Review: Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan

Birth of the LeviathanAs I slowly work my way through my final assignments of the quarter, today I am relieved to say that I have finished one more, my book review for Kathy Thelen’s institutions class.  I chose to read Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan, an interesting and well written book on the development of political institutions in early modern western Europe.

In the spirit of holding to my now nearly established tradition of posting my work up on this website, find below the introductory section of my rather drawn out review.  As always, if you’re interested in reading the whole thing, drop me a line.

Update 11/25/08: [Much to my surprise, there has been some interest in this review, so I am now providing it in full.  Feedback is always appreciated.]

Review: Birth of the Leviathan by Thomas Ertman

Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan is one of the most ambitious works yet seeking to explain institutional variations in state development.  Taking on the tremendous challenge of describing the emergence and development of European states from the fall of the Roman Empire up until the French Revolution, he largely succeeds in situating this millennia and a half of historical data in a plausible theoretical framework.  This complex yet parsimonious and compelling account of early modern state building treads on familiar territory for historical institutionalists previously paved by writers such as Otto Hintze, Charles Tilly, Michael Mann, Brian Downing, and Perry Anderson by focusing on both the important effects of war and economic pressure on state development.  Yet Ertman breaks new ground in his argument that there is no necessary bond between the emergence of absolutist states and proto-modern bureaucracies but rather that the sequencing of historical events has a critical impact on the particular coupling of “political regimes” and “state apparatuses.”  Additionally he contends that the lessons of European state building he illustrates can be generalized to modern cases in both the post-colonial world and post-communist Eastern Europe.

Drawing on the language of critical junctures and historical sequencing, his work falls squarely in the realm of path dependence defined by James Mahoney as “specifically those historical sequences in which contingent events set into motion institutional patterns or chain events that have deterministic properties” (Mahoney 2000, 507).  That is to say that historical processes may become self-reinforcing over time by means of positive feedback such that they becoming increasingly costly to change.  Having accepted this research frame, however, Ertman’s work is vulnerable to at least two important critiques.  First, by asserting that historical outcomes are path dependent, he may be charged with developing an overly deterministic model which fails to account for institutional change and instability within cases.  Secondly, if these outcomes are indeed contingent on the historical conditions he identifies, its translation to the modern world is problematic at best.  This review will therefore provide a brief summary of Ertman’s argument and relevant variables in order to frame the discussion and examine this piece as path dependent analysis.  It will then question and critique his account of institutional development as well as examine the relevance and generalizability of this work beyond early modern Europe.  I find that although the degree of historical contingency and specific case detail which Ertman incorporates into his analysis allows him to circumvent the potential pitfalls of a deterministic path dependent research program and account for cases of regime-apparatus instability in times of institutional flux, this sharply curtails the appropriateness of his theory as a model for modern state building.

The most valuable contribution Ertman makes to the literature is in his substantial challenge to previously accepted models of early modern political development which link absolutist “regimes” with bureaucratic “apparatuses” and constitutional regimes with its absence.  His cases reveal that four distinct combinations were developed in Europe in this period: patrimonial absolutism, bureaucratic absolutism, patrimonial constitutionalism, and bureaucratic constitutionalism in Latin Europe, major German States and Denmark, Poland and Hungary, and Britain and Sweden respectively.  These distinctions matter not only in terms of providing more accurate typologies by which to categorize states but because they highlight the crucial impact of particular historical conditions which lead to their emergence.  In his estimation three variables matter in determining these outcomes: the character of local governance in the first centuries after state formation, the timing of the onset of sustained geopolitical competition, and the “independent” influence of strong representative assemblies on administrative institutions (Ertman 1997, 6).

