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Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History

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All societies must deal with the possibility of violence, and they do so in different ways. This book integrates the problem of violence into a larger social science and historical framework, showing how economic and political behavior are closely linked. Most societies, which we call natural states, limit violence by political manipulation of the economy to create privileged interests. These privileges limit the use of violence by powerful individuals, but doing so hinders both economic and political development. In contrast, modern societies create open access to economic and political organizations, fostering political and economic competition. The book provides a framework for understanding the two types of social orders, why open access societies are both politically and economically more developed, and how some 25 countries have made the transition between the two types.

346 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Douglass C. North

30 books90 followers
Douglass Cecil North (November 5, 1920 – November 23, 2015) was an American economist known for his work in economic history. He was the co-recipient (with Robert William Fogel) of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In the words of the Nobel Committee, North and Fogel "renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change."

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Displaying 1 - 25 of 25 reviews
Profile Image for Jim Stogdill.
21 reviews24 followers
October 24, 2010
Every so often you pick up a book that doesn't just inform you, but reframes your world view. This was one of those books. Whether considering the impact of the tea party, China's authoritarian model of economic development, post war "nation building" in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or U.S. spectrum auctions (and subsequent monopolies), this book has changed the way I think. I'm sure it will be one of those books that is still influencing how I look at the world ten years from now.
Profile Image for Yifan (Evan) Xu (Hsu).
46 reviews8 followers
August 24, 2013
 There is little need to readdress the significance of this book. A minimal introduction will suffice.
  The book is a bold attempt to consolidate fragments of political theories under one roof. It purposes a framework to understand the operation of political, economic and other social systems alltogether. Many well-known academics pondered this as one of the most important books in political science in recent years. On personal level, by reading the book, one, like me, can find assorted interesting insights, such as explanations of the roles of rent seeking and corruption in today's society.
  The authors are too famous to be left out in the review. They are North, Wallis and Weingast, esteemed professors from Washington University, University of Maryland and Standford University. They have produce other interesting papers. One can visit their university homepages and view these papers for free.
  All right, back to the book. The title of the book contains two broad topics, violence and social orders. Although seemingly disconnected subjects, the salient professors figuered out a logical way to crystalize their connection. Their logic can be summarized as such: development of human history (mostly economic history) requires division of labor; the later requires public's willingness and consent to free trade and job specialization; and people's willingness to work in various roles requires a sense of safety by controls over violence.
  Such logic reveals nothing fancy but simple and fundamental principle of how human beings normally live in a society. Sense of security is necessary for us. It resembles the necessities of oxygen and water. No one thinks about matters of oxygen and water every now and then. But if they lack either, their lives will face immediate peril. The same principle applies to sense of safety. If one is constantly threatened by violence, one can no longer concentrate on working but have to deal with the imminent threats with all efforts. Thus, without control of voilence, social order is impossible to sustain.
  The book then argues that social order only has three forms:
  Forgaing order,
  Limited access order,
  Open access order.
  The first order refers to primitive society, and it is the first type of social order that human society had. It's of little interest to me, and I decided to skip discussion of it in this review.
  The limited access order, also named the natural state, is more interesting. It has a vertically established social hierarchy. Feudal China is a great example. In such society, the ruling class takes the responsibility to prevent voilence and protect the bottom be-ruled classes, though they also provide living materials to satisfy bottom class' physical needs at the same time. Thus, one character of this order is that the political system manipulates the economic system. But how exactly do the rulings control the violence? The answer lies in two methods: first, there is often a middle class that spiritually stablize the bottom classes, such as the clergical class in the middle age and local lord classes in feudual China. Religion and social norms reduce the broadest possibility for social violence.
  Another method to control violence is to create rent. Limited access means limited access to resources, activities and privileges for most of the public. Such privileges produces rents for those who have access, most people from the top class and the middle class. If voilence between members of the top class or underneath the top class occurs, rents would be reduced. Thus, the top class and other elites have incentives to cooperate with each other and reduce violence. Perhaps, one can infer that rampant rent seeking activities in today's China has, in effect, more positive value of stablizing society than people normally think. The cooperation within the top class and between elites often uses personal relationships to sustain control. But personal relationship need rules and guidence. Thus, the top class relentlessly promotse moral principles of trust, loyalty and bonding.
  In the open access order, all citizens have the ability to form contractual organizations. Thus, two things will happen to social violence. First, individuals with different interests who are once the potential for conflicts and violence are now able to play nicely with each other by forming organizations and competing with each others. Second, the social violence is constrained not by the top class but by social organizations formed by citizens. This echoes with North's long-supported contention that institution matters: social institutions maintain orders within and arround them by complying to regulations, laws and above all the constitution.
  However, with the growth of organization uncontrolled, the problem of rent seeking becomes an inevitable component of the order. For instance, monopoly restricts access to resources and privileges, and thus produce rents. But the characteristic of open access order is that the access to organization is open. With more organization entering the market, competition will balance rent creation by reducing monopoly. This is what the limited access order lacks. The role of political parties, at the same time, is to ensure that rules are fair to every player. (It sounds like resemblances of Mises, Hayek and Rothbard to me.)
  One distinction between the limited access order and the open access order is personal relationship. In the former, personal relationship - who your father is, whom you are married to and whom you know, matters to you in terms of benefits, rights and privileges. In the open access order, rights are universal, and personal interactions are mostly impersonal exchanges. Who your father is, whom you are married to and who you are are weighted less by what you can do for others. And competition at all levels will determine how well you can do and what price shall be awarded for your abilities. Relationship can sustain the ruling of the top class, but it's the competition at both economic and political levels that ensures the properity of a nation.
  (The book also suggest how to transit from limited access order to open access order. But, i think the political sensitivity of the suggestions might prevent this review from being publicized. If you want to know the details, read chapter six of the book. It covers transitions occurred in the US, UK and France. )
Profile Image for Vladimir.
57 reviews1 follower
May 25, 2010
This book is unlike anything I have ever read. These are things I wanted to write at the moment, not a summary of the book.

