An analysis of network interactions in complex systems presents a more plausible explanation for the development of states and societies and the origins of liberty than does the linear approach adopted by Acemoğlu and Robinson in The Narrow Corridor, which is based on a single dichotomy—state vs. society. A methodology that responds to complexity relies on a far more comprehensive understanding of endogenous mechanisms of social change, the importance of pathways for information, the effects of system scaling, and, more generally, the dynamic relationship between a system and its constitutive parts.

In The Narrow Corridor, Acemoğlu and Robinson make a bold claim—that liberty springs from a delicate balance of power between state and society. The Narrow Corridor is a massive effort to adapt the standard equilibrium framework, which has proved useful for solving the “allocation problem” in resource economics, to questions of long-term historical change. That solution, in which a balance of supply and demand determines the allocation of goods and services, has become formalized into what can be called “price theory.” But the core questions of political economy—how institutions emerge and why different polities foster different structures—are not so easily formalized. One way to stay faithful to the requirements of formal theory is to bring into balance new pairs of variables that disturb the equilibrium of social power. Examples of such disturbances are the clash of the rising bourgeois with the feudal remnants that allegedly dominated early modern Europe, markets vs. states in developing or transitional economies without socialist planning, or networks vs. hierarchies in the globalizing economies of the technology age.1

But every sweeping binary category, including state vs. society, provides a simplistic representation of the complexity, heterogeneity, nonlinearity, and connectivity of long-lived historical regimes. As this review essay shows, the mechanism that determines the equilibrium in Acemoğlu and Robinson’s model is far from evident. Their “narrow corridor” is an equilibrium system that lacks clearly defined operational variables. Their “Red Queen” mechanism of change seems to have sprung like Athena fully formed from the head of Zeus. Moreover, their argument is slanted toward the notion of public assembly, rather than contracts, as the driver of modern democratic society. This approach overlooks some of the most important cultural movements and institutions in premodern European history, such as the Western legal tradition in which the ideals of liberty are memorialized. Yet their bias is Western, even as their topic is global.

The book’s conclusions rely too heavily on path dependence (with little option for reversion, bifurcation, or abrupt transformation) and hardly at all on the many interdependencies, feedback loops, and change processes found in complex systems, of which state and society are just a part. They also neglect the effects of international (exogenous) events such as the international context in which fascism was defeated. They assume a brick-by-brick institutional scale-up from village assembly to kingdom, ignoring that the democratic assemblies of villages cannot sustain a complex social structure like a kingdom.

This review essay explores the motivation of research that re-examines global history, with an eye toward expanding the scope of contemporary research in political economy. It discusses the failure of The Narrow Corridor to clarify the operational utility of its key variables—state, society, liberty, and democracy—which results in factual inaccuracies. The Narrow Corridor’s emphasis on the right to assemble as the key institutional attribution of European liberties contrasts with a more established view, associated first with Bloch and later with Rosenberg and Birdzell, Jr., and North, that instead stressed the legal system in its support of the right to contract. Furthermore, the book’s omission of international relations results in a neglect of the transnational connectivity that has held Europe together.2

The complex-systems approach presented herein shares certain parallels with the approach of Acemoğlu and Robinson. It, too, emphasizes institutional development rather than human capital, culture, or geography, and it helps to illustrate why the rise of the liberal West was exceptional and far from inevitable, rather than natural and preordained. The differences between the two approaches concern the very mechanisms of change, the importance of connectivity, the way in which a system reacts when its size is altered, and, more generally, the relationship of a system’s parts to the whole. A complex-systems approach bolstered by network science offers a more accurate way to scale empires, nations, and states and a more coherent conceptual framework for understanding long-term economic change. Wholes can arise from the parts, and even influence the parts, but they cannot be explained solely by the parts, even dichotomous parts. The principal insights on which this review essay is based are that (1) a kingdom is not a village assembly scaled up, and that (2) a society is not built brick by brick until a full edifice stands. For a structure to be functional, it must embrace connectivity.

Our primary claim is that to understand system endurance—for example, how cultural and historical assemblages like Europe and China have managed to survive for millennia—we must be able to depict how they became complex, multilevel entities capable of coordinating many functions, such as the succession of rulership, the transfer of property, and the mobilization of revenue and arms. Their sub-units must have embodied interconnections that could enable complex systems to perform smoothly, and at the appropriate place and time. Thus, the leading question concerning the formation of long-lived social institutions—empires, kingdoms, and states—is how this connectivity emerged. In broader terms, how do the structural properties of networks shape historical and contemporary political economies?

Revisiting the Rise of the West—Why Now?

Acemoğlu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor is one of many titles published in the previous ten years that return to history in the study of economic development. To explain this renewed interest, the authors point out that the twenty-first century opened with events that have shattered past certainties about the trends shaping global political economy. When the Cold War ended, global society seemed to be headed toward an inevitable convergence of open markets governed by liberal polities⁠. This presumption, however, is no longer secure; many critics suggest that it may have been misleading.

