The Red Queen and Open Access Orders

Acemoglu and Robinson cite the red queen effect as the primary conflict between a state and its society. The term is adopted from Alice and the Looking Glass and the literature in evolutionary biology in which organisms in a harsh environment must learn to adapt, evolve, and proliferate. Often, this harsh environment contains multiple species which not only coexist but coevolve. Such is the nature of states and societies. The people and the state are in a race against one another as each tries to overtake its counterpart. The state wishes to overpower the society while the society wishes to constrain the state. Both these happen in lockstep with the other. 

Acemoglu and Robinson identify a number of outcomes of this dance:

  1. Absent leviathan – a state that cannot resolve conflicts, coordinate actions, or provide public services
  2. Paper leviathan – a state that has the power to repress certain parts of society, but cannot resolve conflicts or provide public services
  3. Despotic leviathan – Despotic Leviathan – a state that has the power to coordinate and provide public services, but it uses its power to repress parts of society it deems unfit and provides public services the society sees as low value.
  4. Shackled leviathan – has the capacity to resolve conflicts, coordinate actions, or provide public services, but is constantly being challenged and checked by the society

The shackled leviathan is the middle way through these outcomes that is both hard to attain and provides the greatest amount of progress for the society. Much of this is due to the ability for people to form long term plans and see them carried out without fear of reprisal or roving bandits. The power of the government is counterbalanced with the power of society.

North, Wallis, and Weingast note disparities between various societies which try to overcome the problem of violence. Specifically they look at two broad measures:

  1. Limited access order- In these, society overcomes the problem of violence by using the state to create and allocate rents. When individuals and groups which have access to violence attain such rents, they have the incentive to restrain the amount of violence being pursued. Violence reduces the rents attainable by the rentholders. 
  2. Open access orders solve the problem through open access and competition. In most OAOs, the state has a monopoly on violence. Schumpeterian creative destruction plays a central role in this kind of society where innovation and competition constantly dissolves old rents and makes way for new ways of doing things. 

The three threshold conditions necessary for societies to move from LAOs to OAOs are 1) establishment of rule of law among elites, 2) adoption of already perpetually existing organizations, and 3) political control of the military.


How do these relate to Acemoglu and Robinson’s variations of leviathan? Rule of law among elites creates a structure amongst those who have access to violence and restrains them from using that violence against both each other and the populace at large. The use of already existing institutions gives authority to a societal framework that has already proven its value and efficiency merely by surviving the evolution of society. These are far more efficient than trying to instill top-down regulations and institutions on people who may be less willing to comply. Political control of the military means that the military does not operate out of its own will and cannot create a coup under its own initiative. The military can then become a tool for the common defense and not one that represses the society.

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