Living without a State

Peter Turchin


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We came through relatively unscathed by Sandy – only three days without power. Others had to wait longer, but eventually all affected towns had power restored and roads cleared up. Normal life has resumed. It happened sort-of on its own, except in reality it didn’t. It actually happened because there was a relatively efficient state machinery behind the recovery. Not perfectly efficient (and sometimes horribly inefficient, as the earlier disaster of Katrina and New Orleans showed), but it came through well enough “for government work.”

We tend to take these things for granted – that our society will speedily rebuild after a natural disaster – but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. There is now a large part of American population who believe that nothing but evil could come from the government. They want to reduce it in size, perhaps even to nothing. This point of view is now amply represented in the government itself, at least in the legislative branch.

Such an anti-government mood is a fairly new development. Yes, the ideological roots of the Tea Party movement go back to Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and to Ayn Rand. But for many decades after the New Deal such views were on the very fringe of the political spectrum, or even beyond it. When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964 on a platform that would be considered moderate by today’s standards, the corporate community abandoned him – he was just too extreme. The turning point came later, in the late seventies, and since the Reagan presidency the acolytes of Hayek and Ayn Rand have been gaining influence and power.

(It’s probably worth stressing at this point that I am not taking a partisan position here (e.g., for the Democrats and against the Republicans, or vice versa). The Social Evolution Forum is a platform for discussing ideas rather than for pushing any political or ideological agendas. The question is what evolutionary science can tell us about how societies function, and also how they could function even better. And it turns out that some of the specific answers may be unpalatable to liberals, others to conservatives.)

Returning to the issue of the state and how we take its normal functioning for granted, we only need to look to those places on Earth that lack functional states. The Evolution Institute (the parent organization of this Forum) has an ongoing program on Failed States and Nation-Building. One case-study within that program that is being currently developed is that of Haiti.

Haiti was hit by a truly horrible disaster – the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010 that killed 200,000 people. But what was even worse is that in the almost three years since the earthquake the Haitian society has been unable to rebuild itself, despite billions of dollars of aid and thousands of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that came to help.

In fact, a recent article in the Nation, The NGO Republic of Haiti, argues that far from helping the Haitian society to reconstitute itself, the NGOs actually exacerbated the problem. Because the Haitian government (such as it is) is perceived to be highly corrupt (which it undoubtedly is), the NGOs chose to channel the foreign aid not through the government structures, but through parallel structures of their own.

Much of the problem is that NGOs are responsible not to the Haitian people, but to their own sponsors. The Nation article gives a number of examples of how the aid dollars were misspent – not necessarily because they were embezzled, but because they were used on projects that weren’t really needed.

I would add that the problem is not just that the desires of the sponsors of the NGOs don’t coincide with the desires and aspirations of the Haitian people. It goes beyond that. A couple of years ago my journal Cliodynamics published a very interesting article by Edward Turner, Why Has the Number of International Non-Governmental Organizations Exploded since 1960?

In the article Turner argued that the acceleration in international NGO numbers was caused by the post-war baby boom and a crisis in the credential system. He developed several lines of evidence suggesting that demographic-structural mechanisms contributed to the surge in NGO numbers during the last 50 years as a by-product of intraelite competition. In other words, the explanation of why there were thousands of NGOs in Haiti has more to do with the supply side (too many bright and over-educated West Europeans and North Americans, more than their societies can find employment for), rather than the demand side (the needs of the afflicted population).

But this only explains why thousands of NGOs descended on Haiti in the wake of the earthquake, not why the Haitian government was so ineffective in mobilizing internal resources and channeling foreign aid into effective reconstruction. The Nation article suggests that the government in Haiti was “decimated’ by the earthquake, but in fact Haiti was a failed state even before the earthquake. Between 2005 and 2009, even before the earthquake, external aid has already exceeded the revenue available to the government.

After the earthquake, external aid exceed internal revenue by more than a factor of four. Only 1 percent of the aid was channeled through the government. By taking over the functions of the government, the NGOs further weakened it, and when they leave, as they inevitable will, they will leave behind a devastated sociopolitical landscape, an asabiya black hole. This effect is sometimes known as the Samaritan’s Dilemma. How do you aid people without making them dependent on the aid?