This book distinguishes between natural states, with limited access, and what we consider to be modern states with open access. Briefly, humans evolved to form personal relationships with fellow foragers through repeated interactions. Natural states scale up that framework through patron-client relationships. Open access orders transcend it by disregarding identities.
Natural states are run by dominant coalitions of elites bound together by personal relationships. Both leaders and residents have only as much power as their personal relationships with counter-parties will support.
Open access orders, by contrast, sustain equality through impersonality. In a natural state people can form contracts or vote as citizens, regardless of personal identities, as opposed to acting as personally indebted clients of a powerful patron.
In a mature natural state on the doorstep of a transition to open access, elites may have such impersonal rights. For example, the franchise can be limited to those who own sufficient land. However, restricting such access to elites involves setting complicated boundaries. Those line drawing decisions are implicitly a way to restrict access to favored groups. So a true open access society must be committed to, among other things, something like modern universal suffrage.
In Hartian terms, open access requires the government to treat like cases alike. Thereby it is closely connected to legality and justice.

"Every state must deal with the problem of violence, and if we begin thinking about the state by positing a single actor with a monopoly on violence, we assume away the fundamental problem." p30

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to live without actual or threatened physical harm against our selves forget the role it plays in human societies. Any economic or political inquiry that does not explain how and why violence will be suppressed is incomplete. Of course that incompleteness is not fatal to every particular policy analysis, but it may be a significant weakness of broadly applicable theories.

