Book Project

hollowing out the state

In places as different as the US and India, efforts are underway to weaken the administrative apparatus of the state: a phenomenon that I refer to as hollowing out the state.  It is a deliberate strategy of weakening the government’s ability to function in order to achieve ends that elites are unable to achieve through democratic channels.

The phenomenon of institutional weakening is not new to comparative politics scholars. Research like Brinks, Levitsky and Murillo’s recent volume on Latin America illuminates these dynamics in developing world contexts. But the sudden emergence of this phenomena in contexts like the US—long-standing democracies with robust governing capacity—raises interesting questions.

Research on capacity in the advanced industrial countries casts state-building as a slow moving and historically contingent process that occurred over centuries in response to warunderlying resource endowments, and through strategic choices made at pivotal moments.  A state’s ability to raise taxes plays a central role in this literature. This is because in order to be able to tax, states need to know where you live, how much you make, and be able to shake you down. The ability to extract creates a bureaucratic infrastructure that the state can deploy for other purposes. Importantly, in these places, the advent of strong bureaucratic capacity pre-dated mass electoral politics, and continues to be something we take for granted every day.

While we know a lot about where state capacity comes from and why it matters, the current moment is pushing us to ask a different question: to paraphrase Levistky and Ziblatt– how does  state capacity die?

In the main theoretical chapter I describe what hollowing out the state looks like. I shift the analytical focus of the studies of state capacity from state-building to state-wakening and discuss how state-capacity can be weakened deliberately and rapidly. I distinguish hollowing out from other types of institutional decline. I offer a theory of where we are likely to observe hollowing out. I argue that an identity cleavage called social-status mediates the relationship between income and preferences for state capacity. In societies with hereditary ranked distinctions between groups — with some individuals ranked as “high-status” and others as “low-status” at birth —  the rise of lower-status group in politics not only portends a redistribution of income, but also a desegregation of public goods and spaces. Facing the specter of desegregation, wealthy upper-status elites are able to persuade poor high-status members into anti-redistribution coalitions. Such coalitions enable elites to weaken state capacity in order to prevent future redistributive taxation.

Studying institutional weakening is a challenge as places with historically weak institutions likely suffer from weak institutions in the present day. In order to demonstrate hollowing out in action, I study this phenomenon from a historical perspective. In the first empirical chapter, I demonstrate how social-status shaped cross-class coalitions by studying taxation and state capacity in colonial Indian provinces around a quasi-exogenous historical moment– India’s first franchise expansion. I used Colonial era records to develop novel micro-level measures of land tax collection, tax avoidance, and the size of the tax bureaucracy. I find that tax collections as well as tax capacity declined after franchise expansion in the districts with higher levels of inter-caste status inequality. Importantly, status-inequality between castes rather than land inequality or ethnic fragmentation explained the decline in tax institutions.

In the second empirical chapter, I test the external validity of my argument beyond the Indian case. I examine the historical legacies of slavery and Reconstruction on taxation at the county-level in the American South (using data collected for a co-authored paper with Steven White). In order to measure taxation and tax capacity, we use census data from 1860-1880 to develop county-level measures of tax collection and age-heaping. I find that the end of the Civil War was associated with an increase in taxation under an occupying North in counties where there were greater numbers of emancipated former slaves. However, after Reconstruction ended, the same counties were more likely to see a weakening of taxes as white “Redeemers” attempted to roll back institutional changes. Moreover, higher intrawhite economic inequality was associated with lower taxes and lower bureaucratic quality in the post-Reconstruction era in counties with more enslaved people and slaveholdings. These results suggest that Southern elites could successfully build cross-class coalitions against taxation in places where whites were more threatened by desegregation and sought to protect their racial status.

In the third empirical chapter, I use contemporary survey data and I show that both wealthy and poor upper castes exhibit more anti-redistributive views in places with greater historical caste-based status inequality. The chapter provides evidence for the claim that cross-class solidarities emerge in places where the status dominance of groups is threatened.

In a concluding theoretical chapter I attempt to define social-status, describe its salient features, and explain why identities such as class and ethnicity are insufficient for explaining politics in some contexts. I use examples across the world to show where it emerges, and how it comes to shape redistributive outcomes such as tax capacity, public good preferences, and vote choice.