Two recent books by social scientists raise questions about the ease of the transition to democratic institutions. Both Violence and Social Orders, by Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and John Wallis, and The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama, suggest that natural patterns of human organization must be overcome in order to create a modern liberal democracy.
The basic problem, as Violence and Social Orders points out, is that humans evolved to reward close relatives, to appreciate exchanges of favors with friends, and to compete within tribal hierarchies. We did not evolve to share power with and confer equal status upon strangers.
The solution that emerges, according to Violence and Social Orders, is for leaders of tribal organizations to form a ruling coalition, in what the book calls a “natural state.” The warlords who participate in the governing coalition are able to peacefully divide up wealth, or economic rents, which takes away their incentive to use violence to capture resources. The book refers to this as a limited‐access order. Political power and economic power are held by narrow elites. By modern Western standards, such a state is corrupt, because political power is blatantly used to extract wealth for the ruling parties. However, what we fail to see is that eliminating corruption would be destabilizing: Absent the economic bribery, strong leaders would defect from the coalition, leading to civil war. The ability to extract wealth is what binds the elites to the government.
In Violence and Social Orders, a Western‐style democracy is called an “open‐access order.” The opportunity to gain economic or political power is open to everyone. This is a different sort of equilibrium, one which is not easily arrived at. Countries that are in the “natural state” are not likely to move toward an open‐access order. If the natural state breaks down, a country is more likely to fall into civil war or authoritarianism.
There are important preconditions for a successful transition from a limited‐access order to an open‐access order. These include having civilian control over all military forces, developing long‐lived institutions (such as corporations) so that society is less dependent on key individual leaders, and having the rule of law apply to elites. Once elites enjoy the rule of law, moving to an open‐access order involves extending the benefits of legal protection to other members of society.
Fukuyama also emphasizes the rule of law. He says that a liberal democracy consists of three elements: A strong central state, the rule of law, and accountable government, meaning institutional checks on the power of the ruler.
Concerning the need for a strong central state, Fukuyama writes (p.280),