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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 33: The Decline and Rise of Democracy with David Stasavage

The complex history of democracy and its global origins isn’t taught in school. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to self-educate.

Key Points From This Episode:

• The topic of David’s recently published book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy.

• The global origins of democracy which contradict the idea of it starting in Athens.

• How technology and geography play into the emergence of democracy (or not).

• Why cities and smaller states could accrue long-term debt as early as the 13th century.

• How the strength of the central political unit dictates the strength of a city’s fiscal position.

• An extreme solution to restoring a city’s fiscal strength: disallow the issuing of debt.

• We discuss the reversal of faster growth rates in autonomous cities after 100 years.

• How location and craft guild influenced the growth of cities throughout history.

• Why the effect of political inclusion depends upon how society itself is organized.

• We discuss Olson’s stationary versus roving bandit theory.

• Exit options through the lens of Robert Carneiro’s Circumscription Theory.

• David weighs in on Herbst’s view that redrawing borders can reduce conflict.

• Why, if you have collective governance first, the possibility for bureaucracy is greater.

• Local elections as a way for autocratic rulers to gather information.

• How David foresees political institutions navigating outdated laws and godlike technology.

• The role of connection and disconnection to the state in decentralization, and local control.

• David’s prediction on how democracy will fare with populism and technocracy in mind.

• Why it might be true that government officials can’t achieve anything alone.

• We discuss the theory outlined in Henry Pierrine’s Early Democracies in the Low Countries.

• Wim Blockman’s research as a powerful resource on cities and representation.

• David’s book in gestation about the future of democracy.


Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city from governance to urban planning, politics to finance. We hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them. You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at Follow us on social media, @CCIdotCity on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.

Kurtis: Hi. I’m Kurtis Lockhart, Head of Research at the Charter Cities Institute. Today on the podcast, I speak with David Stasavage. David is a Professor of Political Science at New York University, as well as the current Dean of the Social Sciences at NYU. His work focuses on the evolution of political institutions over the long run, especially at European political evolution since the medieval period until the present, and in particular examines the effect of these changing political institutions on several factors, including public debt, taxation, education, and inequality among several others. He’s the author of four books and many, many articles, including his most recent book, The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today, published in 2020. I hope you enjoy.

Welcome to the show, David. Thanks for coming on.

David: Thank you for having me.

Kurtis: Okay. So you’ve got a recent book published last year called The Decline and Rise of Democracy. It’s a pretty sweeping history of democracy from ancient times to today and not just focusing on Europe but focusing on other regions across the globe, including China and much of the Middle East. So I thought it’d be good to first begin by you just sketching out the broad thesis of the book, and then we can go from there.

David: Yeah. I think they’re sort of – It’s not a book that has like one single theme, I suppose. It might have been better if it could have had one single theme. But a lot of different themes in it, and so one to start off with is the one you see right from the first page is this idea I tried to convey, which is, some people may disagree with, and some people have agreed with, thankfully, is that democracy is not something that was invented in one place at one time. It’s not like, sort of, the torch of democracy was lit in Athens, and then it was carried from one place to another.

In fact, what I think the historical record shows is that a lot of different human societies on many different continents invented broadly democratic forms of rule, and just to the sense that they didn’t have elections and political parties, but they had popular participation of one form or another, more frequently in small scale societies than in larger scale societies. I think that’s the first important point to think about that democracy as an institution is a lot, has a much deeper and broader history than the standard story that we learn in school and suggests to us.

Kurtis: You mentioned there are several kinds of streams or sub streams to the book, and one of those is that you suggest that kind of the two-key factors, I guess, nudging polities in the direction of either democracy or autocracy, where I think, first, the geography, sort of the James C. Scott ‘against the grain’ thesis in a way and then, second, technology. I think specifically, you mean monitoring technology available to those trying to govern. Do you want to explain these and why you expect these two factors to be crucial in the emergence or not of democracy?

David: Yeah. I think these were crucial in the sense of if you think of two different models, one model is an autocrat is just able to rule sort of on their own, and the other is that they need actually popular participation because they need information and help with governance. That in most societies that have been democracies, historically, they’ve been agricultural societies. In agricultural societies where you think that the geography made it more unpredictable in terms to know what people could grow or how much they were growing in a given year and therefore how much they could be taxed, that gave a sort of informational rent to members of society, and that it might be a provided incentive for a ruler to sort of get them to collaborate and say like, “Okay, let’s have a discussion about how governance can happen in this year,” whereas that would be less likely to be the case if rulers just sort of knew all the information already on their own.

