It is a curious fact that in contemporary American political science, very few people want to study the state, that is, the functioning of executive branches and their bureaucracies. Since the onset of the Third Wave of democratizations now more than a generation ago, the overwhelming emphasis in comparative politics has been on democracy, transitions to democracy, human rights, ethnic conflict, violence, transitional justice, and the like. There is of course interest in stability, but primarily as the absence of violence and conflict. Studies of non-democratic countries focus on issues like authoritarian persistence, meaning that the focus still remains the question of democracy in the long run or democratic transition. In other words, most people are interested in studying political institutions that limit or check power—democratic accountability and rule of law—but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.
The relative emphasis on checking institutions rather than power-deploying institutions is evident in the governance measures that have been developed in recent years. There are numerous measures of the quality of democracy like the Freedom House Freedom in the World and Polity IV measures, as well as newer ones like the Varieties of Democracy project led by Michael Coppedge, John Gerring et al. What we do not have is a good measure of Weberian bureaucracy—that is, the degree to which bureaucratic recruitment and promotion is merit-based, functionally organized, based on technical qualifications, etc. One of the only studies to attempt to do this was by Peter Evans and James Rauch back in 2000, but their sample was limited to 30-odd countries and produced no time series data. There is also a proprietary cross-country measure, the Political Risk Service’s Group (PRSG) International Country Risk Guide, but because it is proprietary we don’t really know what goes into it. Several of the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators purport to measure state aspects of state capacity (government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and stability and absence of violence, control of corruption), but these are aggregates of other existing measures and it is not clear how they map onto the Weberian categories. For example, does a good absence of violence score mean that there is effective policing? I suspect that there isn’t much street crime in North Korea. (There are similar problems with the Bank’s internal CPIA scores.)
One important measure that would be great to have but which no one has ever attempted to create, to my knowledge, is a measure of bureaucratic autonomy, that is, the degree to which bureaucrats are under day-to-day control by their nominal political masters, both with regard to policy and with regard to control over cadres. This is utterly critical in understanding bureaucratic quality, and yet is totally unavailable for any kind of quantitative analysis.
The bias against thinking about state capacity is particularly strong among rational choice institutionalists, who dominate many of the best political science departments these days. Most in this school begin with Mancur Olson’s assumption that states are predatory, and that the chief aim of political development is the creation of institutions like rule of law and accountability that limit the state’s ability to act arbitrarily and allow it to commit itself credibly to the protection of property rights. This school assumes that all states have the power to be predatory, and seldom raise the question of where state capacity comes from in the first place, or how it increases or decreases over time. Frankly, it would be very hard to develop a rational choice theory of state capacity, since capacity in any organization is so heavily influenced by norms, organizational culture, leadership, and other factors that don’t easily fit into a model based on economic incentives.
It should be public administration departments that deal with these sorts of issues, but they have been falling down on the job. With all due respect, when is the last time you heard about an important, policy-relevant theory coming out of a public administration school? When was the last time that this field has had anything useful to say from a policy perspective about controlling corruption, either at home or in a developing country?
I of course am a big fan of democracy and rule of law and applaud all of those studying these institutions of constraint. But successful government is the product of a balance between a strong state that can deliver services and enforce laws, and checking institutions that insure that the state acts predictably and in accord with general interests. Many of the problems we see with democratic consolidation around the world has to do with absent state capacity on the part of countries that have recently made a transition to democracy. The moment the crowds bringing down the dictator have dispersed, the next question is always, Where am I going to get a job? or Why isn’t my child getting a decent education or health care? Unless democracies have the ability to deliver on these kinds of issues, unless they can deal with pervasive corruption, they will lose legitimacy fast. This is something that states accomplish, and not the institutions that check them.
There’s some evidence of change in assessing the state, such as the interesting work that’s being done by Bo Rothstein in Gothenberg with his Quality of Governance Institute. But we need a lot more work in this area.