Although the Nation article argues (fairly persuasively) that the earthquake and NGOs together destroyed the last vestiges of the Haiti state, it does not address the question of why the state was so weak even before the earthquake. Those of us who have lived long enough remember well the dramatic events following the collapse of the Duvalier regime in 1986, the election of Bertrand Aristide, the military coup against him, the US intervention and the return of Aristide, etc. etc.

One interesting fact that the Nation article mentions is that

The US government, which had been a key benefactor of the twenty-nine-year Duvalier regime, later encouraged Haiti to lower import tariffs on American rice from 35 percent to just 3 percent. American rice flooded the Haitian market; a similar demise for Haiti’s sugar and coffee industries soon followed.

By the mid-1990s, the Haitian agricultural sector—in which 60 to 70 percent of the Haitian population made a living—lay in ruins. NGOs then swooped in to “rescue” the population, largely sidestepping the various Haitian governments, which they deemed too weak and corrupt to consider working with directly.

Add to this the earlier US occupation (1915-1934) and it all seems to add up to a story of how the first ever black republic established as a result of a successful revolution of slaves against white planters was later destroyed by the unwanted attentions of the powerful neighbor to the north and the misguided (if not worse) actions of thousands of NGOs. Is this a good explanation of why Haiti lacks an effective state? Perhaps I will return to this question in a future blog (and in the meanwhile  I would be very interested in hearing the thoughts of the readers of this blog).

But whatever reasons for the failed state of Haiti, this case study amply demonstrates how those institutions cherished by anti-government ideologists, the free market and private charity, can wreck the economy and polity when there is no strong state to provide a framework within which they could effectively operate.

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Gene Anderson

Maybe, but the Haitian government has to take SOME blame! Not every state with US and NGO presence is a wreck!
On another note, though, I fail to see any evidence of Hayek’s thought in the Tea Party. Ayn Rand maybe. But the Tea Party seems to me nothing but racism and religious bigotry. Far from reducing government, they want to regulate everyone’s sex life and religious life. They also are largely (though not all) rabidly in favor of the huge defense establishment and the huge subsidies for oil and agribusiness. Mostly they seem to be just the Ku Klux Klan redux–a lot of KKK leaders and members are active in the Tea Party.

Peter Turchin

Gene, I agree. The major problem is that Haiti is a failed state. Although the earthquake and the NGOs may have delivered the final death blow, the state was pretty defunct before 2010. So the question is why. For example, there is another nation sharing the island with Haiti, but it is in a much better shape. Why?

Martin Hewson

It is sobering and somewhat disheartening to think that military-led state-building in places like Kosovo and Afghanistan is failing. So is the NGO- and UN-based effort at state-building (or is it more like “state-substituting”?) in Haiti. Meanwhile, news reports tell of anarchy in Mali and Eastern Congo.

All of these places have their own peculiarities. But one common factor nowadays is the decline of conquest and war. Historically, state-building was propelled by war. Today, war has diminished and is generally considered illegitimate. There is an irony that less war may today mean more weak and failed states.

Peter Turchin

And equally paradoxically, less interstate war means more failed states and more internal war, which can cause even more deaths and misery than interstate wars. Not that I advocate more external warfare. But the critical element is cultural group selection, which does not have to take the form of warfare. So we need to figure out how we can keep competition beween societies within non-lethal bounds.

Shade of Burke

“On another note, though, I fail to see any evidence of Hayek’s thought in the Tea Party. Ayn Rand maybe. But the Tea Party seems to me nothing but racism and religious bigotry. Far from reducing government, they want to regulate everyone’s sex life and religious life. They also are largely (though not all) rabidly in favor of the huge defense establishment and the huge subsidies for oil and agribusiness. Mostly they seem to be just the Ku Klux Klan redux–a lot of KKK leaders and members are active in the Tea Party.”

And there we go with the tiresome contemporary politics. “Racism”, “bigotry”, “KKK”, the usual vomit of hatred from the ostensibly, no ostentatiously, tolerant. Thanks Gene, a great example of wisdom and moderation. All for reducing the role of government in regulation and spending, I take it?

