The Strange Absence of the State in Political Science
It is a curious fact that in contemporary American political science, very few people want to study the state, that is, the functioning of executive branches and their bureaucracies. Since the onset of the Third Wave of democratizations now more than a generation ago, the overwhelming emphasis in comparative politics has been on democracy, transitions to democracy, human rights, ethnic conflict, violence, transitional justice, and the like. There is of course interest in stability, but primarily as the absence of violence and conflict. Studies of non-democratic countries focus on issues like authoritarian persistence, meaning that the focus still remains the question of democracy in the long run or democratic transition. In other words, most people are interested in studying political institutions that limit or check power—democratic accountability and rule of law—but very few people pay attention to the institution that accumulates and uses power, the state.
The relative emphasis on checking institutions rather than power-deploying institutions is evident in the governance measures that have been developed in recent years. There are numerous measures of the quality of democracy like the Freedom House Freedom in the World and Polity IV measures, as well as newer ones like the Varieties of Democracy project led by Michael Coppedge, John Gerring et al. What we do not have is a good measure of Weberian bureaucracy—that is, the degree to which bureaucratic recruitment and promotion is merit-based, functionally organized, based on technical qualifications, etc. One of the only studies to attempt to do this was by Peter Evans and James Rauch back in 2000, but their sample was limited to 30-odd countries and produced no time series data. There is also a proprietary cross-country measure, the Political Risk Service’s Group (PRSG) International Country Risk Guide, but because it is proprietary we don’t really know what goes into it. Several of the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators purport to measure state aspects of state capacity (government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and stability and absence of violence, control of corruption), but these are aggregates of other existing measures and it is not clear how they map onto the Weberian categories. For example, does a good absence of violence score mean that there is effective policing? I suspect that there isn’t much street crime in North Korea. (There are similar problems with the Bank’s internal CPIA scores.)