Reform and Revolution in Weak States: Understanding the Tocqueville Paradox

3 June 2019 at 6 p.m.

Reform and Revolution in Weak States: Understanding the Tocqueville Paradox

by Scott Gehlbach, based on work with Evgeny Finkel

Throughout history, reform has provoked rebellion—not just by the losers from reform, but also among its intended beneficiaries. We present a theory of this phenomenon that emphasizes that, especially in weak states, reform often must be implemented by local actors with a stake in the status quo. In this setting, the promise of reform represents an implicit contract against which subsequent implementation is measured: when implementation falls short of this promise, citizens are aggrieved and more likely to rebel. We explore this argument with an extended analysis of Russia’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861—a fundamental reform of Russian state and society that paradoxically encouraged unrest among the peasants who were its prime beneficiaries. In addition, we examine the generalizability of our theory with brief narrative analyses of reform and rebellion in four important cases: the Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, land reform in ancient Rome, the abolition of feudalism during the French Revolution, and land reform in contemporary Latin America.

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