In the twenty-first century, many societies have faced not only challenges to such liberal values as the free movement of goods and people but also serious threats to the even more fundamental liberal values of free speech and rights of assembly. Many nations that became democratic, to one extent or another, in the post–Cold War era have become mired in corruption and suffered a breakdown in the rule of law. Although the gains made by liberalism in the late twentieth century have not totally reversed, current trends suggest that we are far from Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” Even the idea that increased prosperity and education inevitably lead societies to adopt more pluralistic institutions needs revisiting. The ideal of liberal democracy as the sole viable model of government is eroding. As more emerging economies follow the example that China set for rapid economic and geopolitical expansion, the challenge to the presumed universality of the West’s experience becomes apparent. This apprehension about the future of free societies has led Acemoğlu and Robinson to query how liberty arose in the first place. Rethinking global history is one way to grasp the challenge of a rising China and other impending changes in global order.3

The Narrow Corridor and the Problem of Liberty

Acemoğlu and James Robinson have been occupied with the transformation that countries undergo to become prosperous, stable, well-governed, law-abiding, democratic, and free societies for a long time. The Narrow Corridor expands upon prior efforts by focusing on liberty—how and why human societies have achieved or failed to achieve it, and why liberty was and is rare. The book considers a wide range of case studies about the conditions under which liberty flourishes in some states but falls to authoritarianism or anarchy in others. The simple finding is that liberty is difficult to develop and preserve. The deeper one is that institutions are critical in the development and preservation of liberty; institutions help to strike the balance of power in the constant struggle between state and society, creating a “narrow corridor” through which liberty and prosperity are achieved.

The book’s approach differs from the tradition that pits civil society and the state as incompatible opposites in the struggle for individual rights. Powerful states are not the only threat to liberty; societal factions can create impediments to liberty even in weak states. Thus “liberty originates from a delicate balance of power between state and society.” “Both state and society must be strong. A strong state is needed to control violence, enforce laws, and provide public services.… A strong, mobilized society is needed to control and shackle the strong state,” and liberty is possible only when institutions make states and society work together (xv–xvi⁠, 11).

Divergent Developmental Paths and Liberty

Acemoğlu and Robinson rely on a simple diagram (Figure 1) to explain nations’ divergent developmental paths. On the horizontal axis is the power of society in terms of its norms, practices, and institutions, especially its capacity to coordinate its actions. Norms can often serve as constraints against political hierarchy, but they can also oppress weaker groups or individuals. On the vertical axis is the power of the state and its institutions, which translates into the power of political and economic elites⁠. The “narrow corridor” forges a balance of power between society and the state that opens it to the emergence of a “shackled Leviathan” and the gradual flourishing, rare as it is, of liberty (63–64).

Fig. 1

The Evolution of Despotic, Shackled, and Absent Leviathans

Fig. 1

The Evolution of Despotic, Shackled, and Absent Leviathans

Most premodern polities start somewhere near the bottom left of the figure, powerful neither as states nor as societies. The three arrows that emanate from this point trace the divergent developmental paths of state and society, and their relations over time. One typical path, whereby a society is more powerful than the state, can stymie the emergence of powerful centralized state institutions⁠. In this case, designated the “absent leviathan,” an all-powerful state is largely absent because of society’s norms against political hierarchy. These same norms, however, can be a cage that prevents members of society from enjoying liberty. The crucial balance between state and society requires a mechanism to govern the underlying forces. Acemoğlu and Robinson call this mechanism the “Red Queen.” As the Red Queen effect—which must remain in action perpetually—gains momentum, it drives the institutions of both state and society to improve.

Defining and Contextualizing the State

One obstacle that Acemoğlu and Robinson must confront is that the terms liberty, rights, freedom, and democracy do not address the same phenomena across different centuries or different regions. These concepts can hardly be expected to possess more or less the same meaning for peoples in, say, the Arabian Peninsula in the sixth and seventh centuries c.e., Britain during the Glorious Revolution, or China today, if only because the balance in the public and private distributions of power is different between these societies and even within each society over time.4

The term liberty assumes different meanings in different contexts as created by social, economic, and political transformations. For example, during the Middle Ages, it referred to the rights of cities and other corporate groups rather than to the general population, whereas during the early phases of industrialization, it denoted protecting the private property and the voting rights of the property-owning gentry. Today, liberty conveys a broader set of values, which includes the equality of ethnic/sexual minorities, press freedom, local autonomy, etc. In fact, Acemoğlu and Robinson refer to gender equality as part of their definition of liberty, although it occupies no place in the debates of earlier centuries (xvi−xvii).