That’s where monitoring technology implemented by a bureaucracy comes in because if you think of in the position of a ruler, say that you’re trying to tax me, and I’m producing some crop, then, well, you might have a bureaucracy and you might have a good monitoring technology to just sort of do that not exactly on your own because it’s via bureaucrats but via subordinates that you yourself have chosen and paid. That’s a fundamentally different way of operating than is to say, “Okay. I actually don’t have these monitoring technologies. I don’t have a bureaucracy. So therefore, I need to go this alternative route of governing collectively with members of society.”

Kurtis: Okay. That’s a broad argument to the book, so let’s get into some specifics. In the book, you write, and I’m just going to quote here, “Unique in Western Europe, the communes or autonomous cities from the beginning of the 13th century were successful in issuing long-term debt, whereas no European prince would be able to take such a step until the 16th century.” When monarchs of larger polities first began to borrow long term, they did so by working through their cities. So, first, why was this the case, and why were cities or smaller city states able to borrow more than princes or larger political units at the time?

David: Yeah. This was the case. This is now – It’s taking the exact same example I used of an autocrat with a bureaucracy in contrast to some form of early democracy that I talked about in sort of the abstract and now putting that in a very specific historical context. So let me draw a comparison of the sort that I do in the book. Why were European – Why did monarchs need to use European cities like this? Well, first of all, they needed to use European cities like this because there was commerce and a lot of revenue from commerce. Also, the European monarchs, if you’re thinking of, say, France or England, let’s take the case of France circa 1300, lacked really anything resembling a central state bureaucracy, there would have been at most a couple to three dozen individuals who could be considered sort of direct royal bureaucrats involved with finances. So you had to work through the cities. You had to work cooperatively with the cities.

This is why I think you get the entry of towns into European Parliaments is because the towns had something to offer that the monarchs needed, but the towns just didn’t want to give up things for free. They wanted some political influence, as well. Now, you contrast that with a situation like, say, China. In the late part of the first millennium, China had a commercial expansion, roughly around the same time, though a little bit earlier. But in China, you already had a strong central state. So when cities grew up, they were not autonomous because urban commerce and taxation of it was just controlled by the Central State. It all depends on this historical trajectory of whether you have a state bureaucracy that develops earlier prior to some commercial expansion or whether it develops later.

The interesting thing to answer the second part of your question about the European cities is that they weren’t nonetheless efficiently autonomous, and they had this interesting feature that the people who controlled the towns generally were the same merchants who lent to the city. That meant that they were actually very good as engines of finance. They could borrow and borrow long term in a way that monarchs could not. That allowed the cities to – That helped ultimately cities to stay autonomous in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.

Kurtis: Yeah. This is interesting because, at least in terms of the ability of cities to engage in municipal finance or borrow, this pattern that you just described, it seems to be the opposite of today across the global south or at least a lot of cities in the global south, right? Cities in the developing world today either kind of flat out can’t borrow or issue municipal debt, or a lot of the times they require the approval or guarantee of the national government to borrow.

I mean, the example that has come up in our talks a few years ago, Dakar in Senegal, they tried to issue a municipal bond to fund urban infrastructure. Just days before the issue, the national government just came in and sort of arbitrarily denied the issuance from taking place, right? This seems to be a reversal from the history you tell, which is that historically cities have been in a fiscally strong position relative to larger political units.

David: Depending upon the strength of the central political unit. I think that’s the thing is that in a lot of developing countries, even though they’re central states, bureaucracies are weaker than is the case in, say, a country like the UK. Nonetheless, they’re vastly stronger than the central state bureaucracies in medieval Europe or in other areas, where you would have an effect. City’s de facto having a certain degree of autonomy. So you’re absolutely right that the situation is it’s much less common to see free municipal borrowing in that same way today without limits.

Kurtis: Yeah. This is interesting because you mentioned that one of the reasons that city states in at least medieval Europe had an advantage in terms of borrowing was that they had a lot of merchants represented on the council’s governing them so that – Perhaps the involvement of the folks financing in the governing of that particular locality made it more amenable or conducive to giving a loan. Other than that reason, are there any other ways that you see to, I guess, return cities to a position of fiscal strength vis-à-vis higher tiers of government?

David: As in practical policy prescriptions for cities today?

Kurtis: Yeah.

