If the distribution of power is narrow and unconstrained, then the political institutions are absolutist, as exemplified by the absolutist monarchies reigning throughout the world during much of history. Under absolutist political institutions such as those in North Korea and colonial Latin America, those who can wield this power will be able to set up economic institutions to enrich themselves and augment their power at the expense of society. In contrast, political institutions that distribute power broadly in society and subject it to constraints are pluralistic. Instead of being vested in a single individual or a narrow group, political power rests with a broad coalition or a plurality of groups.
There is obviously a close connection between pluralism and inclusive economic institutions. But the key to understanding why South Korea and the United States have inclusive economic institutions is not just their pluralistic political institutions but also their sufficiently centralized and powerful states. A telling contrast is with the East African nation of Somalia. As we will see later in the book, political power in Somalia has long been widely distributed—almost pluralistic. Indeed there is no real authority that can control or sanction what anyone does. Society is divided into deeply antagonistic clans that cannot dominate one another. The power of one clan is constrained only by the guns of another.
This distribution of power leads not to inclusive institutions but to chaos, and at the root of it is the Somali state’s lack of any kind of political centralization, or state centralization, and its inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even the basic security of its citizens.
Max Weber, who we met in the previous chapter, provided the most famous and widely accepted definition of the state, identifying it with the “monopoly of legitimate violence” in society. Without such a monopoly and the degree of centralization that it entails, the state cannot play its role as enforcer of law and order, let alone provide public services and encourage and regulate economic activity. When the state fails to achieve almost any political centralization, society sooner or later descends into chaos, as did Somalia.