Streetwise Professor

April 16, 2008

Overcoming The Constraints of Traditional Society in Iraq

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:52 am

I just finished an excellent little book by Harvard professor Robert H. Bates titled “Prosperity & Violence.” The book analyzes the impact on development of kin and tribes; private enforcement; honor and revenge; and the transformation of predatory violence aimed at expropriating property rights into “tamed” violence that protects such rights. Bates’s analysis emphasizes similar points to the North, Wallis, Weingast “Natural State” theory. A key paragraph:

Control over the means of violence remains in the hands of private parties; kin, community, and political rivals have yet to be disarmed. In such circumstances, much that is elevated cannot be attained; much that is desirable cannot be secured.

Reading this brought to mind a word that is not mentioned in Bates’s book: Iraq. On the one hand, the implications are depressing; Bates shows that it is very difficult to escape the cramping limits of traditional, tribal, kin-based society. On the other hand, there is hope; societies have escaped these limits. Historically this has been a painful, time consuming process. The question arises whether the process can be accelerated, perhaps through outside intervention. It appears that the Maliki government is taking the first, tentative steps necessary to do so, by taking on the Shiite militias. The Anbar Awakening is part of the process too. These events will not unfold in a straight line, and there will be setbacks aplenty. But it is encouraging that there are signs that the problem has been identified, and the nettle is being grasped. It is doubtful that Iraqis alone could overcome the bounds of tribe and tradition, but with American force that can help the government tamp down the arbiters of private violence, it is possible–just–that Iraq can escape the ties that bind them to a dysfunctional past and follow the developmental path that Bates describes so succinctly, and so well.

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