David: Yeah. Well, I guess one of the questions is to – The extreme solution is to say you cannot borrow. You cannot issue your own debt. That, in a sense, can be unfortunate because it might be useful for a city to be able to borrow, to be able to fund its own projects longer term, and maybe the city has better information about what projects should be funded and which projects should not be funded, so rather than relying on central government handouts. Obviously, there are a lot of countries where municipal debt is an important thing. The US is an example where municipal debt is an important thing. Then the question becomes is there a way to make that sustainable without having the ultimate risk? That the Senegalese government would have been worried about, of course, is that if Dakar borrows a lot and then can’t repay, that there would be a presumption that the central government would have to step in.

Kurtis: Yeah. I guess just continuing on the cities vein. So in your paper, you’re discussing a bit before we started recording in the paper was, David, the role of urban autonomy in Europe’s rise. You essentially say that autonomous cities in medieval Europe, governed by these merchant guilds mostly, they lead to initially faster growth rates than non-autonomous cities. But the important caveat of the paper is you show that this faster growth sort of reversed itself after about 100 years. Why? What explains the reversal?

David: Yeah. We don’t know exactly, but there’s enough in terms of — First of all, I guess you’d say that’s an empirical finding is that we know if we’re looking at cities and we’re thinking about population growth as one of the best proxies we have for growth of the overall economy at that time, we do know that autonomous cities tended to grow at higher rates of population growth for about a century, compared to non-autonomous cities, a century from the date at which they established autonomy. After that century, that their rate of growth started to slow down and become slower even than that of the non-autonomous cities so that in the end, several centuries, hence, cities you can look at, like circa 1800, are the ones that had been autonomous, larger than the ones that had not been autonomous and no.

There’s this curve, and it seems so there’s this reversal of fortune, whereby initially they did well and then they didn’t. So one of the suggestions I think you could get, and I’ve tried to write a little bit about this in various places, is that initially that innovation requires new entrants, new firms, new people, new guild members, new what have you. That it could be that that ultimately was hindered, once cities became autonomous because their ruling councils tended to be captured by a specific set of people who were innovators for a time, but no one family remains at the peak of innovation forever. Ultimately, that could have stunted their growth. So it’s a mixed story about whether you considered urban autonomy to be a blessing ultimately for economic growth.

Kurtis: What I found I guess interesting as well, combining this paper with another paper you wrote, you suggest that I guess breaking this merchant control over autonomous towns by also including craft guilds in urban governance decisions actually results in lower growth. So I guess help us reconcile this because on the one hand was they have the right paper, kind of concentrated control over urban governance in the hands of these merchants, right? That significantly helped at first but then hurt after about a century. But on the other hand, more inclusive or participatory institutions, less concentrated control, including the craft guilds. This also hurt urban growth. So what’s the balance here?

I know I think like the craft – You can correct me if I’m wrong, but the craft guild revolts, and then craft guild political inclusion. That happened a bit after the merchants had gained political control over their cities. So does this timing line up such that this craft guild inclusion partly explains the lower growth rates?

David: Yeah. In Western Europe, you can think of broadly that cities become autonomous really depending upon the location in the 12th and 13th centuries. At some time after they become autonomous, generally there was a single guild, a merchant guild, which is established, succeeds in establishing control over the city council. Then what you have after about starting in about 1300 or so, for a period of 100 or 150 years, is there are a number of craft guild revolts in these cities. So the craft guilds are a lot of different guilds from all sorts of things often engaged in things like proto industrial work like producing various forms of textiles. Or it could be producing various forms of consumption goods but distinct from the merchant guild and that the merchants involved typically intercity trade.

The thing about that, which was interesting as you would think greater inclusion would help break up that merchant guild monopoly and that would be good for growth. But the weird thing is what happened with the craft guilds is the way in which inclusion happened to be implemented was such that you expanded the number of seats on the city council to include members of each craft guild or a number of craft guilds. Or maybe you didn’t expand the number of seats but you redistributed seats so that members of the craft guilds would have them. But they would each sort of have their own little bailiwick and be able to sort of control things. As a group then, the craft guilds tended often to be less favorable to entrance of new individuals from outside the city. So that’s what could get you that phenomenon paradoxically of even more capture, I guess, you would say, which would help to lead to the lower population growth, which is what exactly what we see. We see in cities that have a craft guild revolt that succeeded. There’s lower population growth than in cities, for example, that had a craft guild revolt that was attempted but that was unsuccessful.