In natural states, violence is reduced by granting privileged rents. All of the elites capable of exercising significant levels of violence receive some sort of benefit from the status quo, such that exercising violence is discouraged for fear of losing the rent. Thus, efforts to help underdeveloped countries through political or economic reforms based on aspects of modern open access societies are out of place, without some way to change the entire structure of the social order and how violence is contained in that particular country. An economist can be completely correct about the inefficiency of a monopoly without having a solution for a government operating alongside powerful personalities who are also part of the natural state. A political scientist may extol voting without acknowledging that the value of the franchise is constrained because any politicians who are elected will have to provide benefits to powerful non-governmental elites rather than only providing services to the public.

Under open access orders, violence is limited to a military under the control of a civilian government constrained by rules about how force may be employed. Under this framework I am more sympathetic to public spending on infrastructure and financial support for the needy. Limiting violence is an important end. Universal suffrage is a successful means to that end. Given universal suffrage, the government can be stable by providing some services to citizens, but probably not by being a minimalist state. Roads, universal education, and mild financial redistribution to individuals incur fewer dead weight costs than drastic populist measures to restructure an economy that has both winners and (self-perceived) losers.

Adaptive Efficiency
One of the primary virtues of the open access order is that crucial aspects of society are perpetual. So the fortunes of different interests groups, regions, industries, or corporations can rise and fall over time, without harming the structure of modern society.

A natural state can operate well for some period of time under benign leadership. However, no matter much the elites maintain robust relationships among themselves, change will be imposed on the society by other societies or nature. Even if surrounded by a vacuum, the natural state still faces the mortality of its members. Every change in the net amount of wealth, the distribution of wealth, or the change in identities of the elite over time requires the natural state to rearrange itself. Good leadership in a natural state cannot be perpetual.
Profile Image for Sam Schulman.
255 reviews84 followers
January 20, 2010
It's exactly correct about all of human history, without being exactly elegant.
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,319 reviews1,153 followers
January 2, 2015
This is a book about political economy - a theoretical perspective of how politics and economics fit together to produce highly productive economies with a broad and resiliant democratic basis in some (few) states and not in others. The work of North and his colleagues is rich and multilayered, involving extended arguments about institutional economics, the legal, institutional, and historical bases of different types of polities, and how economics and politics are linked in these polities, even where they appear to be relatively independent on the surface. The key distinction here is not between democracy and authoritarianism or totalitarianism but between two general types of political orderings - natural states and open access orders. Open access orders are democracies that benefit from open access, impersonal rules for economic and political behavior, the strict monopoly over the use of coercive force by the state, and the establishent of norms and institutional rules and restrict the use of force, provide opportunities for the expansion of political and economic choices through markets, and provide incentives to decision makers to limit their individual rent seeking behaviors and maintain the integrity of the political system. North works through these ideas and provides an organizing framework, along with a theory of change to explain how open access orders can develop and become institutionalized. This sounds like a mouthful, but North is an exceptional thinker and a wonderful writer. The book requires some thought to digest but it is itself accessible with much recourse to models or equations.

