Federalism Is a Condition for Better States

The libertarian distrust of government rests on solid empirical foundations. According to work by the late R.J. Rummel, after all, around 262 million unarmed people died at the hands of governments over the course of the 20th century – six times as many as those who died in combat over the same period. Although Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson’s essay and the body of research on which it draws do not show that such distrust is completely unwarranted, they do qualify it in important ways.

Mark and Noel’s findings establish links between state capacity and institutions on the one hand, and conflict and prosperity on the other. Many libertarians will find those counterintuitive and perhaps even a little disturbing. Before dismissing them as flukes or historically contingent artifacts, it is worth noting that they are entirely consistent with the thrust of the literature on the drivers of long-term prosperity, including popular expositions in Daron Acemoglu’s and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail and in Tim Besley’s and Torsten Persson’s Pillars of Prosperity. More importantly, taking these findings seriously opens an avenue to a more nuanced, and hopefully more viable, version of the classical liberal project.

If the list of state-sponsored horrors is long, violence can be inflicted by a variety of nonstate actors as well. What Mark and Noel’s research demonstrates is that the decline of such decentralized forms of violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe—against Jews and witches—went hand in hand with the rise of state capacity and formal mechanisms of law enforcement. Accordingly:

[L]ow state capacity and a reliance on identity rules are self-reinforcing. States that rely on identity rules face less incentive to invest in the fiscal and legal institutions that would increase state capacity. This, in turn, makes them more reliant on identity rules and less able to enforce general rules.

These findings naturally connect with a larger political economy on violence, which finds that civil wars are strongly associated with poorer societies. Moreover, a strong correlation exists between fiscal capacity of government and income. The link is also seen in historic data from Europe, conceivably driven by the necessity to wage war. As an aside, it has also been hypothesized that the economic divergence between China and Japan can be explained partly by the gap in state capacity that opened after 1750. In the context of developing economies of Sub-Saharan Africa, better tax collection appears associated with improved quality of public administration.

This does not necessarily show that state capacity is itself the cause of high incomes and domestic peace. Rather all three—state capacity, growth, and lack of civil strife—seem driven by partly overlapping sets of institutional drivers. What that means is that in practice it might not be easy or desirable to seek to disentangle “good,” or “inclusive,” institutions and state capacity. As development practitioners learned the hard way in places ranging from Somalia to Afghanistan, where there is no state capacity, “good” formal institutions will not sustain themselves, giving way to rules and organizational forms built around tribal identities.

If the machinery of the state can be put to good uses as well as to bad ones, perhaps the orthodox libertarian view of government, especially “big” government, as a nemesis needs rethinking. Historically, the flourishing of dynamic private economies has clearly relied on the existence of state-financed public goods. Furthermore, as Will Wilkinson and others have argued, building a constituency for a dynamic economy involved a lot of creative destruction and is much easier to accomplish with a robust social safety for those left behind. That might also provide an explanation for the significant improvements in economic freedom in recent decades seen in countries with sizeable welfare states, such as Canada or Denmark.

The observation that states are not the only source of coercion and violence, but only one of its many sources, has also deeper implications for the classical liberal project. Coercion, violence, and repression can be inflicted by ethnic and religious communities, families, and the variety of intermediating institutions of civil society, which are normally seen as benign and even necessary hallmarks of a free, self-governing society. As a result, freedom might well require a constant balancing and renegotiation between these different sources of authority. Singling out just one of these organizational forms as inherently suspect is misguided. In reality, state power can perform an important balancing act against locally grown sources of coercion—think of French secularism responding to the aggressive anti-republican Catholicism of the late 19th century, or of the civil rights movement in the United States using levers of the central government to respond to injustice inflicted by U.S. states.

In other words, the success of the classical liberal project requires a plurality of sources of authority keeping each other in check: federalism. In its original, broad meaning (in Latin, foedus means a covenant) federalism means more than just a division of government into different levels tasked with the provision of different types of public goods. Rather, “principles of federalism permit people to function through self-governing institutions among local, regional, and national communities in the interest of organizing collective endeavors,” as Vincent Ostrom put it. Its appeal lies in the simultaneous presence of different forms of governance, all of them available to the individual simultaneously.

Some of the turbulences observed around the world today seem linked to the fact that this process of balancing and renegotiation has been disrupted by technology and globalization. As Martin Gurri argues, information has become radically democratized. Globalization has reduced the ability of governments to get things done—yet much of the political class appears to be eager to continue with business as usual. The result has been a decline of trust in political and nonpolitical authorities and a reversal towards tribalism, as Mark and Noel hint at towards the end of their opening essay.

The federalist reasoning extends to the world of international affairs. Many on the political right—both conservatives and libertarians—harbor a deep distrust of international institutions and international organizations. For some, the distrust springs from the veneration of national sovereignty as a supposedly self-evident good. Others, especially those steeped in crude realist theory of international relations, see such institutions as an irrelevant veil to power competition by states.

Yet both criticisms miss the mark. As the experience of the post–World War II world suggests, institutions can restrain national governments—and that is, furthermore, a good thing. International institutions can provide a backstop against the rogue behavior of states, including in extreme scenarios of state collapse or their degeneration into vehicles of mass murder. The global GATT/WTO framework, with its principle of non-discrimination, is a dramatic improvement over the reality of warring trade blocs that characterized the first half of the 20th century. Legitimate criticisms can be directed at the European Union, but the process of economic integration has imposed useful constraints on the ability of European governments to engage in protectionism and economic nationalism. I worry that many of my British Euroskeptic friends will understand the full meaning of this only after Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister of the post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Do any of these mechanisms, at home or internationally, work perfectly? Of course not—but perfection is not attainable in human affairs. Governance of complex, open, and pluralist societies is hard work, with no panaceas in sight. There is no guarantee that free societies will successfully weather the current crisis of trust in institutions and authorities. Mark and Noel’s work is important because it shows the way in which the classical liberal project can help societies navigate the current storm: by embracing the diversity of institutional and organizational forms, and by encouraging contestation and competition between them to ensure that they serve as effective checks on each other. The sooner classical liberals do that, instead of insisting on their fixation on government as an intrinsic enemy of freedom, the better our odds of getting through the current situation unscathed.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.