The State, Society, and Liberty

One of the prominent but questionable claims in The Narrow Corridor is that state and society are distinct phenomena. Although the topic is relatively unfamiliar in economics, political science has long attempted to disentangle the relationship between state and society, defining and operationalizing terms like power, state, and liberty. Given that these terms have evolved along with a multiplicity of other variables, including nationalism and war, political scientists have been unable to pry apart state and society as discrete phenomena. They interweave with each other and with everything else in complex patterns of interaction. Because these variables are impossible to describe as distinct building blocks, political scientists generally agree that the state vs. society dichotomy is problematical.5 Acemoğlu and Robinson’s vertical axis combines the power of political and economic elites in the “state” even though those elites are also part of the horizontal axis that designates the “power of society,” especially in polities where conflicts among elites determine the effectiveness, and often the very survival, of state institutions.

Acemoğlu and Robinson ignore such intra-elite conflicts, seeing a consistent linkage between the strength of civil society (embracing local communities, open government, and town-hall meetings, as well as political demonstrations) and government efficiency/democratic rule. In this regard, they proclaim an affinity with the camp of neo-Tocquevillian scholars, like Putnam, who refer to nongovernmental organizations as a part of civil society and argue for a causal relationship between the strength of civil society and the promotion of democratic values. In a commentary not duplicated in the work of other neo-Tocquevillians, Acemoğlu and Robinson also assert that in the absence of a countervailing state, a strong civil society has the potential to form a “cage of norms” that can pose a great impediment to liberty, as illustrated by the authors’ treatment of India’s caste system (237–264).6

Political scientists with a comparative bent, however, have shown that despite some exceptions, causation does not travel the route that Acemoğlu and Robinson outline. Recent research has shown that strong civil-society organizations do not necessarily denote a strong democracy. It can also serve as a tool for autocratic states. Berman’s study of the sociopolitical trajectory of the Weimar Republic shows that National Socialists utilized civil society organizations (csos) to reach German citizens during the 1920s and the 1930s, abetting the rise of a totalitarian polity. A comparative investigation of Italian regions also conflicts with Putman’s findings, demonstrating a positive correlation between regions with intense civil-society activity and the surge of Benito Mussolini’s fascist party during the 1920s⁠.7

Kopecký and Mudde’s study of the post-communist Eastern European countries during the 1990s found civil-society associations organizing around ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist ideals. The correlation of anti-immigrant, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic ideas with strong civil-society organizations prompts the notion of an “uncivil” society in which illiberal forces mobilize via the instruments of an ostensibly civil society⁠. Middle Eastern regimes in particular have been prone to using “government-organized non-governmental organizations” (gongos) to legitimize authoritarian rule by creating their own “civil society.” Even authoritarian regimes enjoy a complementary relationship with civil society, sometimes drawing support and legitimacy from it.8

In East Asia’s high-performing economies, exemplified by South Korea, a conflict occurs within civil society that serves to impede progress toward liberty. Due to the legacy of authoritarian rule, the relatively weak civil society there rarely has the organizational capacity to influence government decision making. The small, disorganized middle class, often dependent on the state, is not powerful enough to influence policies. Business, by contrast, is well equipped to influence government; as a result, the interests of the wealthy, which dominate the distribution of power, diminish the effectiveness of the state. The high cost of political campaigns makes candidates dependent on those with the resources to support them. In return, the big contributors can demand favors for themselves, not policies from which everyone benefits. This kind of conflict defies a simple state vs. society dichotomy. Echoing patterns in old-regime Europe, it illustrates why the attribution of unique, “positive” contributions of (civil) society to freedoms and liberties is indefensible.

Probing the origins of the French Revolution, Tocqueville discovered that the monarchy’s support of village assemblies did not make society freer. On the contrary, in old-regime France, the reinforcement of village assemblies as a means of circumventing the political control of the landed nobility over the peasantry magnified the strength of the Crown. The relationship between state and society was triadic, not dyadic; it involved kings, lords, and peasants. Also orthogonal to the Narrow Corridor model, in Britain for centuries following the Norman invasion, the Crown gained leverage over the great landlords by promoting the common law before local juries.9

Paradoxically, Bien shows that noble privilege and state modernization often went hand in hand in old-regime France. The centralizing state encouraged the proliferation of privileged groups, such as guilds and a tax-exempt nobility—which were often thought responsible for the financial ruin of the Bourbon monarchy—so that it could borrow from them. Bien’s research suggests another paradox: The elements of democracy in France, which historians generally consider to have developed in opposition to the privileges of corporate groups, derived from those very groups and moved into the rest of society once the Revolution removed the barriers between them. Thus, the spread of democracy in France reverses the sequence proposed by Acemoğlu and Robinson. Frankel likewise emphasized that the struggle for democracy and participation occurs within state institutions; it is not just a contest between state and society.10

The emerging view from these comparative political studies is that the state, the politically organized part of society, is structured to protect and promote the interests of society, which exceeds the interests of the state per se, and that its collaboration with civil society does not always move toward more democracy. Causality, which can run in multiple directions, is the result of an interaction between multiple variables. Although a society can exist without a state, the reverse is not true. It makes no sense to speak of a state as having attributes that are independent of circumstances in, or relations with, the society. Even the most powerful autocrat must rely on people in society to get things done (182–190).

