The Domestic and Historical Determinants of State Capacity

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 a 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 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 twist on the classic “warmaking-statemaking” thesis, I examine whether French Algerian citizens are more able to extract concessions — and thus expand state presence — in return for wartime military service compared to French Algerian subjects.

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 evolution of the popular imagination of sovereignty in 19th century America, a polity that began life with multiple sovereignties in the several states and gradually became a single national entity.


Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France.” 2020. American Journal of Political Science 64(4): 1001-1016. (with Nan Zhang)

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? Statebuilding in 19th Century America.” Working paper. (with Nan Zhang and Tilmann Herchenröder)

The centralization of authority is one of most of important aspects of political development. Sovereign authority exists when those that state purports to govern actually think of the state as sovereign. The state- and nationbuilding literature has argued that modernization and war explain this transformation, but these theories cannot easily be tested due to a lack of data on national sentiment. We surmount this problem through an innovative analysis of the United States. Over the course of the 19th century, Americans stopped thinking of the United States as comprised of multiple sovereign states and started thinking of it as a single sovereign entity. This transformation in the popular imagination of sovereignty is evident in the well-documented grammatical change in which the phrase “United States” shifted from a plural noun to a singular noun. We use this shift to test theories of modernization and war. We analyze two sources of data: newspapers between 1800-1899 and all Congressional speeches between 1851-1914. We link plural/singular usage to the characteristics of localities and, in the case, of Congressional speech, specific individuals and their birthplaces. Our preliminary results provide strong support for the centralizing effect of the Civil War, but for the winning side only. In contrast, we find little evidence to support the modernization arguments.

“Statebuilding and War in the French Colonial Empire.” Research in progress. (with Gabe Koehler-Derrick)

What explains the uneven reach and presence of the state over its territory? Bellicist theory argues that the Darwinian pressures of war compelled states to build institutions and extend state control to defend against conquest by their neighbors. However, scholars have long noted the limitations of the warmaking-statemaking thesis outside the context of Western Europe. We advance an important theoretical intervention in this debate by arguing that only in sovereign states did war lead to the expansion of the state. In sovereign states, mobilization is predicated on rewards for service.  In non-sovereign territories, the state has greater incentive to shirk, because subject populations are less able and likely to hold the state accountable. We test our argument using a subnational comparison of early 20th-century France, including Algeria, at the time an overseas department. We conduct a difference-in-differences analysis that leverages archival data on the mass mobilization of French citizens and Algerian subjects during World War I to explain variation in a range of local level measures of state presence. This project contributes to the scholarship on war and statebuilding by demonstrating the unequal role of wartime pressures in non-sovereign polities.

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