The first variable is critical in determining whether the state in question tends toward an absolutist or a constitutional type political regime.  Projecting his analysis back to the residual governing institutions of the crumbled Roman Empire, Ertman argues that those areas which were most penetrated by Roman administration tended to maintain the privilege of landed nobility which in turn highly fragmented political control.  Emerging powers which sought to consolidate their hold on the divided heart of the old empire were thus encumbered by the entrenched regionalized power of these elite forcing them to “rebuild state authority from the center outward” (Ertman 1997, 23-24).  Faced with such engrained opposition to their control, new ruling houses also made extensive use of loyalty to the church, helping develop both feudal hierarchies and the tripartite class organization of society so familiar in the paradigmatic French absolutist rule.  By contrast, state builders in the old Roman periphery were confronted by already established systems of participatory local rule which had been disrupted by the breakdown of the empire.  This tended to privilege a territorial division of governmental authority, allegedly more cooperative state building, and the rise of regional representative assemblies (Ertman 1997, 24-25).

The second variable is important in that it challenges the standard contention in the bellicist literature, most notably in Charles Tilly’s Capital, Coercion, and European States, that the pressures of geopolitical competition are a historical constant (Tilly 1992).  Rather Ertman contends that the particular timing of the onset of sustained geopolitical competition has differentiable effects, most notably in the pressures it exerts on states to construct durable administrative apparatuses.  His most basic argument is that although geopolitical competition forced states to “construct larger and more specialized administrative and fiscal apparatuses in order to increase their military capabilities,” they could only do so by drawing from the resources and expertise available to them at the time (Ertman 1997, 26-27).  One would then expect, lacking the accumulation of specialized expertise in governmental, military, and fiscal administration, that states confronting early onsets of geopolitical competition would necessarily build their state apparatuses on patrimonial models, while states facing such pressures at later points would take the bureaucratic path.  However this appears only to be the case for absolutist states (Ertman 1997, 26-27).  Constitutional regimes, however, follow a less determinate logic.  Britain, facing early competition, developed a protomodern bureaucracy with the empowerment of Parliament in the Seventeenth Century, while Poland and Hungary facing late competition post-1450 resisted the move to bureaucratic governance apparently due to the entrenched power of regional elites secured by their respective constitutional assemblies (Ertman 1997, 30-31).  It clearly follows that Ertman’s third factor, the independent effect of parliaments, is key to explaining deviation from the otherwise structurally logical yet unrealized outcomes of British preservation of patrimonial administration and Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Danish adoption of bureaucratic constitutional models (Ertman 1997, 29).

These counterintuitive results point to the importance of path dependence, namely the increasingly powerful effect of parliamentary governance in restraining monarchical absolutist power.  Similarly, path dependence is critical to understanding the failure of patrimonial states to reform their modes of administration by switching to the apparently more efficient and efficacious proto-modern bureaucratic model.  Indeed, in facing geopolitical competition, supportive complex bureaucracies are essential for the execution and maintenance of modern warfare.  They ensure more optimal and efficient distribution of resources, depend less on support from the personalities and coffers of landed elites, and offer greater rationalized administration of the state and military than patrimonial alternatives.  Warfare in turn is deemed necessary for survival in a system in which states are constantly threatened by their neighbors.  Given the clear benefits of bureaucratic administration, it is difficult to justify the continuous failure of states to choose to bureaucratize if they were so concerned with their existential security absent some systemic impediment.  Several alternative explanations can be suggested here ranging from the identification of simple collective action problems to power-interest models crediting administrative stasis to the embedded interests of particular players in the patrimonial system.

Although these approaches are plausible, they cannot explain why, when reformers did attempt to introduce bureaucratic reforms, they merely reflected old practices employed by “new faces.” Ertman’s answer, simply put, is that institutions of patrimonial rule are largely self-reinforcing.  While they do generate both collective action problems and create a space for embedded interest in perpetuating a flawed system, these are effects rather than causes of patrimonial rule.  Here Pierson offers useful insight into such conceptual roadblocks to political change remarking, “Because political reality is so complex and the task of evaluating public performance and determining which options would be superior are so formidable, such self-correction is often limited” (Pierson 2004, 41).