The European Origins of Liberty

The origins of Western liberty are traceable to the union of Europe’s Germanic and Latin traditions, fused via the network of interconnected royal clans and the Church. These two hubs, which dominated system-wide communication, were essential in diffusing the legal codes that synthesized German communitarian traditions with the rationalist system of Roman law. That amalgamation became the basis of the Western legal tradition, which held the authority of monarchs in check, eventually becoming the fountainhead of individual rights and rights to property. The result was the advent of states strong enough to preserve order but barred from exercising arbitrary power.11

Historians of early European society generally endorse this assessment of feudalism’s influence on the genesis of liberty. Feudal monarchs depended upon the allegiance of great landowners, whose ability to bequeath their properties through kinship ties enabled them to defy or ignore their monarchs to some extent. The knights and nobles whom a king could call to wage war also had the potential to use force against their king. The European case was unique because of the oaths of allegiance that established mutual responsibility and an implicit contract between ruler and ruled that played a fundamental role in protecting liberty during the formation of state authority in Europe.

Similarly, Acemoğlu and Robinson attribute the rise of liberalism in Western Europe to the combination of Roman institutions with the remnants of ancient Germanic assemblies, but with a different emphasis. Their account traces the genesis of European democracy to “the takeover of Europe at the end of the fifth century by democratically organized tribal societies centered on assemblies and norms of consensual decision making.” This interpretation contrasts with the work of Bloch, Strayer, and Ganshof, for whom the most enduring Germanic legacies were the bonds among European elites and the balance of power between royals and the aristocracy that defined feudalism (153).12

Acemoğlu and Robinson cite Bloch’s Feudal Society, but they miss its most important conclusion—the importance of feudalism for laying the foundation for the predominant social and political structure that shapes the relationship between state and society in Europe to this day. Bloch relates the long trajectory from lasting insecurity and conflict to the re-concentration of authority in kingdoms and the territorial principles that finally emerged. European kingdoms are not village assemblies scaled up. They depend on bonds between the warrior elites (271).

Bloch declares that the originality of feudalism lay in its germination of pacts with the capacity to constrain rulers. In his words, oppressive as the system may have been for the poor, “it [had] in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still live.” The feudal bonds within the governing class left a lasting idea of the social contract and obligations to the state; democracy derives from the oath of fealty that established reciprocal obligations. This oath, not village assemblies, is the foundation of Europe’s “narrow corridor.” The omission of feudalism and its effect on the relationship between rulers and the ruled leaves Acemoğlu and Robinson’s analysis of the rise of Western Europe incomplete (472).

Village Democracy and European State Formation

Acemoğlu and Robinson venture the unsupported claim that primitive “democratic assemblies” are the font of Western liberties. Assemblies were hardly unique to early Germanic culture; they are evident in the historical vestiges of many societies around the globe. The democratic “assemblies” of the ancient Greeks, as one example, bear no relation whatsoever to those in early Germanic societies. The democratic leanings of the Greeks are often evident within their armies—citizen-soldiers gathering to receive and discuss their leaders’ plans. The “democratic assemblies” in Germanic society on which Acemoğlu and Robinson build their theory, however, had little real power, since the tribal chiefs and other clan elders were solely responsible for decisions about war and peace.13

Wickham argues in Medieval Europe that elites did not influence northern Europe as much as once supposed, especially not as landowners and certainly not in Scandinavia. Societies of ancient Germanic Europe, including Norway, Iceland, England, and Poland, included early tribal assemblies, but these societies were not kingdoms. Their tribal assemblies were makeshift political institutions born of necessity and tight kinship ties. The relative independence of peasants lent importance to assembly politics from 600 to 1000 a.d. Kings, such as they were, often deferred to assemblies, particularly in Sweden and Norway, two cases that Acemoğlu and Robinson do not mention. Superficially, Wickham’s work supports Acemoğlu and Robinson’s claims, but it does not argue that those assemblies evolved into democratic institutions. Northern Europe’s assemblies eventually died out. Kings resurrected them in the eighteenth century but only to serve as the basis of village administration. The element of society that kings feared was the nobility, not the village assemblies. Whenever the European aristocracy resisted the expansion of central state authority, kings frequently enlisted village assemblies to counterbalance the power of local lords.

In The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400−1000, Wickham outlines the importance of ancient Roman institutions at a time when at least 90 percent of Europe’s population lived in villages that were hardly egalitarian communities.14 Even in the absence of lords or large landowners, peasants existed within a complex pecking order divided between owners and tenants and between richer and poorer owners. Wickham reports a free/unfree dividing line, separating people who had legal rights—those who could bring cases to public law courts, engage in local decision making, and perform duties, such as army service—from people who had no rights at all. Wickham highlights early feudal relationships, which Acemoğlu and Robinson ignore.

