The Violence Trap: A Political-Economic Approach to the Problems of Development

Authors: Gary Cox, Douglas North, Barry Weingast

Published in The Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice (April 2019). Vol 34, No. 1, pp. 3-19.


Why do developing countries fail to adopt the institutions and policies that promote development? Our answer is the violence trap. The trap is set by the unavoidable interdependence of economic and political development. Key political reforms—opening access and reducing the risk of state predation—are typically feasible only when the domestic economy reaches a given level of specialization and integration (for reasons we specify); yet the economy typically can only reach the required threshold of development when key political reforms are already in place (for standard reasons). The trap entails violence because, as we show, the structure of unreformed polities (natural states) ensures poor adaptive efficiency. Following shocks to the distribution of military and economic power and bargaining to adjust to the shocks often fail among those with access to violence, due to the low economic cost of violence, asymmetric information, and commitment problems. Indeed, we show that violence is endemic in the developing world, with the median regime experiencing violent leadership turnover once every eight years. The trap is hard to escape because whenever overt violence breaks out, leaders seeking to restore order face an unspecialized economy, to which the best response is yet another unreformed polity. Indeed, the limits on access and rents characteristic of natural states are necessary to re-establish peace. Yet, these rents and limits also deter specialization, thereby keeping the economic costs of resorting to force low and ensuring that future bargaining will be in the shadow of viable military outside options.


Download paper