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Published on: October 2, 2012
The Strange Absence of the State in Political Science

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 […]

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.

show comments
  • Adam Garfinkle

    Right. This is why I loved publishing the late Charles Tilly’s essay, “Grudging Consent” in the Sept./Oct. 2007 issue, and why I recommended Robert MacIver’s old classic The Web of Government to you years ago. Like sociology, political science has turned into as aspirational rather than an analytical guild of late, and the results are predictably unpretty.

  • Anthony

    “but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.” Right Francis Fukuyama; and yes public administration is sector where analysis of state capacity and purpose yells for more effort. Nevertheless, sovereignty (state capacity) assumes government, territory, commerce, etc. – in its modern version – and it is within this framework the bias of which you speak remains operative. Question is can nature of good governance and quality of good governance as Weberian conditions be implemented objectively against established values – a peculiar brand of nationalism/state sovereignty.

  • http://unitypolitics.blogspot.com Will

    This blog post is totally over my head, but at least some of what he’s wondering about may have a simple explanation: measuring and assessing a state’s capacity to act is much more difficult than measuring the set of actions that a state limits. Fukuyama’s sort of saying that there are two perspectives when studying state institutions: the negative (what an institution constrains) and the positive (what an institution can do). The negative perspective is easy because there are clearly-defined measurement boundaries: if the actions your institution is meant to limit are occurring, something is wrong.

    The positive perspective, on the other hand, is trickier because its measurement boundaries are more open-ended and probabilistic: just because an institution can act in a certain way doesn’t mean it actually will. This means we can’t trust only real-world outcomes to paint a full picture of an institution’s capacity. To get the whole story we must develop some counterfactual theory about how things might work, using assumptions and whatnot. I imagine this prospect probably turns off a lot of researchers.

  • http://VentrueCapital.blogspot.com John Fast

    As far as I can see, everything in this article is straight, mainstream public choice economics, even though it’s called political science. Or, perhaps it’s political science, and we economists just call it public choice. Probably both.

  • Ben

    This might be a good start:

    http://www.nber.org/papers/w18268.pdf

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  • anirprof

    I’m a poli-sci prof myself, though in international relations. I went to a good graduate school, which until the 1990s was quite strong in the areas Fukuyama describes.

    Since then, the American Politics group has done a 180, and now only includes people who study Congressional voting behavior, public opinion, or elections (federal + local). Zero, zilch on executive or administrative behavior.

    The senior prof of the new group was quite open about it with me: you look under lampposts. As he put it, “science” could only be done quantitatively, and elections and Congressional voting were easy to measure. The functioning of bureaucracies and executive decisionmakers, let alone things like “state capacity”, were not, and therefore had no business in political science. This prof fully acknowledged the _substantive_ importance of such things, he just didn’t think substantive political importance had any bearing on whether something ought to be important to political science.

    • Mike P.

      Professor Fukayama’s article is terribly important.

      As I have entered middle age, I have witnessed dozens of friends’ terrible experiences with the state.

      Friends being threatened with terrifying unjust charges so a prosecutor could extract a plea.

      Friends wrongly charged with domestic violence so that the judge would favor the wife and the wife would be awarded sole custody and all assets.

      Friends having hard evidence submitted to the court making highly plausible the commission of fraud by opposing counsel and by bankruptcy trustees totally dismissed by the judge.

      Friends financially ruined by the ability of legal adversaries to outspend them, even when they were in the right.

      Friends wrongfully expropriated of their shares in business partnerships through secretive loan-to-own scams by partners in hastily convened board meetings where is was known my friend’s schedule would prevent his attendance.

      Myself, personally, threatened by a police officer with arrest for complaining of another officer’s foul language to me while on the job.

      Our constitution does an excellent job at providing checks and balances against Congress and the President and an abysmal job with checks and balances in the justice system.

      Nobody is watching the watchers.

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  • Alex

    They say the Muslim countries (besides Turkey) need democratically-minded strongmen rather than creating legislative paths to victory for Islamists, and I think Francis Fukuyama’s argument here would seem to indicate that he agrees.

  • Barry Ames

    As a political scientist, I agree completely. In a recent book (the Routledge Handbook of Latin American Politics,edited by Kingstone and Yashar), I wrote a piece about the future of political science research in Latin America. The biggest part was a call for research on bureaucracy. I went back to the old sociological and organizational theory approaches that we learned in graduate school in the 1960s, approaches that almost no one reads today. Part of the decline in work on bureaucracy can be attributed to the emphasis on quantification, an emphasis that discourages anything that can be called a case study. (If you want to get tenure …) Unlike legislatures, bureaucracies are too diverse, both spatially and hierarchically, for the simple transfer of models from the US case that legislative scholars implemented in Latin America.

  • EdwardM

    Though the Government of Canada is the principal focus of his work, Donald Savoie has written some interesting books in this area, particularlly “Governing from the Centre”. The book is more descriptive than empirical but nevertheless touches on the areas Mr. Fukuyama argues need better study.

  • Jo Richardson

    Political science! Is there a less scientific human activity than politics?

  • http://www.reticulator.com The Reticulator

    I don’t get how control of corruption is an aspect of state capacity rather than a constraint on state power.

    • Mr. Lynch

      I think it’s both. By policing itself and maintaining its own integrity, the state increases its respectability and therefore its legitimate authority.

      Just as in the personal sphere, I enhance my standing with others (and to some degree, my “power”) by admitting and correcting my own mistakes.

      It is something of a paradox.

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  • http://www.fragilestates.org Seth Kaplan

    If you were going to run a course on this topic at a university, what would you include in your syllabus?

    I run a course on fragile states at SAIS and have been pleasantly surprised how many students have an interest in issues similar to those you raise here. The topic may not be of interest to academia, but it is certainly of great interest to anyone from or working on the ground in developing countries.

