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Why die for the state? Read an English translation of the 2019 Prize announcement article

2019-04-02 by Li Bennich-Björkman, portrait by Anna Ileby

As per custom, the winner of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science is announced on the pages of the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet. The prize announcement article is penned by the sitting Johan Skytte Professor in Political Science and chair of the Skytte Prize Committee Li Bennich-Björkman. What follows is an English translation of the article.

Coercive power is not the sole province of dictatorships. A large measure of coercion also characterizes democracies, and then everything from the little village association to the nation state, from the European Union to the federation of the United States of America. Laws and rules enacted in the name of the collective must be followed, taxes must be paid so that the state can do things like paying doctors, teachers and social workers – and make sure the country can defend itself if attacked. But when the return has been sent to the National Tax Agency and people can see their tax bill in black and white, most people in Sweden do not feel that they have been robbed – on the contrary, there is a reluctant sense of satisfaction: I have done the right thing and therefore I also have the right to demand something in return. Voting is compulsory in some countries, school is compulsory in most, and a form of compulsory military service is now being reinstated in Sweden after a lapse since 2010. Yes, there were many young people in the past who left with a heavy heart for almost a year of military training, but their unwillingness was rarely based on an objection to the right of the state to demand this sacrifice, but instead on personal reasons, such as reluctance to leave the familiar behind, live with strangers, and put life on hold. The coercive power of the Swedish state has been perceived as legitimate by its citizens and thus, most have consented to be governed. But why?

The works of Margaret Levi, this year’s recipient of the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, have often revisited the legitimacy of coercive power, its characteristics and its origins, often in the guise of the state but also other collectives, primarily labor unions. Without what she calls quasi-voluntary compliance – i.e., consent to being governed, paying tax, and obeying laws that we do not always personally agree with or are involved in enacting – the state is certainly still possible, but as the experiences of many dictatorships show, the price of control is high. In the worst case, people have to be walled in, surveilled, bribed with bread and circuses – and the rulers are still never really secure. Revolt is always lurking around the corner. Consent makes it much easier to govern. Margaret Levi is awarded the prize for

“having laid the foundations of our understanding of why citizens accept state coercion, by combining theoretical acumen and historical knowledge.”

But as Margaret Levi argues in Consent, Dissent and Patriotism (1997) through a unique combination of mathematically based theory and comparative historical analysis, consent is always contingent. The book, which like Of Rule and Revenue (1988) is a key milestone in her long record of scholarly accomplishments, studies military service as the basis for unraveling the relationship between states and citizens, the people who with the introduction of democracy eventually evolve from subject to citizen. When the demand for larger armies increases, kings and princes can no longer rely on mercenaries or a temporary mustering of troops. Universal conscription is the answer, but it is a route that meets with astoundingly different responses within countries and between them. In France, it is easier to persuade young men to serve in the regions bordering on Germany than in some others. Because why should we die for the state? In Consent, Dissent and Patriotism Levi chooses to look at the relationship between the government and the governed from the citizens’ perspective, but in Of Rule and Revenue, as the title suggests, the perspective is that of the rulers and their approaches to squeezing as much tax revenue as possible out of the people without fomenting instability, unrest and, potentially, revolt.

The Johan Skytte Prize is being awarded for the 25th consecutive year. The ambition to reward the scholar who has made the most outstanding contribution to the field has led to its being dubbed the “Nobel Prize of Political Science.” Margaret Levi is currently the Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and is one of the many prizewinners who were trained and later conducted research at the most prominent American universities. The endeavor to promote originality and determination, the creative leap, and individual expression has created research and educational environments that have resisted ubiquitous tendencies towards conformism and group-think. The abiding question has been, “What is your argument?” The courage to stick your neck out and risk being wrong, to dare to disagree, is why American universities have since the Second World War gained an exceptional status that they enjoy to this day, in spite of certain worrisome signs in all fields of scholarship, not only political science. Margaret Levi is an integrated part of this vibrant intellectual culture.

