Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fukuyama on the State

Francis Fukuyama, who has a great blog publicly noodling ideas around for his next book, raises some interesting questions about political science:
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.
This blog post is largely 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 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.

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