Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

To Build or Not to Build?

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

To Build or Not to Build?

Article excerpt

To Build or Not to Build?

State Building in Latin America by Hillel David Soifer (Cambridge University Press, 2015, 307 pps).

Hillel Soifer's powerful new book proposes a solid and original theory of statebuilding in Latin America. In recent years the study of how states formed and develop has become a burgeoning subfield, and Soifer aims to tell the Weberian-if not Hobbesian-story of Latin American states; one that is told from within the state.

Soifer tells us, "... statebuilding was a state project rather than a sectoral or class project" (emphasis in the original, p. 9). In this account, Latin American state leaders in the nineteenth century enjoyed a considerable amount of "autonomy"; that is, a strong or weak state did not result primarily from its encounters with the society it aimed to govern, but rather: "I argue that the institutional choices made by leaders in populating the bureaucracy shape the fate of state-building efforts" (my emphasis, p. 233).

Soifer's book is masterfully anchored to substantive theoretical issues that he illuminates with analytical clarity and impressive empirical work. The book's departure point is that neither pre-independence institutions nor the aftermath of independence in Latin America can explain the divergent capacity of states in contemporary days. Instead, "the liberal era," that is, more or less, the period between 1850 and 1900, established the resilient foundations of either successful or failed state projects. Three decisions and trajectories were taken in that "critical juncture": 1) elites decided not to build a state, hence an effective state never emerged; 2) elites decided to build a state but failed; 3) elites choose to build a capable state and they succeeded.

According to Soifer, Colombian elites never did actually attempt to build an effective state, so that state has been ineffective throughout history. Peruvian elites, instead, had a state project but failed to implement it. Although these arguments, I am sure, will trigger reactions among historians of both countries, they make a main analytical contribution: causes of state inefficiency diverge and institution builders must be aware of them.

Why would some national elites decide not to build a national state? Soifer's answer is that a country with several important urban centers, like Colombia, will not undertake the state-building effort, whereas a country with the undeniable primacy of one urban center would attempt do it. The reason is that this kind of geography/demography produces different sets of ideas in elites leading them to either attempt to build a state or not. Backed by quantities of data in three crucial dimensions of state activity (education, coercive capacity and tax extraction) Soifer argues that Colombian elites -embedded in a laissez-faire liberalism derived from the abundance of urban centers-chose not to engage in the costly effort of building a state. In Chile, Mexico and Peru, conversely, liberalism "was more statist"-an ideology derived from the undeniable prominence of Santiago, Mexico City and Lima-and that is what led central elites to seek a national state.

However, why did countries choosing to build a central state, like Peru, fail, while others, such as Chile and Mexico, succeeded? Soifer dismisses explanations built on war effects on the state, and those that give too much importance to society: "...I attribute more autonomy to Latin American state leaders than do either of my interlocutors..."(p. 8). According to the author, the crucial step to set a path of state capacity was an administrative decision: either deciding to rule the country with deployed bureaucrats, or in alliance with local/regional elites. In Soifer's account, this mid-19th-century decision is the key and critical choice for state-building in Latin America. Where central leaders decided to rely on local/ regional elites to rule the periphery, the state undertook a path of weakness; where they decided to circumvent local powers and deploy a troop of bureaucrats, they put the state on the right track. …

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