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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 36-42

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The Problem of State Weakness

Shaoguang Wang

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the "third wave" of democratization was sweeping over much of the globe, it was widely held among scholars and policy makers alike that democratic reform entailed shrinking or neutralizing the state.

Yet after a decade during which so much emphasis has been placed upon restraining the state, a look at the political map of the world reveals scores of fake or incomplete democracies, and even a few cases of outright "democratic reversal."

Small wonder then that more scholars are coming to see the viability and effectiveness of state institutions as essential to prospects for democracy. As Samuel P. Huntington notes, "authority has to exist before it can be limited." 1 No matter how democratic a government is, if it cannot perform basic state functions its people will not benefit from it.

A democratic regime that is viable and effective, therefore, will be a compound of state-enabling institutions and democratic institutions. The former will enable the government to govern, while the latter will enable citizens to hold the government accountable.

A further implication is that in many cases democratization will involve two separate processes:

1) a process of transition from a nondemocratic regime to a more or less democratic one, and

2) a process of state building or rebuilding—which means in turn [End Page 36] that it is ill-advised for any country to damage or weaken essential state capacities during its transition.

Essentials of an Effective State

To govern effectively, the state must have the ability to perform the following six critical functions:

1) Monopolize the legitimate use of force. By Max Weber's definition, the basic test of statehood is whether or not the national government can lay claim to a monopoly of force in the territory under its jurisdiction, with military services and police agencies capable of repelling foreign foes and preserving domestic order. Here I want to emphasize the importance of developing a professional, resourceful, dedicated, disciplined, and uniformed police force governed by law. Interestingly, although repressive regimes are often called "police states," they actually tend to have fewer police officers per citizen than do free societies, where the police are more plentiful and more restrained.

2) Extract resources. Just as a human cannot live without blood, so a state cannot function without revenue. It is the availability of resources that permits the state to carry out its other tasks. In this sense, an effective government must be able to extract sufficient resources from the society, aggregate those resources into a national pool, and use them for national purposes. If a state is not fiscally viable, it cannot be effective.

3) Shape national identity and mobilize consent. Maintaining order by coercion alone is not feasible over the long term. There must be some shared identities and values that go beyond local or kinship ties and knit together the society as a whole. The recent history of the Balkans, Rwanda, Indonesia, and parts of the former Soviet bloc remind us that the absence of an overarching national identity can be a centrifugal force of frightening power. A state also needs a citizen body characterized by a certain baseline moral unity—a set of core principles that go beyond mere national identity—if it hopes to govern without having to resort to excessive and costly coercion.

4) Regulate society and the economy. Modern societies are full of hazards engendered by industry, commerce, urbanization, and asymmetries of power and information. To protect people and the environment, therefore, the state needs to pass rules affecting many aspects of economic and social life ranging from weights and measures to food and drug quality, safety standards, and even parental powers and duties. Although there is surely a place for arguments about the proper bounds of [End Page 37] the "regulatory state," no one can deny that all reasonably well-ordered modern societies, whether democratic or not, are highly regulated.

5) Maintain the internal coherence of state institutions. A modern state needs an...