Daron Acemoglu, one of the most cited and awarded professor of economics at MIT, gave his lecture on democracy and freedom on April 24th in Etla’s KeyNotes event at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki.
The new book The Narrow Corridor: Despotism, Anarchy and Liberty by Acemoglu and James A. Robinson will come out this fall. Its new big-picture framework explains how some countries develop towards and provide liberty while others fall to despotism, anarchy or asphyxiating norms, and explains how liberty can thrive despite new threats.
Acemoglu explained this new framework in EtlaKeyNotes event through examples from around the world, from far history to the present – and through his corridor example on which the development of any state can be plotted.
Acemoglu points out that “what has differentiated Europe from the others is the balance created by the combination of Roman and Germanic tribal institutions”.
– Crucial to the governance of the Germanic war bands, especially the Franks, were the assemblies. Assemblies had real power and approval from assemblies was necessary for many important decisions, and both assemblies of “important men” and “regular people” were common.
Acemoglu describes the states’ power and the balance of society with this corridor example. It is essential to find a balance between power and civil society, and then it is possible for the state to be situated in the corridor of Acemoglu’s chart, where for instance the UK and the US are. However, China for instance is outside the corridor.
“If the corridor is very narrow, it’s easy to slip out of it,” he points out.
The width of the corridor is influenced by many structural factors, such as the bargaining power of the workforce, human rights or the nature of globalization – or, for example, whether the state encourages industrial or agricultural specialization.
Access to a balanced corridor is not easy, as many countries are on an inclined surface, Acemoglu claims. But liberty isn’t static. The fear is the political hierarchy, the internal norms of society and their impact on hierarchy.
Technology in good and bad
According to Acemoglu it is possible to create a balance between government and civil society, where technology has a significant role to play. Acemoglu emphasizes that artificial intelligence can work as good as bad, which can be used to weaken the state or to create despotism – or to support balance in society.
For example, billions of dollars have been invested in facial recognition around the world because governments want to control their citizens. Another area where investments are directed is collecting data on people’s everyday lives.
– Freedom is also related to the use of technology. How technology works depends on how we use it, Acemoglu recalls.
Photos: Juuso Heinonen / ETLA