The concept of governmental legitimacy being derived from the ability of the state to provide a large basket of public goods and services to citizens such as healthcare, education, electricity, clean water, roads, pensions, housing etc. is very recent. It begins in the late 19th century, acquires significance during the Great Depression and gains full expression after World War Two. Yet for the West to adopt this model, it had undergone industrialization, urbanisation and the growth and expansion of new social forces like a large and educated middle class, a diverse civil society and organised labour. But most critically, it was made possible because of the enormous growth in the revenues of the state. The model evolved to consolidation in the West, but was transplanted to unprepared parts of the world as a religion.
There is today an implicit assumption in development literature that governments that provide a wide range of public goods and services, and adopt democracy and human rights standards create the right conditions for development. But this claim is ahistorical. Western nations did not become rich because they were governed that way. That is the myths they have created. They govern their citizens that way today because they are rich. The welfare state is a byproduct of the development process, not a cause of it.
There is today an implicit assumption in development literature that governments that provide a wide range of public goods and services, and adopt democracy and human rights standards create the right conditions for development.
Otherwise the classical state was a war-making machine. As Charles Tilly has argued, states made war and war made states. The legitimacy of incumbents was derived from rules people generally agreed conferred authority to those in power. That was the concept of the “divine right of kings to rule” that prevailed throughout Europe and the “charisma” of individual leaders – like Napoleon (as Max Weber postulated). America, being a constitutional republic, derived its legitimacy from electing its officials. But they were not required to provide the current basket of public goods and services that we associate with a modern state as the USA budget of 1860 shows.
I noted that, in the past, across Western Europe and North America, rulers governed almost exactly as we see in poor countries today – on a combination of patronage to powerful local elites and repression for those who resisted. Then a heresy began to grow in my mind: Could the leaders of poor countries not be as cruel and selfish as the high priests of development and democracy in Western media and academia keep telling us? May be the governance strategies of our leaders reflect the structural conditions of our societies at the moment, not their individual character.
It then became clear to me that by adopting a governance model based on developed societies, poor countries have boxed themselves into a tight corner. They don’t have the requisite financial and human resources to govern this way. So the state is overdeveloped in function but underdeveloped in capacity – its reach goes far beyond its grasp. This must be the biggest source of corruption and incompetence.