The new book is the third collaboration between the Harris, MIT professors, including the best-selling book, "Why Nations Fail."
The Narrow Corridor, now available from Penguin Random House.

On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, James A. Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Institute Director at The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, has published his third collaborative book with Daron Acemoglu, an Institute Professor of Economics at MIT, entitled The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty. The new book is a follow up to the 2012 international bestseller, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.

According to the authors, there is a corridor to liberty which is narrow and stays open only via a fundamental and incessant struggle between state and society – a struggle put on dramatic display with the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

The Berlin Wall’s destruction symbolized the prevailing power of the demand for liberty around the world, and launched such schools of thought as Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 prediction of the “end of history,” described by Fukuyama at the time as “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Acemoglu and Robinson begin The Narrow Corridor by questioning whether the “end” – as Fukuyama envisioned it – is actually near, and if not, what must be done in order to reach true liberty, which is defined in the Lockean tradition as people being “free from violence, intimidation, and other demeaning acts, free to make choices about their lives, and have the means to carry them out without the menace of unreasonable punishment or draconian social sanctions.”

James A. Robinson
James A. Robinson is the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies.

“Thirty years ago, many people believed that we were all going to converge to some notion of liberal democracy,” Robinson said in an interview with Harris Public Policy. “Liberal democracy triumphed more or less intellectually, ethically, and in practice. And, that's obviously not the case now. In fact it’s almost the opposite, rather than converging to us, we might be converging to them!”

It wasn't the case in China or Russia, Robinson argues, nor has it been the case in large parts of the rest of the world, including Latin America and Africa, two regions where Robinson’s research efforts in the field of political and economic development, and the factors that are the root causes of conflict, are focused.

Daron Acemoglu
Daron Acemoglu is an Institute Professor of Economics at MIT

“Why was that prediction so completely wrong?” Robinson asked when discussing his book ahead of its release. “In some ways you can think about the book as providing a theoretical framework for thinking about that and thinking about the circumstances under which liberal democracy has emerged historically, or could emerge in a different society.”

Using examples ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the collapse of the Syrian state, from late-medieval Italy to Pinochet’s dictatorship over Chile in the 1970s, and many others, Robinson and Acemoglu seek to not only define what the narrow corridor is, but suggest a path through it to a true liberal society. 

“One of the things we like about this framework is that this notion of a corridor emphasizes that this is a process, this doesn't happen overnight,” Robinson said. “And you need to get this balance right. In some sense, what happened in Russia in the 1990s is people thought you could just set up this elaborate constitutional architecture, and everything would be fine. But it wasn't fine because the state was much too strong, the security apparatus was too strong and society was too weak.” 

Competition between state and society is at the core of what the co-authors explore in The Narrow Corridor, a version of liberty that requires the state and its laws, but which encourages the people to exercise societal control.

“Society needs to control the state so that it protects and promotes people’s liberty rather than quashes it like Assad did in Syria before 2011,” they write in the book. “Liberty needs a mobilized society that participates in politics, protests when it’s necessary, and votes the government out of power when it can.”

It’s an exceptionally timely and pertinent framework of thought, particularly in the lead-up to an incredibly fraught election year in the United States, but to read The Narrow Corridor as modern political commentary would be to miss the point. 

“This is not supposed to be a book about current events today, it's not our agenda, it's not what Daron Acemoglu and I have worked 25 years on, to write a book about current events that people read today and forget in six months’ time. We're not terribly interested in commenting on the Trump administration – there's a social science agenda here.”

In Why Nations Fail, the 2012 precursor to The Narrow Corridor, Robinson and Acemoglu emphasize the idea that inclusive economic institutions, as they are connected to inclusive political institutions, are key to effective economic development worldwide. 

The Narrow Corridor “is really a much richer framework for thinking about this divergence in the world in political institutions,” Robinson said. “You could think of it as the long-run underpinnings of inclusive and extractive political institutions.”

The Narrow Corridor, published by Penguin Random House, is now available in hardcover.