To make progress in scholarly theory, one must peel away the layers and simplify, see the forest beyond the trees, and then loop back to complexity: add provisos, express the nuances, and complicate things. Margaret Levi is a master of the art of refinement. She does this against the backdrop of a rationalist school, which says people act with utility in mind and to achieve a goal. Starting from there, she has already caught sight, in her tour de force, Of Rule and Revenue, of the conditions under which rulers can collect more or less revenue – taxes – for the state. There have been many cunning tactics employed throughout history, such as tax farming in the Roman Republic, where the state used intermediaries who indebted themselves by paying the state in advance of collecting taxes from the provincials – and kept a little something for themselves.

As in her analysis of military service, Levi carves out a fairly complex model in which rulers maximize revenue collection subject to key constraints including their relative bargaining power and transaction costs. She takes her examples from the Roman Republic, early modern England and France, and 18th-century Britain when the income tax – by far the most lucrative tax for the state but also the most painful for the individual and thus particularly sensitive – was introduced. Margaret Levi would never have been able to make the familiar strange and fruitfully refine her theories in the way she does without her historical knowledge of other societies and other times, which sets her research utterly apart from merely theoretical exercises. That she moves in time and space gives her the opportunity to truly explore a shared phenomenon in many different cultural and social contexts.

Political science encompasses many different methodological approaches. The discipline is methodologically and theoretically multifaceted, perhaps too much so at times, unlike economics, which is dominated by a few current theories. What Levi practices is “analytical narrative” research, which successfully combines formal theory borrowed from economics with in-depth knowledge about countries, historically and in the present, underpinned by history as a discipline, by anthropology, and by comparative political science. The refinement of the formal theory is confronted with the complexity of reality, but that does not mean the singular things – the trees – are allowed to take over and blot out the forest. This makes Levi’s analyses relevant yet rigorous. She does not allow herself to be led astray or confused by the swarm of reality. In Analytic Narratives (1998), co-written with Robert Bates and others, Levi’s bridge-building methodological approach is illuminated from all sides. Unlike the comparative historical analysis that is also counted among the most fertile grounds of political science, analytical narrative begins with formal theory. But there are great similarities between them, and above all, both stress the importance of seeing the long timelines, not the snapshots. Levi’s efforts are devoted to creating empirical, not normative, theory. Accordingly, she is interested in generalizing as far as possible concerning when, how, and why the rulers can persuade the ruled to consent. How things should be – normative theory – does not interest Levi.

Groundbreaking research is often the result of a journey rather than a sudden stroke of genius. Somewhere along the way, things begin to move, a question is formulated, an answer given, but the question does not depart. It is asked again in a new way and new answers begin to appear. The concept most closely associated with Margaret Levi is “quasi-voluntary compliance,” a concept and understanding of the relationship between coercive power and the individual that emerges in her work. It is, she argues, what most people do every day in democratic states and arises from a combination of how the rulers are regarded, whether they are considered fair, whether decision-making procedures are relatively open and inclusive, and whether people believe that others consent and are also doing the right thing. Inclusive procedures, fair outcomes, and that others are in the same boat are what make us willing to submit: to pay our taxes, send our children to school and, in the worst of times, to actually die for the state.

What happens when consent flips to its opposite and becomes revolt?

When things begin to fall apart, it often happens fast. Examples from today’s world – the massive protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev in 2014, a signal that consent was exhausted, the yellow-vest actions in Paris that are troublingly pointing in the same direction – show that what Levi has been working with is, by any standard, a vital reality that is always current. Revolts arise when some or all of the factors that have encouraged consent crumble and, I hasten to add, the shadow of an alternative can be seen on the periphery – as during the Arab Spring that began in 2011, the French Revolution in 1789, the October Revolution in 1917, or the Orange Revolution in 2004. If there is no alternative, citizens easily end up in a void, in a state of powerlessness where legitimacy does not exist, and revolt is thought pointless. The gray and stagnant decades of the 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union and its satellite states were such a state of affairs. How the process when a “crowd” begins to move from one point to another begins is a mystery, although it can be described in terms of tipping points and thresholds that have been reached. Social mass movements are another of the many fields of research encompassed in political science and not one to which Levi has actively contributed. But what a master of refinement like Levi has accomplished is to peel away the familiar to reveal the puzzle that can also be formulated as its opposite: why do we consent to be governed? Why do we refuse to consent for even one more day? Ultimately, this is what the entire relationship between the state, society, institutions, and individuals is all about.

On behalf of the Prize Committee, Li Bennich-Björkman