  • maulerman

    “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.”

    As a former bureaucrat in a Texas energy agency, I have to agree wholeheartedly with the critical nature of the political oversight of the agency. The necessary balance to be struck between empowering the regulators to conduct daily business and the need for the elected officials to exercise authority is difficult. It seems that the best mix I’ve observed is to keep the elected officials out of day to day management, but give them full responsibility on the long term strategic objectives. In other words, the politicians don’t get to hire or fire anyone, but they do get to evaluate and set the long term mission for the agency.

    • https://v-dem.net Michael Coppedge

      See the Evans and Rausch data, which are available in the Quality of Government Institute compilation.

  • sjl2112

    In order to measure effectiveness, you first first establish the objective function.

    What is the bureaucracy trying to maximize? Is its goal the maximization of the Executive’s wishes? Or is it some ratio of input/output: money spent on state apparatus compared to GDP or national well-being? Or something else entirely?

    In and of itself, the process of establsihing an objective function, the predicate of answering Prof. Fukuyama’s question, is a really interesting and thorny problem.

  • http://www.energyfarmsinternational.net Leni Berliner

    I have an MPIA and am always very frustrated by the inattention to the functioning of the US executive branch, both during election years and otherwise. Even the Presidential candidates, who are supposedly running for CEO, don’t discuss it. Maybe if what they said made any difference, the PA schools could say something, however I think on balance they are simply irrelevant.

  • R Shaq

    What about Harvard’s Daniel Carpenter, whose written on the FDA, and the issue of bureaucratic independence? Is he doing the sort of work Mr. Fukuyama is looking for?

  • https://v-dem.net Michael Coppedge

    I take this not as call for those of us who are measuring democracy to stop doing it, but as a call for additional efforts to produce better indicators of governance. I endorse that. That said, I think everyone will be glad to know that V-Dem is actually gathering quite a bit of data that is relevant for governance:
    On Rule of Law and Transparency:
    Rigorous and impartial public administration
    Transparent laws with predictable enforcement
    Executive respects constitution
    Compliance with high court
    Compliance with judiciary
    Judicial purges
    Government attacks on judiciary
    Judicial corruption decision
    Executive bribery and corrupt exchanges
    Executive embezzlement and theft
    Public sector corrupt exchanges
    Public sector theft
    Legislature corrupt activities
    Media corrupt

    and on State Capacity and Sovereignty:
    Domestic autonomy
    International autonomy
    State authority over territory
    State authority over population

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  • jay kalend

    I agree bureaucracies matter. Perhaps they do not matter to typical political scientists because you may look upon them like the relic of Ozymandius, “and despair.” Who will genuflect on the work of Paul C. Light and James Brovard? The theories of “holding court” in government recently taken up by Michael Vlahos? Who will bother to recall Parkinson’s Law,or take up Spengler’s observation that statecraft degenerates into a state of familial rule and stale symbolism? In each instance, you will conclude that the development of the state regresses from enlightenment and self-realization, to a progressive subjugation of independent thought and action by individuals, to the inertia of the state. Like economics, poly sci would be a study in despair, once you leave the neatly packaged nostroms of hope and change concocted by poly sci faculty for the benefit of their graduate students.A look at the realities of state power and how it progresses is just too depressing to dwell on.

  • Sucheta Pyakuryal

    Can I cry foul here because this was my dissertation topic, it is a work that I intend to publish and it is available in the net since May of 2010. The idea is not a “Fukuyama original”

  • http://www.kevinrkosar.com Kevin R. Kosar

    Prof. Fukuyama:

    I encourage you to subscribe to Public Administration Review. It publishes many fine articles assessing bureaucratic capabilities and offering sound policy advice.

    Cordially,

    Kevin R. Kosar

  • http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=249171 Fred Thompson

    “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?” How about Controlling Corruption by Robert E. Klitgaard? How much attention have you actually paid to public administration anyway? To say you haven’t heard anything doesn’t mean there is nothing to hear.

    • Kalu Kalu

      I admit (and still do) to being a great fan of many of Fukuyama’s writings. I have no favorites among them since to me I consider much of his works ‘holy grail.’ Considered in light of the history and evolution of public administration scholarship, certainly a riveting ‘indictment’regarding its seeming inadequacies. Yes, there are evolving issues in the field and may, in fact, deserve a much stiffer opprobrium than can be inferred from the esteemed scholar’s comments. The earlier discourse on public entrepreneurship (although short-lived), issues of civic-engagement, performance management, and collaborative governance are a few areas where recent scholarship has evolved in public administration (some of these with an interdisciplinary orientation). Furthermore, we need to look at studies of bureaucratic life and public agencies (there has been quite a few though)and how politics transcends everything. This much makes the analytical environment of administrative bureaucracies much more fluid, uncertain, chaotic, unpredictable and turbulent (Did I leave anything off?). And this is the rather precarious and unique environment that public administration scholars have to deal with. So in all fairness and for whatever it is worth (least of all not being defensive)the good professor’s remarks should serve as a new awakening that the field must continue to renew itself and rise up to contemporary challenges beyond its founding ideals.

  • Margaret Stout

    You say, “…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?”

    I guess I would have to ask you, when was the last time you read a Public Administration journal? Try Administration & Society, Administrative Theory & Praxis, or Public Integrity, for example. There is a great deal of theoretical work being done beyond the scope of economics. And from another perspective, why is it that Political Science can’t seem to see beyond tired old institutions of representative democracy?

  • http://newsnorthkorea.wordpress.com/ Anna Stazia

    The muslim countries (besides Turkey) need democratically-minded strongmen rather than creating legislative paths to victory for Islamists…

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