Case in point, Colbert’s efforts to reform the French regime’s highly irrational system of selling of public offices and, in turn, exploiting the holders of these positions to raise public funds merely amounted to a reformulation of the same system yet privileging different elite personalities.  Although these moves temporarily brought greater stability to French finance and governance, it could not survive the ultimate trial of interstate war.  This process of “rationalization” of “irrationalization,” while obviously flawed to the outside observer, appeared to be the only option available in the absence of state capacity to independently collect revenue (Ertman 1997, 126, 33).  In short, bureaucratization was precluded by the relative political and economic strength of the nobility over the administrative center made ever more potent given positive feedback effects which make deviation from this system increasingly costly over time.  Indeed, Ertman argues, “It was not absolutism, but rather the end of absolution that brought about the modern state of France.”  To break path dependence, complete social and political revolution was apparently necessary (Ertman 1997, 140).

Ertman does not fall into the conceptual trap, however, of arguing that such shocks must necessarily be exogenous in nature.   This implicit argument is quite familiar in the institutionalist literature in the rational choice, sociological, and historical institutional approaches alike.  Insofar as the purpose of institutions is seen to perpetuate stable social arrangements, whether that stability rests on the logic of institutional equilibria, culture or routinized myth and ceremony, or determinate historical conditions, the impetus for change must come from without (Dobbin 1994; Meyer and Rowan 1977; Shepsle 1989; Weingast 2002; Zysman 1994).  Rather he recognizes in line with Streeck and Thelen that “the practical enactment of an institution is as much part of its reality as its formal structure” such that institutions are the sites of ongoing contestation as “actors try to achieve advantage by interpreting or redirecting institutions in pursuit of their goals, or by subverting or circumventing rules that clash with their interests” (Streeck and Thelen 2005, 18-19).  This was certainly the case with Colbert’s attempt to reform the France’s management of its finances.  Yet these conditions also clearly generated substantial incentives not to fundamentally overhaul the system, but to continue to play within the basic structure of game by way of more strategic patrimonialism.  This is difficult to explain outside of the logic of path dependence as the French absolutist regime collapsed from the inside out despite such seemingly genuine efforts at reform.  The external variable of interstate warfare merely serves as the final tipping point to expose the rotted roots of the compounded administrative failures of generations of mismanagement, growing elite distrust of the political center, and mounting debt and fiscal insolvency (Ertman 1997, 142).

This raises the question however of why such self-reinforcing dynamics of patrimonialism were not at work in the English case.  Although Ertman categorizes England as a bureaucratic constitutionalist state, this is an image of the end product rather than an accurate depiction of the constant character of the country over a millennium.  While it is fairly easy to accept the conditioning effect of representative local governance on the central state, a deterministic account of the development of the state apparatus is not as convincing.  If we take his claim seriously that proto-modern bureaucratic administration is only possible under conditions of widespread literacy and higher education, than we must understand that England, like France, only could have developed a bureaucratic administration after some later critical turning point.  Given that both states faced early onsets of geopolitical competition, it logically follows that both were forced to adopt patrimony for lack of better alternatives.  Yet as the Polish and Hungarian cases further demonstrate, the existence of a constitutional regime is insufficient to guarantee a shift to bureaucratic administration and may in fact reinforce existing patrimonial tendencies (Ertman 1997, 300).

Ertman is able to account for this outcome in the English case by pointing to the independent constraining effects of Parliament on the monarchy particularly following the Glorious Revolution in 1689 (Ertman 1997, 208).  Indeed, the restraining role of Parliament appears in his analysis to become self-reinforcing and the body itself progressively more powerful after these critical junctures.  At first glance, it would seem that once the assembly had succeeded in restraining the approbationary methods of the monarchy in raising state funds as early as 1298, the two branches of government only grew ever more interdependent (Ertman 1997, 175).  Yet it is problematic to characterize this positive reinforcement of Parliament as persistently self-perpetuating given Ertman’s detailed description of the markedly decreased and inconsistent influence the assembly had over the king during periods absent constant interstate conflict.  Indeed, under James I and Charles I as well as earlier during the reigns of Henry VI to Henry VIII patrimony experienced significant if temporary resurgence (Ertman 1997, 171-85).  In all cases Ertman argues that Parliament proved unable to check these tendencies such that, not unlike in France, some form of governmental revolution was required to constrain patrimonial practice.  The degree to which the English state’s development of bureaucratic constitutionalism was as deterministically path dependent as those which developed patrimonial absolutism is then questionable at best.