Size Matters: Scale and the Laws of Growth

Acemoğlu and Robinson base their assertion that participatory village assemblies are the hearth of the West’s unique democratic heritage on a linear, and discredited, conception of what physicists call scaling—how a system reacts when its size changes. Physics tells us that as things grow larger, their properties continue to change. For example, if an elephant had the same leg proportions as a lizard or a mouse, gravity would force it to collapse under its own weight. In an analogous fashion, the same participatory norms that enable a village or a clan to be governed would fail when applied to a kingdom or a state. Acemoğlu and Robinson’s assumption that scaling up had no effects conflicts with what we know about complex systems: At each scale, different rules apply. Democratic assemblies of villages lack the complex social structure to support a kingdom. What the social/political circumstances within feudalism permitted was a scaling up of connectivity within fragmented feudal landscapes to produce kingdoms built upon dynastic marriages among royal families whose lineages traced back to early Germanic descent. These kingdoms were the progenitors of the modern European state.15

Social systems scale nonlinearly. Moreover, what is relevant at one scale is not relevant at another. To create a nation-state or an empire, the format of lower-level organizations need not be reinvented any more than engineers need to reinvent faucets or electrical outlets when designing a skyscraper. The fundamental units of social organization do not appreciably change with the size or complexity of the entity that contains them. According to this logic, and contrary to the conclusions of Acemoğlu and Robinson, how villages are organized may not have any influence on the longevity of kingdoms or empires.

The Mechanisms of Change

Acemoğlu and Robinson’s early contributions to institutional analysis describe processes of change in terms of equilibrium dynamics. The Red Queen introduced into The Narrow Corridor is equilibrium thinking on steroids. Functioning as an all-purpose mediator of state/society relations, it is a metaphorical, unstructured explanation of institutional transformation depicted in literary rather than quantitative terms. The near-perfect equilibrium between state and society, the “narrow corridor” to liberty, symbolizes the capacity of state and society somehow to work together, both being strong but neither dominant. Yet Acemoğlu and Robinson are unclear about how the process begins or whether it occurs entirely within the state. They rely on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate how a state can balance with civil society from its founding, arguing that states can return to the corridor after straying from it, but they show modern states returning to the corridor only after crushing military defeat (Germany) or through international pressure (Chile) (424).

An analysis of equilibrium is easy when the scaffolding is in place, but how were the elements that constitute the structure of state and society selected in the first place? What are the mechanisms that govern the formation of that structure? What are the higher-order interactions, if any, and whence do they arise? The setup, the arena of contestation and cooperation between state and society, requires innovations in connectivity that transform disconnected large-world into small-world systems in which bridge nodes act as path shorteners from any one point in the system to any other.

According to Acemoğlu and Robinson, “Nations with a Despotic Leviathan can most easily enter the corridor by strengthening their societies” (434), but they do not articulate how societies under a Despotic Leviathan can strengthen. In their example of South Africa, after the apartheid regime collapsed, society strengthened through an “unholy alliance” between the governing African National Congress and wealthy whites under the tacit threat of expropriation (432–433). Their Japanese case study illustrates the conceptual ambiguity of a dichotomous state and society. Indeed, they fail to specify exactly which people represent “society”; their actors consist entirely of the military, politicians, bureaucrats, and industrialists (437–438). In the cases of both South Africa and Japan, the mechanism that they cite is a bargain between members of the elite.

In the Red Queen model, three factors affect the transition into the corridor—the “ability to form coalitions that support such a transition; the location of the current balance of power between state and society relative to the corridor; and the shape of the corridor” (430)—but these factors are tautological and contradict the basic tenets of the model. Elsewhere, they argue that given a strong society in a weak state, “[in which] the state and elites are too weak relative to society’s norms against political hierarchy[,] society will try to cripple the power of elites and undercut political hierarchy, so the power of state-like entities declines further, and the Absent Leviathan gets established even more firmly.” Conversely, in strong states with weak civil societies, “The arrows travel toward yet higher levels of state power. In the meantime, the power of society gets eroded as society finds itself no match of the state. This tendency is exacerbated as the Despotic Leviathan works to emasculate society so that it remains unshackled” (65–66). The explanation that Despotic Leviathans enter the corridor by strengthening society or Absent Leviathans by strengthening the state begs the question of how such strengthening occurs in the face of opposition. Does the Red Queen mechanism follow principles, or is it entirely idiosyncratic?

Historical regimes present a class of systems that exist far from equilibrium. Knowledge, practices, and norms fluctuate continually; negotiation and contestation are ever-present. When multiple variables interact in an environment that is open to continuous feedback, efforts to distinguish what is exogenous from what is endogenous can be futile. Processes of change do not all occur on the same time scale. Moreover, brief patterns of change and long patterns of stability observed in social systems need not denote equilibrium. Antecedent conditions determine whether a critical juncture that resets the equilibrium will result in a legacy of enduring institutions. When a major change in a system’s global properties arises, sometimes suddenly, from small, local-level variations, the responses can produce emergent outcomes. Even minor local events or modifications in the controlling variables can engender forceful movements for change; even a small change in beliefs can cause tremors like those that precipitated the Reformation of the sixteenth century.

