Saturday, May 06, 2006

MFS2: The Zone of Democracy

Musings on Failed States, Part 2

I suggested in my first set of musings on failed states that our collective failure to render adequate assistance to New Orleans might be linked to an ideology that tends to be skeptical of government's ability to do good things and do them effectively and that all of this might somehow be related to the problem of failed states. At this point, I consider this formulation of the New Orleans issue a "provocation," that is, an idea that might or might not be worth holding onto but that is at least plausible enough (and controversial enough) to force me (and maybe others) to think it through. So I want to begin thinking through it, but first I want to situate it. And here it might help to think horizontally.

Get up off the floor. That's not what I meant.

The more my graduate school experiences recede into the past, the more I seem to become aware of my debts to certain mentors. My chief debts, intellectual and otherwise, are owed to Inis Claude at the University of Virginia.

Professor Claude occasionally spoke of the benefits of horizontal thinking. Our tendency, he said, is to categorize most things. Doing so requires drawing vertical lines between categories, or "thinking vertically." Here's a simple example:


Horizontal thinking, in contrast, recognizes the many gradations between the absolutes of the categories we tend to create with vertical thinking. A more nuanced understanding of the difference between peace and war, therefore, might yield something like this:


It's a simple idea, but then the most useful ideas usually are.

So, if we're to think horizontally about the problem of failed states, what should our horizontal line--our spectrum of possibilities--help us to map? I want to suggest "control."

Hobbes argued that the basic purpose of government--of his Leviathan--is to rescue humankind from the insecurity associated with the state of nature, the condition in which "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Government does this by imposing order, that is, by exercising control over all who might threaten the lives and well-being of those living under its authority. This is a necessary condition for human flourishing. It is, of course, a condition absent in failed states.

Government control to provide safety from rapacious neighbors and foreign enemies is not a sufficient condition for human flourishing, however. Governments can, and often do, exercise too much control. So the challenge is how to have enough government (control) without having too much government (control). One of the manifestations of this challenge is the tradeoff–all too familiar to Americans since 9/11–between freedom and security.

Thinking horizontally about control gives us something like this:

No Control------------------------------------------------------Total Control

On the left side is anarchy; on the right, totalitarianism. Sierra Leone in the 1990s and Somalia for most of the last two decades would fall close to the left end of the spectrum; North Korea would fall closer to the right end than any country in the world today (although certain kleptocracies of Central Asia or Islamic theocracies of the Middle East might also fall toward the totalitarian end of the spectrum).

Most people would rather not live in Somalia or in North Korea. Instead, we prefer control within limits, or controlled control. We like "law and order," but we want law to apply to those who govern as well as to those over whom they govern. The "rights revolution" is, in large measure, what we have come to rely on for limits on the measures governments may take to impose order. Jefferson, in fact, put the limitations imposed by rights first when he declared that "governments are instituted among men" in order "to secure these rights." Governments that both "insure domestic tranquility" and "secure these rights" (if I may combine phrases from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence) fall somewhere in the middle of our spectrum of control. They fall, in fact, in what I would like to call the "zone of democracy."

/--- The Zone of Democracy ---/
Failed States----------------------------------------Totalitarian Regimes

It's important to note that human rights (at least the full range of human rights) cannot exist at either end of the spectrum. Excessive control by the state tramples human rights while the absence of order makes it impossible for individuals to exercise most rights. The "zone of democracy," in other words, is equally the "zone of human rights."

Within the zone of democracy, there is a wide range of possible answers to the question of how we manage the tradeoff between order and liberty. Libertarians prefer to eliminate government control over as much as possible; social democrats prefer to eliminate as much social and economic insecurity as possible. Libertarians are more willing than social democrats to see some people fall through the cracks; social democrats are more willing to tolerate the fact that some people fail to exercise individual responsibility.

Much of democratic politics is about the debate over where, within the zone of democracy, the line dividing government responsibility and individual responsibility should be drawn. But, because political debates generally revolve around specific policies rather than general principles, the line may be drawn in different places on different issues. For example, the government may take great responsibility for protecting its citizens against terrorist threats while accepting little responsibility for protecting its citizens against a variety of threats posed by nature. Sometimes the location of the line separating government responsibility from individual responsibility may have far more to do with political considerations than with philosophical considerations. Presidents, ever conscious of the Electoral College, are far more likely to tell South Dakotans than Floridians that they must not look to the federal government for assistance.

The impact of these (and many other) calculations may result in "pockets of failure" (to use a term employed by Foreign Policy magazine, or localized state failure, within what, on the whole, appears to be a well-functioning state. So, although the United States isn't a failed state by any stretch of the imagination, you might have reason to wonder if you had spent the last seven months in New Orleans' Ninth Ward with no contact with the outside world. You might also have reason to wonder if, like some of my students, you had spent your spring break working with those who are homeless in downtown Detroit.

State failure is generally a consequence of a government's lack of capacity to exercise control (over violence, poverty, disease, etc.), but a government's lack of will to exercise control can lead to the same end. The failure of the Sudanese government to control the Janjaweed militias that have been driving the people of Darfur from their homes is a lack of will, not a lack of capacity. The failure of neighboring Uganda's government to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda from the violence of the Lord's Resistance Army appears to result from a lack of will rather than a lack of capacity. Perhaps failed states and collapsed states are generally the consequences of the inability of a government to exercise control, but weak states--those just a step away from failure--and localized state failure are often the result of deliberate policies.