I thought to read this book after finishing Ian Morris's recent book on the political economy of war. Political economy sometimes comes across as both simplistic and cynical - the domain of game theorists with their simple stories about power and markets. While the criticism is overdrawn, the accounts provided by political economy often do seem a bit too abstract to be engaging. That is not the case with North's book. It is clear, thoughtful, and even reasonable. In addition, North makes use of historical examples that are compelling. I also enjoyed his ideas on change and institutional evolution.
Profile Image for Vasily Burnin.
7 reviews2 followers
January 5, 2017
книга пытается дать ответ на вопрос, почему одни страны смогли достигнуть экономического благополучия, а другие - нет. Для ответа на этот вопрос авторы анализируют историю стран Западной Европы - все вместе получается очень интересно
Profile Image for Юрий Рифяк.
14 reviews1 follower
October 6, 2014
Extremely profound, an eye-opener on the functioning of different types of states. However you have to struggle with the text: sometimes too academic and even dull
July 16, 2020
خشونت و نظم های اجتماعی
حکومت ها و یا قوانین حاکم بر یک جامعه به دو دسته نظم دسترسی محدود یا نظم دسترسی باز تقسیم میشوند
همه حکومت های تشکیل شده از ابتدای تاریخ ، با دسترسی محدود بوده و حکومت و قدرت و سیاست و اقتصاد در دستان طبقه ای خاص و به اصطلاح فرادستان بوده است ، اما با تکامل جوامع بشری کم کم این حکومت ها به مرحله گذار رسیده و امروز در برخی از کشور های انگشت شمار به معنای واقعی به دسترسی آزاد منتج شده است
این گذار مستلزم اتفاقات زیادی در روابط، مناسبات،آموزش،سطح زندگی،معاملات و عوامل بسیاری دیگر، حتی رقابت بین فرا دستان برای کسب رانت و امتیاز هرچه بیشتر است
تا این رقابت ها منجر به تشکیل نهاد های سیاسی و اقتصادی مستقل و دارای هویت نشود و نهایتا منجر به تشکیل قانون حمایت عمومی از این تشکل ها نشود، نباید امید به اصلاحات و گذار در جامعه دسترسی محدود داشت.
از دیگر ملزومات جامعه دسترسی باز ، تنظیم روابط دولت حاکم با نظامیان است.
برای دخالت نظامیان در روابط خصوصی و یا روابط بین سازمانی ، چهار چوبی قانونی و محدود کننده وجود دارد و از این راه خشونت در جامعه کنترل می شود.
نظامیان عموما خارج از برنامه های سیاسی و اقتصادی باید باشند و مدیریت روابط سیاست و اقتصاد و نظامیان باید بر اساس قواعد و سازمان های غیر شخصی باشد.
شرایط امروز کشور ما مطابق نظریات ارائه شده غربی، به هیچ وجه شبیه به جامعه دسترسی آزاد نیست.
در برخی مقاطع زمانی در صد سال اخیر ، احتمال واجد شرایط شدن برای وارد شدن به حالت گذار را پیدا کرده ایم اما متاسفانه دچار حرکت به عقب شده و تلاش جامعه نافرجام مانده است.
در شرایط فعلی هم با توجه به همان معیار ها در وضعیت خوبی برای قرارگیری در لیست کشور های امیدوار به وارد شدن به مرحله دسترسی آزاد قرار نداریم.
زمانی که ویژگی های دسترسی آزاد را میخوانیم،به مشکل بسیار بزرگ موجود بر سر راه پی می بریم:
تمامی تعاریف و معیار ها، از لحاظ زبانی و شعاری مورد پسند و استفاده تمام دولتمردان و فرادستان است، اما واقعیت، فاصله زیادی با وضعیت مطلوب دارد.
این تظاهر و فریب کاری آفت نابودکننده گذار جامعه ما به دسترسی آزاد است.
که البته علت اصلی آن نبودن و یا بهتر بگوییم اجازه نیافتن فعالیت برای جاری شدن سه اصل زیر است:
۱. حاکمیت قانون برای فرادستان
۲.ایجاد نهادها و سازمانهای دائمی متعدد و مستقل ،جهت نظارت بر عملکردهای سازمان های دیگر در جامعه.
۳.کنترل یکپارچه نظامیان و جلوگیری از دخالت آنها در اقتصاد و سیاست
امروز سه اصل فوق بیش از هر زمان دیگری تضعیف شده

پی نوشت:
«خشونت و نظم های اجتماعی» اثر برنده جایزه نوبل اقتصاد، داگلاس نورث که توضیحات بالا مربوط به همین کتاب است.
کتاب جالب و آموزنده ای است اما برای من کمی سنگین و دارای متن غیر روان بود که بعضی وقت ها از خواندن آن پشیمان می شدم😅😅
80 reviews1 follower
July 19, 2019
This is a very interesting "revisionist" account of how humans societies today form governments that limit destructive violence. The book explores why some nations are so much more stable and prosperous than others. The authors hypothesize that these nations have succeeded at establishing a new type of social order, the "open access" order, in which elite privileges are replaced by more widely accessible rights. The book includes an interesting critique of public choice theory, a branch of economics that seeks to explain the behavior of government by viewing government actors as motivated in part by the same economic factors that affect other actors, such as self-interest.

