Monday, April 13, 2020

Critical junctures and roads not taken

Daron Acemoglu, in his last book with James Robinson, "The Narrow Path" and in his recent debate with Jean Tirole on the coronavirus crisis, has pointed out that throughout history there are rare "critical junctures" where significant changes are possible. Virtuous societies take advantage of such junctures to make progress towards states of higher capacity that are better controlled by society. The theory suggests some question marks in terms of empirical content (how can one identify if we are in the presence of a critical juncture?), but there is little doubt that in some points in time changes have really been possible, and the road taken by history was just one among several that were possible at the time.
In "The Plot Against America", the novel written by Phillip Roth and now an HBO TV series, the critical juncture is the 1940 US presidential election, which in true history was won by Frankiln D. Roosevelt, the builder of the New Deal, and in fiction was won by Charles A. Lindbergh, a nazi sympathizer. Other thinkers have focused on the critical juncture of the US Civil War of the XIX Century, were the federalists defeated the confederates that had triggered the war with the secession of some southern states. What if… the confederacy had won the US Civil War? What if instead the federalists had won in Central and South America? Then in the North there would be a panoply of small independent states with no single market, and in Central and South America there would be large and strong federations with strong markets and institutions, instead of the many failed states that now populate the southern half of the Continent. What if, as suggested by Thomas Piketty in "Capital and Ideology", Africa had been decolonized like India, with a big federation, instead of tens of small states many of them landlocked without access to the see? What if Europe had become a federation before the second World War, as suggested by the likes of Churchill or Robbins? We will never know, but all these things were possible and did not happen, highlighting the role of contingency and the indeterminacy of history. If we are in a critical juncture now, the road that will be taken is not written in stone. We should better fight for cooperation, federation and solidarity.

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