Kurtis: Yeah. It’s interesting because it kind of ties into the literature around inclusive institutions, Acemoglu and Robinson’s famous thing being good for economic development. I guess your findings, obviously, say the opposite thing. So maybe try and explain this or reconcile those two divergent findings.

David: Yeah. Well, I think that the phenomenon we just spoke about with the craft guilds, I think what it’s pointing to is that the effect of political inclusion depends upon how society itself is organized. So let me draw a contrast. Say the period where  the expansion of the suffrage that Acemoglu and Robinson wrote about and that so many people have written about subsequently expansion of the suffrage in Western Europe in the late 19th century, in the early 20th century. That was now occurring in an environment where society was organized in a completely different way than had been the case in the medieval era in the cities. In the medieval era in the cities, a lot of people would have belonged to a guild or a corporation of some sort, and society was divided up that way.

By the 19th century, that had all gone out the wayside, and so you didn’t have people divided up into guilds or entities like that. You had political parties but were much more broad-based. So you could imagine that when there’s greater inclusion, greater inclusion has this effect of really opening things up, in particular when society is not divided up into these subgroups in the same way that it was in the medieval era.

Kurtis: I’m thinking even more modern times today in the US, for example, like you have a housing crisis in San Francisco. That’s a lot because the incumbents living in San Francisco are resistant to new folks coming in and buying new houses. Whereas compare that to Houston’s housing policy, Houston seem to be much more open to new entrants and less NIMBY about new entrants, so you can tie it in in that way as well. So I guess, yeah, depending on the local social groups and whether they’re resistant to new folks coming in, that affects outcomes.

David: Yeah, absolutely.

Kurtis: I wonder, is there anything to Mancur Olson’s sort of stationary bandit versus roving bandit theory at play here in these medieval cities that you were just talking about? I’m thinking if it was largely the merchants controlling urban governance in these autonomous cities, they’d have an interest in making the city thrive economically because they reap profits from their local businesses or investments, and then those investments also thrive. So this incentive perhaps made them govern a little more moderately, which allowed for things like this municipal bond issuance much earlier that you spoke about.

But I guess thinking that through, the question then becomes how do you then stop these merchants from erecting barriers to entry that you said stifle innovation later on, right? Yeah. First, do you think that the Olson kind of stationary versus roving bandit theory kind of applies here? Then second, were there any particular autonomous cities that you’ve looked at that were especially good at preventing ruling merchants from barring entry and impeding growth?

Kurtis: Well, I think some of the cities in the Low Countries in effect, what happened was there tended to be a lot of competition between cities to attract merchants, and this is something a great Dutch historian named Oscar Gelderblom, who’s written a book called Cities of Commerce that emphasizes this point. So that was one way in which this would happen is if – I mean, it’s a little bit like the stationary versus roving band analogous, the situation you’re talking to. Except in this case, rulers were staying put. But merchants would sometimes be sought to move elsewhere, and rulers wanted commerce. So that could make things more open in some cases than others. But it was a tricky business. I mean, sometimes I think it went one way and sometimes it went the other way.

Kurtis: Okay. I guess this leads us to the next topic pretty smoothly because you just mentioned, kind of, merchants being sought after or wanting to attract merchants to different cities. So let’s talk about exit options because you discuss it in the book. Can you just explain Robert Carneiro’s Circumscription Theory of early state formation that you discuss and how it ties into the emergence of early democracy?

David: Yeah. Carneiro’s theory, it’s a really famous article from 1970 and it’s a classic example of a sort of view of state formation and early state development that is definitely not voluntary. It’s not like, “Oh, these people got together and decided to form a state because it would be useful for everyone.” It was more of a question of who was extracting resources from someone else. What Carneiro suggested is that you get state formation more easily in early times in cases where people are circumscribed in terms of where they can move to, and that they can’t just take off and start doing their own thing elsewhere if they’re unhappy with the way a ruler is treating them. The classic example that everybody uses for that, of course, is the Nile Delta and Nile River Valley in ancient Egypt, where in essence there was a thin strip of land that was extremely fertile, and there wasn’t a place to move once the population got to a sufficient level of density. The prediction from that theory is that, well, okay, that allows a state to form where a state based it largely on an elite that extracts from everybody else, and everybody else sort of puts up with this because they don’t have anywhere else to go.