“It’s probably worth stressing at this point that I am not taking a partisan position here (e.g., for the Democrats and against the Republicans, or vice versa”

Yet might one from now on not expect letting democrat issues slide while republican ones are loudly shamed and vilified? (Comment section: “How dare you, you racist sexist homophobic 1%-er? There are no democrat issues!”) A mistake not to squelch the inevitable ranting in the comment section from the start; in the larger scheme of things, even better to stay away from this particular time entirely.

Peter Turchin

You make a valid point. Gene’s comment was out of line (and so was yours, although I understand where you are coming from). At issue is how much government (and what kind) we need, and it is immaterial whether the proponents of one side or the other also happen to hold whatever views on other issues not related to the one we are discussing.

This Forum is about ideas and science, not politics, and certainly not a platform for people with opposing ideologies to rant against each other. I won’t let it happen and will exercise my editorial right to delete comments or even ban commenters who transgress repeatedly (so far, I had to ban only one person).

I am going to let both comments stand because they serve a useful role in bringing up the issue of keeping the dialogue aimed at issues, not people, but in the future I will be more vigilant.

On the other hand, I disagree that this blog should stay away from important issues confronting our society, even though they are controversial and generate a lot of vituperation. Where evolutionary science can throw light on such an important controversial issue, we don’t want to leave it entirely to politicians and ideologues. The whole premise of the Evolution Institute (the parent organization of this Forum) is that evolutionary science can help us understand and improve the human societies and thereby make our lives better. So we need to be engaged with such issues, but deal with them without ad hominem attacks.


For long oxpeckers ( have been considered to be of great help to those animals from which they remove insect parasites. More recent studies, however, reveled that they can be considered parasites themselves as they intentionally keep wounds open to allow insects to propagate.

The analogy with NGOs is striking, isn’t it. On the other hand, I’m happy to have them outside else they would loudly demand more government and taxes. *lol*


This is a great comparison!

david ronfeldt

can a case be made that haiti is a failed state partly because it is also a failed tribe? many failed states are also failed tribes, in some sense. what i have in mind is a progression in the forms of organization behind social evolution — a progression that extends from tribes, to hierarchical institutions (esp. states), to markets, and next to information-age networks (e.g., as with many networked ngos). when governments look like they are failing, people seek recourse in older forms of organization, in this case tribes, by which term i include clans, bands, extended familes, nuclear families, and other expressions, like clubs, gangs, nationalism, etc.). i know little about haiti, but i gather its peoples are quite atomized and anomic. gangs are rampant. the tribal form and its organizational cognates remain unsettled, unstable, even dysfunctional. this makes it all the harder to implant a state that does not fail.

Peter Turchin

Each functional state must have a cooperating group at its core. Call it a tribe. So when that group stops cooperating, the state they build around themselves collapses.


Thank you for this article. After studying Chad for three years, I come to the same conclusions about the ironies of the US and other Western powers’ role in undermining states in developing countries while relying heavily on our own state at home. I frequently joke that staunch anti-government conservatives should move to Somalia where they will be exempt from state taxes but not from tribute to their local warlord. I must add that there are many scholars (especially anthropologists) who ascribe these phenomena to neoliberalism so they deserve a mention.

Peter Turchin

I am afraid that we are doing a great job undermining the state here in the US. I hope we will not end up paying tribute to warlords…

david ronfeldt

ahem, we are already paying tribute to warlords, if it can be argued, as i’ve tried elsewhere, that the republican’s anti-tax pledge is overseen by a fiscal warlord, as part and parcel of the party’s slide into excessive tribalism.

david ronfeldt

also, as to the significance of asabiya / social capital / the tribal form in explaining why one society recovers from disaster better than another, see patrick meter’s irevolution blog for his recent excellent post on “Does Social Capital Drive Disaster Resilience?” at:

he draws on a new book by daniel aldrich to make points about the significance of social capital, in part by distinguishing among three kinds of capital: bonding, bridging, and linking.

Peter Turchin

Very interesting. Thanks a lot for this link!

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