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What are the necessary elements for the success of a modern nation state?
According to one justifiably popular and well-written book, Why Nations Fail, it all has to do with inclusive political and economic institutions which foster technological change which in turn leads to increasing prosperity for the many.
Two key aspects upholding such institutions are a strong centralized state and the rule of law. Without these two, a nation cannot hope to advance socially, politically, or economically.
The negative of this rosy picture are nations which maintain and promote extractive political and economic institutions which serve the interests of a narrow elite.
Both cases, the inclusive and the extractive, tend to reinforce themselves through time by a process known as institutional drift. This is an historical tendency for institutions to maintain, strengthen, and reproduce themselves over time similar to the biological processes involved in genetic drift.
Importantly the authors also take the time to mention Robert Michel’s seminal idea concerning the iron law of oligarchy which explains the historically documented tendency that large, complex organizations of any kind (democratic, socialist, conservative) fall under the sway of a small elite exercising absolute if cosmetically hidden power.
Our authors optimistically suggest that this law is not destiny and can be sufficiently controlled by ever expanding democratic institutions in civil society.
Opposed to this buoyant idea of increasing mass prosperity and political participation is Francis Fukuyama’s discussion of Neo-Paternalism in his thought provoking magnum opus The Origins of Political Order.
In short, much like the earlier Michel, Fukuyama sees present day democracies drifting towards ever more nepotistic patterns of behavior where elites seize power and reward and distribute the fruits of that power to their close associates within their networks of influence.
In effect, both men, see, as did Marx before them, the “constitutional democracies” as a sham as a kind of theater behind which the levers of power are exercised authoritatively with little regard to the true interests of the masses below them.
In such an environment of centralized elite control, “media openness” can do little to rout out the opaque workings of carefully, surreptitiously orchestrated power.
Thus, a superficial reading of history might lead us to believe that we live in an increasingly “inclusive” society reflecting a rising tide of technological progress and economic prosperity. However, a closer look, might reveal a modicum of beneficence bestowed upon the many; while the Machiavellian few have managed behind a facade of democracy and nationalism to achieve unheard of sums of wealth, power, and influence once only dreamed of by despots, dictators, and demagogues of the past.