Published on June 2, 2022
Written by David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy
A central dilemma for anyone interested in government is the dual nature of the state. On the one hand, the state can be a powerful force for good - harnessing and collectivizing resources to create or enforce rules and norms that support public goods. In this role, states have created miraculous outcomes - sewage systems, public health and education, courts: public goods that have radically improved people’s lives. On the other hand, the same Leviathan-like power that can make the state critical to creating public value also makes it terrifying. The world is sadly filled with examples of state power used to displace, punish, and terrorize marginalized communities, pursue wars of aggression, or simply eliminate dissent.
Building new state capabilities is thus always fraught with dilemmas. This is particularly pertinent to digital government practitioners and observers such as me since this work - by definition - involves building new state capability. Such capabilities may be essential to tackling new problems - regulating social media companies, addressing poverty, or fighting a pandemic. But they can also be used to limit freedom and subject citizens. For example, digital identities, virtual vaccine passports, digital currencies, and data portability all will be critical to lifting billions out of poverty and protecting life and liberty. And they can also be misused for political control or to limit freedom. This is one reason I try to get every public affairs student to read Seeing Like the State.
It was thus with great excitement that a couple of years ago I read Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s 2019 book, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. The Narrow Corridor refers to a delicate balance between the powers of the state and society (the civil society, citizens, and the private sector) with the central argument of the book being that for liberty to emerge and flourish, both must be strong.
This is because successful countries need the state and society to work together and keep each other in check. If the state becomes too strong, it quashes dissent and freedom which prevents society from developing new innovations - innovations essential to the state if it wishes to build its own capabilities. Thus an unchecked state will, over time, become a capability poor and unable to solve new problems. Conversely, a relatively weak state is unable to regulate society’s disputes, oversee property rights and create public goods, in short, it can’t provide the conditions which enable society to foster new ideas or let new innovations emerge for the benefit of all.
The key to high functioning states is a “Red Queen” effect (referencing Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” where the faster the queen runs the faster it must keep running). In our context, this means both state capacity, as well as society’s ability to constrain - or shackle - the state, must grow in tandem, each racing faster and faster to keep up with the other.
Ensuring this constant negotiation between the two states and society - is the secret to moving “up” the corridor - providing the state with new capabilities to tackle new problems and create public value but limiting its power to prevent gross abuse (see figure 1).
The Narrow Coordidor can serve as an interesting framework for those of us simultaneously excited and concerned about the potential of digital technologies to increase state capability. It also offers us a glimpse into what some possible future scenarios might look like...
To do this, I layer a matrix over the Narrow Corridor chart:
For most of us, some of these futures are obviously better than others. This simple framework can help prompt a number of questions:
- What is the future we want? What does that upper right quadrant look like?
- How can digital capabilities serve public interests and what should the state or society control or operate to fulfill that?
- What capabilities, norms, domestic and international regimes one might want in place to nudge us towards the future we want and away from those we might not like?
- How can we shape markets that will foster digital capabilities that align with public values and liberty?
We can’t run away from the future. Nor can we ignore the power of the state or the potential of digital technologies - in the hand of the state - to help solve critical problems, create public value and ensure an inclusive, safe and equitable future. It will be up to us to decide not only what new digital capabilities we want to enable the state with, but the governance structures and systems to constrain it to ensure that it serves us.