The Domestic and Historical Determinants of State Development

Publications | Working papers | Research in progress

International statebuilders often attempt (and fail) to engineer outcomes that took today’s consolidated states centuries to achieve. What are the domestic and historical processes of state development? How did today’s strong states develop? What lessons does the historical record of state development hold for the research and practice of international statebuilding?

My research in this theme examines different aspects of state development: the capacity of state institutions, the enforcement of rules and regulations, the reach of the state over its territory, and the popular imagination of sovereign authority.

Scholars agree that state capacity is essential for (but not the sole determinant of) the effective exercise of state power. I show that a particular kind of state capacity, legibility (or information capacity), allows the government to curb free-riding in collection action dilemmas by facilitating monitoring and enforcement. As part of that project, I developed and released new state capacity data that capture legibility.

States enforce rules and regulations, tax their populations, and provide public goods. Yet the enforcement of state regulations and the very presence of the state across its territory is highly uneven. What explains this variation? One line of inquiry focuses on interactions between state bureaucrats and the citizens whose behavior the state seeks to regulate. In an award-winning study of 19th century France, I uncover an economic efficiency explanation: literacy in the language of state administration lowers the transaction costs of interacting with the state and its regulatory apparatus. In an interdisciplinary, ongoing study of Meiji Japan, I focus on the bureaucrats themselves, investigating whether principal-agent problems of control drive patterns of uneven enforcement. And in a study of French Algeria, I show that French Algerian subjects are systematically disadvantaged in their ability to extract concessions — and thus gain access to the welfare state — in return for wartime military service compared to French Algerian citizens.

What makes a state a state is not simply the existence of differentiated governance institutions, but also whether those who the state purports to govern actually think of the state as sovereign. In new work, I explore the effect of war on the ideational foundations of sovereignty. I show that the Civil War strengthened the popular imagination of sovereignty in 19th century America, a polity that began life with multiple sovereignties in the several states and a single national entity, but only among the victorious ideologues of the North.


Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France.” 2020. American Journal of Political Science 64(4): 1001-1016. (with Nan Zhang) 
Winner of the American Political Science Association European Politics and Society Section 2020 Best Article Award.

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. This aspect of state capacity and state power is predicated on frequent and dense encounters between the state and the population it seeks to control. We argue that literacy in the language of state administration facilitates state-society interaction by lowering the transaction costs of those encounters. We support this claim with evidence drawing upon detailed historical data from 19th century France during a crucial period of state- and nation-building. Focusing on the specific domain of French marriage regulations, we find that increasing literacy predicts greater popular involvement with local authorities across French regions over time. These results demonstrate that literacy plays an important role in political development not solely by enhancing loyalty to the state, as the literature has recognized, but also by lowering cognitive and linguistic barriers to state-society interaction.

Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity.” 2017. Journal of Politics 79(1): 118-132. (with Nan Zhang)

Recent research in political science has stressed the importance of the state in curbing violence and promoting social and economic development, resulting in an explosion of interest in the foundations of state capacity. This paper argues that state capacity depends in part on “legibility” – the breadth and depth of the state’s knowledge about its citizens and their activities – and that legibility plays a crucial role in effective, centralized governance. We illustrate the importance of legibility through a novel argument that links legibility to the state’s role in curbing free-riding in collective action dilemmas. We then demonstrate this argument in the context of tax contributions to public goods using an original measure of legibility based on national population censuses. The paper concludes by discussing how future research may leverage our indicator’s exceptional temporal and geographic coverage to advance new avenues of inquiry in the study of the state.

Taking the State Back Out: Statehood and the Delivery of Collective Goods.” 2014. Governance 27(4): 635-654. (with Gregor Walter-Drop and John Wiesel)

State-building is a central tenet of many current development efforts. This primacy of the state rests on a global normative script that emphasizes the role of the modern state in providing collective goods and services from security to education to health. We analyze state performance in six dimensions of service delivery in a cross-sectional sample of more than 150 countries. In addition to exploring the explanatory power of statehood, we examine various control variables and also analyze whether external actors affect the delivery of collective goods and services. The core finding of this article is that there is remarkably little evidence of a consistent relationship between statehood and service delivery. This result casts doubt on the conventional wisdom about the centrality of the state for the provision collective goods and services, and suggests that other factors may explain the observed variation.

See our response to Peters and Pierre.

“From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th Century America.” Working paper. (with Nan Zhang and Tilmann Herchenröder)

Contestation over the structure and location of final sovereign authority — the right to make and enforce binding rules — occupies a central role in political development. Historically, war often settled these debates and resulted in the institutionalization of the victor’s vision of sovereignty. Yet sovereign authority requires more than a set of institutions; it ultimately rests on the recognition and acceptance of the governed. How does war shape the popular imagination of sovereignty? Does war promote ideational convergence around the victor’s ideals, or does it polarize and harden attachments to competing visions of sovereignty? We explore the effect of warfare on imagined sovereignty in the United States, a case where the debate over two competing visions of sovereignty culminated in violence during the American Civil War. We exploit the grammatical shift in the “United States” from a plural to a singular noun as a measure of how sovereignty is imagined, drawing upon two large textual corpuses: newspapers between 1800–1899 and all Congressional speeches between 1851–1899. Our results indicate that war shapes the popular imagination of sovereignty, but for winning partisans only.

“War and Welfare in the French Colonial Empire.” Working paper. (with Gabe Koehler-Derrick)

A distinguishing feature of the modern state is the broad scope of social welfare. However, this remarkable expansion of public assistance was characterized by huge spatial and temporal disparities. What explains the uneven expansion in the reach of social welfare? Building on previous scholarship which highlights the role of veterans benefits and the expansion of public goods provision in the aftermath of conflict, we argue that social welfare expansion depends in part on the ability of the governed to compel the state to provide rewards in return for military service. In colonial states, subjects faced a bargaining disadvantage relative to citizens living in the colony; consequently, they were less likely to win concessions from the state for their wartime sacrifices. We test this argument in the context of early 20th century French Algeria, an overseas departement that played an important role in contributing soldiers — citizens and subjects alike — to the French military. We compare levels of spending on social services before and after World War I using fine-grained archival and geospatial data and a difference-in-differences design. Our preliminary results reveal that social welfare spending expanded less extensively in communes where the French subject share of the population was greater. We then show that wartime burdens among citizens drive the differential increase of state services. This paper contributes to the statebuilding literature by suggesting that, instead of a European norm and a colonial exception, a more fruitful distinction in state development is more fundamental: the differential ability of the governed to bargain with the state.

The Politics of False Statistics: Building the Modern State in Meiji Japan. Research in progress. (with Fabian Drixler and Reo Matsuzaki).