External Effects and International Relations

The Narrow Corridor scarcely allocates any space to international relations. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of liberties and freedoms relies on the Red Queen effect, which is induced by endogenous processes or forces in the struggle for power between state and society. Although the model assumes a closed world, states exist in “state systems,” deriving much of their identity, including notions of liberty, from qualities that emanate from regional and global systems of international relations (72–73). Sometimes the institutional structure of a particular regime is not as much of a factor in what happens to it as is the context of the larger system in which it resides. Many forces that result in domestic policy changes come from external pressures—for example, West Germany’s democratic transition, which is explained not so much by Germany’s defeat in World War II but by its occupation by Allied powers.

Earlier in European history, the continent’s various kingdoms—each of which constituted the external environment of the other—united to prevent the formation of breakaway republics. External forces also dimmed the prospects of secular democracy in the Middle East during the Cold War as regional leaders played one side against the other by offering policy concessions that democratically selected leaders could not have readily offered. Even now in that region, the balance between authoritarian and democratic processes follows shifting geopolitical alignments; leaders broker deals with each other on terms that are most beneficial to the ruling coalition. Throughout the Cold War and even today, the embrace of democratic governance by regime leaders in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Mexico has largely reflected a desire to maintain economic and security alliances with the United States. The policy regime of the European Union was critical to the promotion of democracy in post-socialist countries during the 1990s and 2000s.16

By ignoring the international context, Acemoğlu and Robinson neglect the single most important contribution to the survival of liberty during the twentieth century—the defeat of fascism by Britain, France, Russia, and the United States in World War II. The most decisive reason for fascism’s defeat was the willingness of separate nations to act in concert to defeat it. Swedish socialism, which the book’s concluding chapter champions as the embodiment of liberty, might well otherwise have been subsumed within the fascist framework (492).17

The limits of the Red Queen effect lie in the extent to which international networks can redistribute power within and across states. Another way to understand this constraint is to view the Red Queen as in a dyadic relationship with the world at large; the fortunes of one determine the fortunes of the other. The building blocks of long-lived historical regimes are comprised of many possible interconnections or relationships. The course of social history, however, is often the result of a triadic interplay, when a third node alters both other nodes and changes their dynamic, as in the relationships between king, nobility, and peasantry in old-regime France and England already discussed. The nodes of any single triad within a network can simultaneously be parts of other triads, formed by any three linked nodes. Because a change in any node can affect the other nodes attached to it, triads are always in flux with no possible equilibrium. Clearly, the Red Queen notion of historical dynamics does not include all the vertices and edges that represent the full set of possible linkages among agents. Hence, we cannot track the progress of human society through simple binary antagonisms, such as the opposition between state and society, markets and states, or networks and hierarchies. Nor can we hope to explain long-term institutional change without a proper regard for the influence of international relations on a particular nation’s internal development.

Multilevel Network Effects

Network theory provides a more coherent framework for how social systems form and obtain their structure over time than does the scheme that Acemoğlu and Robinson propose in The Narrow Corridor. The history of liberty traverses a series of discontinuous institutional and cultural changes—such as those indicated by paradigms like the Renaissance, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment—that spread from city to city across Europe because of interconnections that transcended national boundaries. Among the two most important continental-wide information networks that accelerated the continent’s cultural evolution were the hierarchy of Church fathers and the web of royal families that held the kingdoms of Christendom together via various media of exchange. They were to the body politic what neural networks are to the body.

Secondary networks also crisscrossed the continent, albeit with a smaller role to play in maintaining its stability. Elite members of the European nobility often maintained long-standing regional ties. For example, landed aristocratic and mercantile dynasties, especially the members of diaspora minorities like the Huguenots or Jews, frequently intermarried and formed bridges between states. The Jesuits functioned like a European information network in their capacity as confessors to the high and mighty; the faculties of law schools disseminated ideas from one regional center to another; the printing press enabled heretical sects to reach co-religionists throughout the continent, in England, and eventually in the New World. These bottom-up networks could facilitate the long-term cultural evolution of an entire continent by enhancing each group’s ability to adapt to changes in the larger environment. Mention of such interconnectivity is absent from The Narrow Corridor, which does not mention Europe’s royal families and scarcely refers to the Church.

Scaling Historical Regimes

Acemoğlu and Robinson depict the formation of institutions as a linear aggregation of the parts, that is, the scaling of primitive village participation into full-fledged democratic societies that protect individual rights and liberties. But their presumption that higher-level processes arise from the ones at the lowest level ones is faulty. A complete analysis of any complex system must integrate not only how the parts interact and influence the whole but also how the whole influences the parts. Historically, this scaling-up occurred as webs of communication developed through hubs that connected every level of society rather than through the simple layering of one primitive assembly upon another. Long-enduring civilizations, states, or societies require wiring across space and time and across social groups. For the structure to be functional, it must support hierarchical bridging that can manage system-wide feedback, enabling interconnectedness throughout the system. Should these functions fail, the system disaggregates.