What I tried to do in the book is suggest something. A little bit draws on this same insight but suggests another option. It’s not like there’s just either a state or no state, but that there could be situations where people do have an exit option and that what that happens to do then is the exit option gives them a leg up on rulers in terms of what rulers are able to ask of them and extract from them because the ruler will have to know. These people can always get up and take off and just move elsewhere. Say if you’re in an area where there’s abundant agricultural land. Then what that could logically prompt a ruler to do is to have a more consultative collective, if you want to say a democratic form of governance, as opposed to the top down autocratic style of governance of the sort that you would have found in ancient Egypt under the Circumscription Theory.

Kurtis: Talking about political exit, that sort of ties into some of Jeffrey Herbst’s writing on African states. In his more famous book, States and Power in Africa, he basically suggests that in some instances, the national borders may have been drawn a little too rigidly, and that to prevent future conflict or humanitarian issues, it sometimes may make sense to look at or at least consider redrawing some of those borders, especially given the fact that a lot of them were drawn pretty arbitrarily by some white dudes in Berlin in the 1880s.

David: Right. In a very haphazard fashion.

Kurtis: Yeah. So I guess given your reading of the literature on exit options and how they shaped political development, are you, I guess, sympathetic to Herbst’s suggestion?

David: I don’t know if I – I mean, because it’s right that they were drawn in many cases totally arbitrarily. But it’s also right that like think of the process by which borders were sorted out in Europe, right? It was a really painful one where millions of people died, so ultimately in war. Yeah. If you could propose a second Berlin Conference that would actually be more concerned about the rights of Africans themselves, then that’s an interesting question. So there’s all this academic work on divided ethnic groups that were just split down the middle from one side or another.

There are also open cases. There are African borders that are actually real borders in the sense that there’s a barrier to crossing them in. There’s other places in more rural places where there’s all sorts of trade flows that happen, irrespective of the formal border existing. So I think it’s a little bit more nuanced sometimes than the way Herbst suggests. But, yeah, exactly following the exit option idea is that if you have any sort of institution that makes it more difficult for people to exit, then that potentially has a consequence on their level of the relative balance of power between them and a ruler.

Kurtis: Right. Moving on, so we had Erin McDonnell on the podcast. She’s a sociologist at Notre Dame. She’s studied pockets of bureaucratic effectiveness across the global south. One of her findings is that bureaucratic discretion is really beneficial in a lot of instances. We also had Yuen Yuen Ang on as well. She’s a political scientist at Michigan and she’s written that allowing the local Chinese bureaucracy a lot of autonomy has been a big factor in China’s rapid rise since 1978. But I bring this up because it sort of suggests a sort of trade off in the state capacity literature, right? This literature, by and large, focuses on whether a state bureaucracy is able to deliver and execute on government projects.

Your thesis is more – I’m sure state capacity matters, but it can actually be a bit of a Trojan horse if high state capacity arrives before local council governance is consolidated. So how do you think about this trade off? Because in the international development literature, at least right now, we never stop hearing about the importance of state capacity, and I guess you put an asterisk on that.

David: Yeah. No, exactly. I think it depends how – There’s a question of sequencing about whether – As I suggested in the book, I tried to say that if you have a sort of state bureaucracy that develops before any form of consultative governance, then it’s much harder to get consultative governance afterwards because the bureaucracy is there. It’s doing whatever. Whoever is in power, the bureaucracy is doing what they want. Whereas if you have some form of collective governance first at the local level at higher levels, then what you have then is you have a broader possibility for a ruler and population to sort of design and maintain a bureaucracy jointly so that you don’t get the bureaucracy. You’re just sort of serving one person’s interest.

So, yeah, state capacity is important to be able to do a lot of things. There’s no doubt about what what’s good about that. But it can in many cases and historically has in many cases been associated with a decline in the democratic character and the extent to which a society is governed democratically.

Kurtis: There are some autocratic governance where they allow for some semblance of local voice or local democracy but by and large remain pretty autocratic at the national level. So I guess how does this fit into your thinking? By way of example, I’m thinking about China instituting local elections in an attempt to give citizens a greater voice locally. The same thing was practiced a lot in African one-party states. We had Nick Cheeseman on the podcast last year. He talked about some one-party states, for example, under Daniel arap Moi in Kenya or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, allowing localities to vote, to retain or kickout local level politicians. In your thinking, is this just kind of a ploy for continued autocracy or competitive authoritarianism, as it’s sometimes called today? Or is this some sort of early democracy or transition? What are your thoughts?