I found the authors' thesis that "open access" orders are fundam

entally different from other types of human societies only partly convincing. It rests in part on an argument that these societies are less likely to fall into self-destructive contests over privileges or resources, because opportunities to be active economically or politically are open to all. Given the current deficit problems, however, the authors need to address the likelihood that these "open" societies will make widespread commitments to spend beyond their own growth.
Profile Image for Brian .
869 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2022
Violence and Social Orders looks at a framework for how to organize human history from the rise of the market to organized liberal government and democracy as the only system. Drawing on the role of government, religion, covenants between people, organizations and economics this book seeks to weave together an explanation of human history and why we organized the way we do and why it was the only way we could have organized successfully. This is a sweeping book that sets the stage for an understanding of human history and its antecedents. It is done by three impeccable scholars and their thought process and work shines brilliantly.
Profile Image for Наталя Федорович.
112 reviews2 followers
April 28, 2020
Так і не зрозуміло, а до чого у назві книжки є слово "насильство". Так, у книжці проскакує теза, що еліта у певний момент розуміє, що можна не воюючи, отримати більше рент, аніж провадячи війну. Однак, це явно не те, що очікуєш від книжки. Мої сподівання були на те, що у книзі проаналізовано, чому все-таки насильство існує у суспільних порядках, які причини існування, як змінюється насильство зі зміною політичного ладу. Однак, натомість я прочитала щось на кшталт "Чому нації занепадають?".
Profile Image for Jon Webber.
161 reviews
July 4, 2017
Academic read, deep, but interesting, two types of states, with sub categories and their political, economic, religious entities and their organizations, institutions and control of violence create a framework toward moving to an open access society.
28 reviews10 followers
December 15, 2017
Дуже дивно читати книгу про відкритий доступ і на третині віднайти побіжне пояснення того, який конкретно відкритий доступ мається на увазі, до яких саме благ чи вроджених прав. Історія традиційно пропонується з країн першого світу, Франція, Англія, Ватикан, одні й ті самі європейські мармизи.
Profile Image for Tobi Lawson.
36 reviews2 followers
February 10, 2020
Very good analytical framework. But their interpretation of history is too simplistic.
2,377 reviews
August 1, 2020
This book looks at violence through the framework of the transition from natural states to open access states.
Profile Image for Arash Maqsudi.
23 reviews2 followers
February 16, 2021
اقتصادسیاسی و نهادها همه آن چیزی است که باید تحلیل کنیم
وقتی نهادها تغییر نکنند هیچ راه میانبری برای تغییر وجود ندارد
April 7, 2021
This is a great study on how societal processes interact and influence development. Highly recommendable to all interested in history as well as other fields focusing on societal change.
Profile Image for Thao Dinh.
11 reviews13 followers
October 20, 2021
A fascinating book. I definitely want to have a copy on my bookshelf so that I can re-read it whenever I need to.
Profile Image for Vlectronica.
20 reviews3 followers
October 18, 2012
Interesting analysis on the role of violence in the history of society. North's theory on the importance of kinship relationships in the development of society is engaging, although I find the supposed futility of its basis in future societies questionable. Worth the read though, if just for a better understanding of political and economic engagement since the dawning of the agricultural revolution.
Profile Image for Kw Estes.
97 reviews10 followers
January 25, 2011
Decent ideas of state development, but nothing entirely novel. Also, a great amount of repetition--how many different ways can you say there is more economic and political freedom in developed states than non-developed?
Profile Image for Leif.
1,637 reviews87 followers
December 20, 2016
Nope. The time of NEI is long over (fingers crossed).
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