Making the World Smaller via System-Wide Communication

A critical understanding of how social transformation unfolds is largely counterintuitive: The theoretical “large world”—the world of tribal/clan-based bonds and isolated, largely self-sufficient communities, connected by little more than kinship ties—must be transformed into a theoretical “small world,” in which kinship ties are superseded by social, cultural, and institutional linkages. In the large world, the paths are many and short, as illustrated in the three examples of Figure 2. The dots connected in these examples represent village communities. Without bridge nodes to shorten path lengths (the interconnectivity of the elite clans), these communities would have remained stagnant. A large world without bridging has few connections that can sustain collective action, or systemic change.

Fig. 2

Three Examples of Large World Networks

Fig. 2

Three Examples of Large World Networks

Since a large world can support only limited communication, the movement of information, as well as the influence of any one node on another, is primarily local. In a single network of 10 billion people, treated as a large world projected on a two-dimensional space (∝=_1_/_2_), the average path length (the mean distance between any two nodes) is about 100,000 (huge). In a large world, change remains within the community where it first occurs because of the dearth in channels to transmit it elsewhere. By contrast, in a small-world system, the average path length for the same network is log(10 billion)=10. In such a world, the paths are long, and they encompass virtually every node (see Figure 3).

Fig. 3

Large-World Connectivity (a) and Small-World Connectivity (b): Long Links Connect Isolated Communities

Fig. 3

Large-World Connectivity (a) and Small-World Connectivity (b): Long Links Connect Isolated Communities

This transformative “shortening” of path lengths can occur through many possible dynamic processes, but it generally occurs through the self-organization of individual nodes (actors) that bridge disparate clusters of a large network, thereby shortening the distance that information must travel from one community to another. This shortening phenomenon increases the probability that new information, social norms, and cultural practices will migrate from one community to another. In this model—empirically discovered by Travers and Milgram but explained by Watts and Strogatz—the term for this process is bridging, and the term for the nodes that span communities is bridge nodes (see Figure 4).18

Fig. 4

A Ring Network (a) and a Small-World Network (b)

Fig. 4

A Ring Network (a) and a Small-World Network (b)

When trade and ruling networks form, the world becomes smaller, thanks to the building of institutions, norms, and common beliefs. Viewing the creation of social order over time as a transition from a large to a small world opens new horizons for our interpretation of history, raising a new question regarding structure. Different network structures can endow the whole with different global properties. For example, in old-regime Europe, the bridging nodes were Church leaders and intermarried noble and royal families; in imperial China, the mandarinate provided the system-spanning bridges. European royal lineages gained power because of the density of their connections with others of their kind; those that possessed many connections attracted the loyalty of yet other families. The European version was a naturally arising, self-organizing process, as opposed to the top-down selection of system-bridging nodes in imperial China. These variations in structure affected the long-term institutional and societal developments that followed.

Acemoğlu and Robinson’s model is attractive for those hoping to promote liberal societies. Its appeal lies in its very simplicity. However, its key variables—liberty, rights, freedom, and democracy, not to mention state and society—lack solid definitions and do not refer to the same phenomena across space and time. Without clearly defining the limits of such key concepts, Acemoğlu and Robinson cannot hope to operationalize them adequately or to provide concrete policy prescriptions.

A further impediment to their ability to make decisive policy prescriptions is their notion that change is driven by a dynamic under the rubric of a single dichotomy, state vs. society. In this framework, if a state is illiberal because it is too powerful, civil society must work to strengthen itself. But if an unbridled civil society creates a “cage of norms,” the state must work to bolster its institutions as a counterbalance. If the two achieve equilibrium, they must work to maintain their path along the narrow corridor. Yet, history continually teaches that no single dichotomous variable is at play, and that no clear way exists to determine when state and civil society are in balance. Because the state and civil society are intertwined in a web of sometimes invisible connections, working to strengthen civil society could either create balance or completely destabilize the state, reversing the power relationships. Strengthening state capacity to balance a strong traditional society can easily overshoot the mark, replacing what Acemoğlu and Robinson call an Absent Leviathan with a Despotic Leviathan. Conversely, dismantling state authority—as, say, the U.S. occupation of Iraq did—can replace a Despotic Leviathan with an Absent Leviathan.

Liberty is not the result of an omniscient mechanism that can adjust the balance of power between state and society. There is no Red Queen to help us. Liberty comes from brave and decisive actions taken in its defense, by both international alliances and a legal system that grounds it.