David: I wouldn’t say it’s a – I don’t know. I think it’s too much to just say it’s a ploy. But people also shouldn’t expect that that naturally means, “Oh, we start off with these local elections,” or having, say, multiple candidates from the ruling party run against each other. Then the result of that is that we get democracy at the national level as well. I think that the best interpretation that I think a lot of political scientists would suggest for that is that we have this phenomenon of these elections happening at the local level because, ultimately, central rulers still have a need and a desire to obtain information about what people are thinking and how they think local officials are doing. So that’s a little bit like the –

Kurtis: Monitoring technology.

David: Right at the beginning of the podcast about people at the center needing information. So I think in any context, be it China, be it Kenya under Moi, that you still can have a need or that have a use of having these local level mechanisms of citizen input or election as a way of gathering information. So that’s why we see them, but it just doesn’t necessarily mean, no, because you have that, then you necessarily – That’s like the first step, and then you build towards democracy.

Kurtis: Yeah. I’m going to bring in a famous biologist. E.O. Wilson, he said – He has a great quote saying that human beings have the unique problem of having Neolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. I read that. I think it was a tweet some other day. At the same time, I was reading your book in preparation for the podcast, and it seemed to align with the sequencing problem laid out in your book. So I guess, given this sequencing problem, if you look into the future, if you have a crystal ball, how do you think about political institutions? Or how do you think rather political institutions will adapt to try and solve this sequencing problem? I’m thinking of, for example, legal scholars. Some of them recommend what they call soft law governance, where sort of a bunch of guidelines are collated and made public and transparent. Then some tech firms can choose the guidelines that make the most sense. This arrangement, they say, is able to much more quickly and adaptively keep up with rapidly changing technologies. So, yeah, I guess, what are the implications for the future of democracy when you have our current situation of these outdated, slowly changing laws and institutions on the one hand and then godlike, rapidly changing technology on the other?

David: Just think of our approach to antitrust in the United States or elsewhere in the growth of the big tech companies. When they were thinking about breaking up AT&T decades ago, there was a sort of standard model of when lawyers would suggest that there was an interest in breaking up this firm because of the monopoly power it had and what it was doing for consumers and how they’d be better off elsewhere. But now with these tech firms, we have a totally different – This has happened very, very quickly. I mean, it’s happened quickly and posed. People are posing these new questions about like, well, the old model for thinking about antitrust doesn’t necessarily work about what work if we’re thinking about these firms. So it’s very difficult to know what to do and how to do it, and we’re struggling.

I think it refers to precisely the sort of phenomenon you’re talking about, where the institutions and laws and things are struggling to keep up with the period of very rapid change. So I suppose the big question I’d ask is, is the change we’ve seen with regard to the social media landscape, say, is that something that sort of it was a one-time shift that was extremely important than you might think that the legal code and thought about antitrust could catch up eventually, and there’ll be new consensus or not? Or is it that this is just like there’s going to be the next qualitative leap will happen very quickly, and we’ll be even further behind? I think those are areas I’m not an expert at all in being able to predict whether that – Which scenario will happen. But I think that’s the question you’d need to ask. Because if you think it’s just a really big shock and the institutions need time to adapt, then you could think about this as something analogous to what happened with –

Kurtis: Progressive Era or something.

David:  and the Progressive Era and responding to new forms of industry and industrial combines and, say, eventually, they work that out in terms of thinking about how they should respond. So that would be the optimistic view, I suppose.

Kurtis: One of the quotes, and I’ll just read here, you write, “Trust in many of our institutions, our being the US, is at or near an all-time low. The trajectory of other failed democracies suggests that this is the point at which transitions to autocracy happen, and a deeper look at the history of democracy tells us that we may still have reason for optimism but only if we understand what’s allowed American democracy to survive, and that is continued investments to keep citizens connected with a distant state.”

Montesquieu was famously skeptical of larger republics for pretty much this reason, disconnection. Then I guess James Madison in Federalist Number 10 came along, which laid out why large scale republics could work. So I guess my question here is instead of investing to keep citizens connected to a distant state, why can’t we just have a less distant state, right? Why don’t we have a little Montesquieu and a little less Madison Federalist Number 10?

David: Yeah. So I suppose that the one idea then would be to decentralize things and have more local control over things that citizens care about. In a country like the US, actually we already do have a tremendous amount of local control, but there are ways in which that can work, but there’s also ways in that it can’t. One of the things is that if you make things so small, then you may be able to choose amongst yourselves within your own small little unit, but you’re going to be only a very small part of a larger world economy and you’re going to be subject to all these different external forces of which you have no control. So it’d be silly for individual cities to try to in that current environment for individual cities or states to want to have their own trade policy their or their own monetary policy or something like that. That’s one way why that sort of just making the state, bringing it closer to you sometimes isn’t as feasible.

