also to the barons, the serfs. This laid the foundations for something very different.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the modern fiscal state was built in England, based on an administration that had been in place since 1690. The state tries to keep track of things in a way it had never done before, thus generating a reaction from society. Charles Tilly explains the birth of democracy from this. The expansion of the state moves the popular struggle from the local to the national, what Robinson calls the red queen effect. The aim is to achieve freedom, and to do so, the red queen must be tamed.

What about China? There are big structural differences between the Asian giant and Europe, but in historical terms, why does it end up being so different from Western Europe? If you go back in history, you can see that things are not so different. According to the Xunzi, an ancient Chinese philosophical text, the king is a ship and the people are the water that can make it float or sink. This is what accountability implies. What happens in China is that the rise of the first dynasty, the Shing dynasty, abolishes this model of governance. Shang Yang says that when the people are weak, the state is strong. Therefore, the state, which knows the way, the tao, tries to weaken the people in order to strengthen itself. This creates a despot state, which is what China has been for 2,000 years. China fell into this despotic equilibrium and this situation has been consolidated there.

This is very different from what happens in other parts of the world, such as Yemen or sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, the Tiv people were a stateless society because they feared state hegemony. This fear so dominates Tiv society that it makes it almost impossible to build any political hierarchy. Setbacks are attributed to witchcraft and these accusations are used to maintain the egalitarian character of Tiv society. Anyone who thought they were too important and tried to exercise power ran the risk of being accused of witchcraft. The Tiv distrusted power, resulting in a system in which institutions are based on a principle of inheritance and egalitarianism.
A hierarchy can be created, but how can it be controlled? The difficult thing is to find the balance between the lack of trust and the advantages guaranteed by states. Many societies have not managed to do so because it is very difficult to penetrate this narrow corridor.

There are three constellations of state-society relations that have very different consequences for freedom. The state can dominate society, but society can also dominate the state. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was thought that the whole world was going to move to liberal democracy, but the historical pattern is not convergence but maintaining divergence, as seen in Yemen.

Shang was wrong. His ideas are valid to explain China's drift, but the strongest states are those with the strongest societies, because those societies can hold states to account, to defend collective interests. This cannot happen in China.

Achieving Leviathan in chains is not about constitutional design or checks and balances. It is a process. America is not the way it is because of a document that Madison could write in Philadelphia. Its content has to be implemented, it has to be believed in. America did what it did because power was in the hands of society.

Freedom requires social change. Positive freedom is about encouraging people to do things, allowing them to make choices. In societies without a central state, social norms proliferate to achieve order, but that is the cage of norms, which prevents freedom from being achieved, for example, the caste system in India or serfdom in Europe.

There is nothing Western about the idea of freedom. The Tiv are very interested in freedom. This longing for freedom is inherent to the human being. There are many types of societies in the corridor between which there are big differences, rich and poor, the corridor is very heterogeneous because societies have had to solve many different types of historical problems.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.