Inspired by Daron Acemoglu’s Schwartz lecture last month, I buckled down to reading Acemoglu and Robinson. Their goal is to understand why democracy (broadly defined) emerges and why it persists. Here is a rough rendition of their arguments.
In the beginning a small elite controls the allocation and consumption of resources. Eventually, the masses solve a collective action problem and agitate for what they have been denied; bread, cloth, shelter and control rights. Why don’t the elite buy the masses off with a promise of bread, cloth, shelter and the occasional roman circus but not control rights? It because, as Hume says, the bonds of words are to weak. The masses get bread and etc. today but what about tomorrow? The promises of the elite are not credible. Organizing to agitate again is costly, so to guarantee bread and etc. for the future the masses need an institution that will credibly deliver on the promises extracted from the elite. That institution is democracy.
A crucial piece of the argument is that the collective action problem the masses must solve to agitate for their needs, is costly. It requires that like minded individuals must coordinate (I will turn out to protest only if I know enough others will do so as well) and that risk to life and limb is reduced (by spreading it over a large enough number of individuals). Social networks, supposedly reduce these costs. Marry this with Acemoglu and Robinson, and it suggests that democracy is less likely to emerge! If the cost of agitation drops, then it becomes easier to enforce the promises of the elites by threat of agitation. This diminishes the incentives to push for a change in political institutions.