I mean, I suppose the other thing is that there are issues in this country that people are very concerned about where you’re concerned about what’s happening to people of our political community in different areas, right? If you’re from New York State, people are worried of not just about racism in New York State but about racism and its consequences in Mississippi as well. So they wouldn’t want to just say that, “Well, okay. We can set the laws right to see what we can do to combat racism in New York and just let it happen elsewhere. So I think you’re right to say that, ultimately, we should look for these ways in which we could bring the state by making decision making and policy closer. But then there are ways in which it – There are limits to when that can be done, if that makes sense.

Kurtis: Yeah. I mean that this sort of like – The trade off with having less distance to this date is that you’re kind of subject with a smaller market. You have less access to a larger market, right? But I guess maybe the pushback to that a bit is it’s probably correct in Madison’s time when he wrote Federalist Number 10 and most of the time since. But I guess in the last few decades, with improvements in technology, perhaps it’s a little less right. I think maybe we are seeing that cities or metropolitan areas or regions, first, have the capacity to govern themselves. Second, if they do secure some political autonomy, or in some cases even outright independence, typically the immediate next step most take after securing that autonomy is linking themselves to some sort of economic super structure, like regional trade zones like the EU, for example, or ASEAN or something.

For example, like I’m Canadian. Quebec has threatened secession many times throughout our history. But every time they made it clear that if they attained the political autonomy, they were thinking they’d sort of integrate into NAFTA right away. I think the same thing happened in Basque or Catalonia and Spain, etc. So doesn’t this reality that at least we have in modern times that these kind of smaller units can like immediately tie themselves to larger economic superstructures? Doesn’t that help solve the larger market issue?

David: Well, yeah. It helps but also remember what that means then is to take the Quebecois example. That would mean that while you’re joining NAFTA, that means – Say you’re a Quebecois who thinks that globalization has gone too far, and you’d like to be able to control it. Well, then as soon as you say we’re continuing to or we’re going to participate in NAFTA, that’s agreeing up to a certain set of rules and procedures on trade openness that are going to limit your ability to respond. Now, you may think that’s a good thing on balance. I would think that’s a good thing unbalanced certainly for Quebec to be part of NAFTA, rather than trying to have its own trade policy. But it does limit your influence.

Kurtis: Yeah. Moving on I guess from that, so there are now full courses, I mean, in political science offered on democratic backsliding or democratic erosion. These are pretty recent offerings. I guess I see the big political cleavage these days between those sort of favoring technocracy or expertise and then those, on the other hand, favoring sort of populism. But it strikes me that sort of neither of these sides of the spectrum bode especially well for democracy. So if you accept my premise, if this continues to be the dominant cleavage, how do you think democracy will fare?

David: I think in a lot of countries, it’s coming back to a question about the level of trust in the Central State and the trust and confidence of the Central State to do the right thing, which the US is an extreme example in terms of how low trust in the federal government is. There are other societies that have this as well. So I do come back to the idea of if you think about what could rebuild this trust, then you wouldn’t have the risk of populism and you wouldn’t have people. Rather than say populism, I guess I’d say you wouldn’t have people throwing their lot in with demagogues like we’ve seen in some cases. So that’s a really important thing.

Then technocracy itself, yeah, I mean, a lot of people have a lot of ideas of how we should organize things. But ultimately, the whole point of democracy is not that it gives you like the smartest answer or have the smartest people directing policy. It’s that ultimately it’s something that people value sort of inherently because they have this desire to participate in the way that their society governs itself. So technocracy, sure, that could be an alternative but it’s not – I don’t know. A lot of people wouldn’t particularly like it I think.

Kurtis: Yeah. You mentioned trust, so I just wanted like – I think you mentioned this in the book or some something else. I was reading recently that citizens say they their trust towards local and regional governments is significantly higher than, like you said, for higher levels like the federal government or central agencies.

David: Yeah.

