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‘Violence trap’ the focus of inaugural Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Memorial Lecture

Feb. 19, 2015

Why is it so hard for poor countries to stop being poor? Political scientist Barry R. Weingast says the answer lies in the “violence trap,” the fact that widespread potential for violent conflict all but forces many governments to use payments, favors and force to maintain their authority.

It’s a kind of Catch-22, he said: a self-reinforcing dilemma that prevents developing countries from achieving the economic and political openness necessary for stability and sustained growth.

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom | Photo By Indiana University

“Violence is endemic in almost all developing countries,” he said. “The issue is distributed violence, the multiple groups and sources that have access to violence.”

Weingast, the Ward C. Krebs Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, presented the inaugural Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Memorial Lecture last week in the Moot Court Room of the IU Maurer School of Law.

Lee Alston, director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, established the lecture series to honor the memory of the Ostroms, towering figures in the interdisciplinary study of political economy who founded the Workshop in 1973. Elinor Ostrom received the 2009 Nobel Prize in economic sciences for her work. Both Ostroms died in June 2012

IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel introduced the lecture, in which Weingast elaborated on the framework that he and collaborators Douglass North, John Wallis and Gary Cox have developed for understanding violence and social order.

They argue that nations fall into two categories. “Open access orders” include wealthy democracies characterized by political stability and economic complexity. But most nations are in what they call the “natural state,” the usual form of economic and social organization since the beginning of civilization. In natural-state societies, rulers award what economists call rents -- payments, favors, monopolies and privileges -- to keep potentially powerful groups from using violence to get more.

“And violence doesn’t have to be manifest to be important,” Weingast said. “It’s the threat of violence that matters. In fact, people are often better off negotiating in the shadow of violence than if the agreements break down and there’s fighting. Because often that makes people very poor.”

There is no shortage to threats of violence in the developing world, he said. They can come from the military, political rebellions, ethnic groups, religious minorities, drug traffickers and other sources.

“The problem that makes this so hard is that violence potential is distributed,” he said. “So many groups around the world have access to violence.”

The natural-state structure may work for a time, Weingast said. But external shocks, such as changes in the economy or shifts in the political winds, can upend the established order. Ten percent of regimes last no more than a year before falling to a coup or civil war. Only 10 percent survive 50 years or more.

Weingast said development can almost never be achieved by imposing markets and democratic institutions. “What works in the developed world of open-access systems with low threats of violence does not work in the developing world of natural-state systems with high threats of violence,” he said.

That doesn’t mean nations never escape the natural state, but Weingast reaches back in history for examples. A noteworthy case, he said, involves France in the 1870s, when it established increasingly open institutions in response to threats from Germany and Prussia.

“The French realized, if they didn’t get their act together and eschew violence and begin to cooperate, they would get run over by Germany,” he said.

Weingast’s writings on cooperation provide a link to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who showed that people can create relationships and organizations to work through knotty problems of managing common-pool resources. In his smartphone, he keeps a photo of a smiling Elinor Ostrom, taken in Scotland at the 2010 meeting of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics.

He said his work on federalism is deeply indebted to Vincent Ostrom, especially to Ostrom’s1971 book “The Political Theory of a Compound Republic,” which examines the rules and incentives of federalism as envisioned by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

“Vincent is, in that book, just light years ahead of other people in understanding why the U.S. Constitution works,” Weingast said.

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