For the formation of the economic structure, see W. Brian Arthur, Complexity and the Economy (New York, 2015), 17; Ronald Coase “The Institutional Structure of Production,” American Economic Review, LXXXII (1992), 713–719. Economists tend to ignore the institutional structure of production because it is not governed by a system of prices.


Marc Bloch (trans. L.A. Manyon), Feudal Society: Social Classes and Political Organization (Chicago, 1961), 452; Nathan Rosenberg and Luther E. Birdzell, Jr., How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of The Industrial World (New York, 1987); Douglass North, “Institutions,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, V, no. 1 (1991), 97–112.


Bas Van Bavel, The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500 (New York, 2016); Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York, 2014); ibid., The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York, 2011); Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future (New York, 2010); North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Order: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (New York, 2009); Root, Dynamics among Nations: The Evolution of Legitimacy and Development in Modern State (Cambridge, Mass., 2013); Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton, 2019); Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London, 2015). For a pessimistic view of how history will end, see Robert Kaplan, “The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease Are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet,” Atlantic, 273 (February 1994), 44–76. Kaplan cites the chaotic lawlessness of West Africa, disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, refugee migrations, private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels. See also Senem Aydin-Düzgit et al., Post–Cold War Democratic Declines: The Third Wave of Autocratization, Carnegie Europe, 2019, available at https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/06/27/post-cold-war-democratic-declines-third-wave-of-autocratization-pub-79378. Yuval Noah Harari, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” Atlantic, 322 (October 2018), 64–70, predicts that advances in artificial intelligence are heralding the rise of “digital dictatorships.”


John Morrill, “Dynasties, Realms, Peoples and State Formation, 1500–1720,” in Robert von Friedeburg and idem (eds.), Monarchy Transformed: Princes and Their Elites in Early Modern Western Europe (New York, 2017), 31, warns against describing premodern political entities in Europe as states, preferring “dynastic agglomerates, determined by dynastic chance and dynastic roulette.” The transformation of the private power of the Crown into the public authority of the state took several centuries; it was still underway during the late eighteenth century. See Geoffrey Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government: Administrative Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII (Cambridge, 1953); William Beik, Absolutism and Society in Seventeenth-Century France: State Power and Provincial Aristocracy in Languedoc (New York, 1985), 98–116.


Jeffrey Herbst, “War and the State in Africa,” International Security, XIV (1990), 117–139; Anthony D Smith, National Identity, Ethnonationalism in Comparative Perspective (Reno, 1991).


Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, 1994). For further discussions related to this work, see the special issue, “Patterns of Social Capital: Parts I and II,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXIX (1999), 339–782.


Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics, XLIX (1997), 401–429; Sidney Tarrow, “Making Social Science Work across Space and Time: A Critical Reflection on Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work,” American Political Science Review, XC (1996), 389–397.


Petr Kopecký and Cas Mudde, Uncivil Society? Contentious Politics in Post-Communist Europe (New York, 2003); Stephen Kotkin and Jan Tomasz Gross, Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, Modern Library Chronicles (New York, 2009); Steven Heydemann, “Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World,” Brookings Center for Middle Eastern Policy October 15, 2007, available at https://www.brookings.edu/research/upgrading-authoritarianism-in-the-arab-world/.


For state power as responsible for the persistence of old-regime corporatist institutions in French towns, see Gail Bossenga, The Politics of Privilege: Old Regime and Revolution in Lille (New York, 1991); Root, Peasants and King in Burgundy: Agrarian Foundations of French Absolutism (Berkeley, 1987).


Boris Frankel, Beyond the State? Dominant Theories and Socialist Strategies (New York, 1983). David Bien, “Old Regime Origins of Democratic Liberty,” in Dale Van Kley (ed.), The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789 (Stanford, 1994), 23–71; idem, “Offices, Corps and a System of State Credit: The Uses of Privilege under the Ancien Régime,” in Keith M. Baker (ed.), The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. I. The Political Culture of the Old Regime (New York, 1987), 89–114.


Root, Network Origins of the Global Economy: East vs. West in a Complex Systems Perspective (New York, 2020), 112–138.


Bloch, Feudal Society; Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, 1970); François-Louis Ganshof, Feudalism (New York, 1977).


John Hirst, The Shortest History of Europe (Victoria, 2009), 69.


Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 (New York, 2016), 82; Frederic William Maitland, The Constitutional History of England: A Course of Lectures Delivered by F. W. Maitland (Cambridge, 1908), points out how English common law was used to strengthen communities.


The procedure of measuring objects on a continuum by indicating a sequence of numbers is called scaling. An accessible introduction to the topic is Geoffrey B. West, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (New York, 2017).


Root, Alliance Curse: How America Lost the Third World (Washington, D.C., 2008); Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War, Problems of International Politics (New York, 2010).


Citing William H. Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society: A Report (London, 1944), Acemoğlu and Robinson explain that the modern conception of freedom means “freedom from economic servitude to Want and Squalor.”


Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgram, “An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem,” Sociometry, XXXII (1969), 425–443.