Kurtis: I was reading other things from like – I think these polls came from rich countries, and what was interesting is that in Africa, I believe it’s Afrobarometer data says that around – It’s almost 50% of respondents report that they trust their local government either a little or not at all, which is lower than any other sort of state institutions, except tax authorities, I think was the lowest. My thoughts on this sort of disparity between rich countries that you said and these poor ones is, and I want to know what you think about this, my thoughts are that in many or probably most African states, city governments have very little authority or sort of autonomy to actually do anything themselves without either explicit approval or significant fiscal transfers from the national level.

I mean, the argument is basically local government officials can’t do anything alone, so why would their urban residents trust them, right? Whereas the opposite is I think true of a lot of rich countries. You mentioned the US has a lot of local authority. So I guess what’s wrong with this argument?

David: Well, no. I think it might be right, and it’s exactly what I was going to say in response before you said it yourself. I mean, I think one of the questions is, first of all, do people realize. People probably don’t fully know what the local government can do and what it can’t in a lot of context, be it whether you’re talking about some African country or whether you’re talking about a country like the US. So you may be more unhappy if you don’t see the local government doing anything but you may not know that they can do anything. The pattern that certainly a lot of people have remarked on in sort of, and that’s from some of the same Afrobarometer data, is that the fraction of African respondents who know the name of their individual MP is much higher than is the fraction of American respondents who can identify their own member of Congress.

A lot of this implies that basically knowing who your MP is, that these MPs are doing a tremendous amount of constituency work, they have these constituency development funds in certain countries, and it’s almost like that’s the connection and that’s where things are working. So I guess that’d be – If we could go to Afrobarometer and say like what’s your level of confidence in your local government versus what’s the level of confidence in your MP, I don’t know if I could ask that question specifically, but that would be a really interesting one to look at, to see. My expectation would be that they have a higher level of confidence in the MP, and that might be because the MP can do more for them than the local government can.

Kurtis: Okay. Second to the last question here. I’m going to butcher the name, so you can correct me if I’m saying it wrong, but Henri Pirenne, his book Medieval Cities, kind of the go-to book for the development of early autonomous cities in Europe. What does he get most wrong about medieval cities?

David: Well, I don’t know. I think he got a lot of things. I mean, I think there were various quibbles that historians have about like the growth of cities and was it due to trade or when did it happen and so on. I think the things he get that have come out from his work that are no longer as seen as accurate. But if you look at I think the way he just –Having worked on autonomous cities, I’ve always been fascinated by the way he describes them. I remember back 15 years ago, I bought this book he wrote. It was a compilation of things called the Ancient Democracies of the Low Countries, and where he describes the pattern of municipal governance. It’s how it starts off, how they establish autonomy, and how the merchant guild tends to take control.

Then you have this question of whether the craft guilds come in as well and are given control or not. Sometimes, they are. Sometimes, they aren’t. Just the sort of description to that whole sequence I found absolutely fascinating and always have. So anyone who can write a book that 100 years later seems like a great read is – That’s pretty extraordinary.

Kurtis: I guess above and beyond Henri Perinne, you’ve looked into the medieval cities a lot, especially in Europe. What other book recommendations would you give in that area?

David: There’s so many one could give. I mean, I think the one historian I found the most fascinating on cities and representation in Europe is Wim Blockmans, B-L-O-C-K-M-A-N-S. He has a book that just came out on Dutch on this long trajectory of popular participation in Europe. He was telling me about it, but it’s written in Dutch, and I don’t read Dutch. But it’s getting translated into English, so I’d love to read that as soon as I can. I don’t know. Maybe you want to have him on your program or something like that because he’s quite an interesting character with a lot of thoughts.

Kurtis: Definitely. So last question, what’s your big next project that you’re working on, and when can we look forward to see it?

David: Well, I’m sort of toying around and thinking for the moment and working on some smaller projects that I hope will deliver and will generate something. A lot of the discussion in podcasts like this or elsewhere, people have asked questions about what’s the future of democracy, what’s happening to democracy today. So I have in mind, the back of my mind, a project on just historically what makes democracy resilient. That would go beyond what I talk about in the current book, but it’s still in gestation. We’ll have to see. We’ll have to see what happens, so no  as of yet.

Kurtis: Okay. With that, David Stasavage, thanks so much for joining us today. Appreciate it.

David: Thank you, Kurtis.

Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guests, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit Follow us on social media, @CCIdotCity on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

David Stasavage

David Stasavage on Twitter

David Stasavage on LinkedIn

The Decline and Rise of Democracy

Cities of Commercy

States and Power in Africa

Early Democracies in the Low Countries

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on Twitter

Charter Cities Institute on LinkedIn

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