The only other case that fits the constitutional bureaucratic type in Ertman’s study is Sweden with its variably significant Riksdag.  Yet this state’s development, conditioned by the late onset of geopolitical competition with a king whose administration seems in the narrative to have been directly responsible for much of the bureaucratization of the state, would appear to provide a strained comparison with England at best (Ertman 1997, 312-13).  His other hard case, Denmark, demonstrates similar institutional instability.  Although a patrimonial constitutional regime prior to geopolitical competition, foreign-induced changes in administration and in noble prerogatives progressively undermined previously autonomous political communities and gradually yet dramatically transformed the state into a bureaucratic absolutist regime (Ertman 1997, 307-10).  If the English example somewhat challenges the determinacy of path dependent analysis, these cases would seem to reject the frame almost entirely.

It would seem then, that those states which eventually adopted bureaucratic constitutional regimes in fact progressed along fragile and inherently unstable paths.  Without the intermittent intervention of Parliament in domestic crises thanks to the weakness of the monarchy in the English case or the concerted efforts at institutional design attempted by King Gustav in the Swedish case, both would have seemed liable to slip into more patrimonial models of administration.  Moreover, the Danish case illustrates that the character of the regimes in question remain susceptible to the influence of external players no matter their degree of domestic legitimacy or complexity of administration.  Arguably the particular roles of these actors within their respective states may be in large part conditioned by institutional legacies and geopolitical pressures, but they are clearly not determinate.  Rather the final institutional coupling of political regime and administrative apparatus in each case appear to be at least partially contingent on factors which cannot be easily predicted by Ertman’s three variables namely the outbreak of domestic and international crises.  These have clearly served as “corrective” critical junctures which have either dramatically shifted the pattern of state development as with the invasion of Denmark by Sweden or helped empower domestic actors with an embedded interest in particular institutional arrangements as with parliamentarians following the English civil war and Glorious Revolution.

The model of European state building identified by Ertman can thus be seen as a form of path dependent change but the stability of that path is clearly contestable.  This is not to say that this evaluation points to any fundamental methodological flaws in the work.  Rather it indicates that Ertman is well aware of the conceptual limitations presented by the basic application of path dependent analysis.  While path dependence then informs his macro conception of European state development, this understanding is augmented by the presentation of more complex narratives which describe the mechanisms by which institutions are developed and reproduced.  As a methodological model, it would seem that Ertman has benefited, if unintentionally, from Thelen’s insight that institutions are themselves the objects of ongoing political contestation by political actors who are dissatisfied with the status quo (Thelen 2004, 31).  Rather than accepting simplistic arguments critiqued here that path dependence produces some form of institutional “lock-in,” Thelen insists that survival of institutions is contingent not on “the faithful reproduction of those institutions as originally constituted, but rather on their ongoing active adaptation to changes in the political and economic environment in which they are embedded” (Thelen 2004, 293).  It is clearly this frame highlighting the complexity of institutional reproduction rather than a more delimited approach focused merely on self-perpetuating conditions of institutional emergence which can account for England’s internal struggle with patrimony and its ultimate achievement of a bureaucratic constitutional state as well as the even more indeterminate outcomes observed in Sweden and Denmark.

Having accepted this fairly significant degree of historical contingency and ongoing internal political contestation, however, one must question Ertman’s proposition that his work holds some value for emerging states in the modern era.  His message for state builders is that “it is the combination right from the state of a strong center and strong, participatory localities which, over the long run, will best permit states to balance the demands of infrastructural expansion, political participation, economic growth, and geopolitical competition” (Ertman 1997, 324).  As a summary of the critical conclusions of his book, this statement makes fairly good sense.  Yet as a policy proposition, he seems to neglect the very strong point he has made throughout the work that developing states are strongly affected by the particular historical and structural conditions under which they find themselves (Ertman 1997, 318-19).  For instance, if those rulers who constructed patrimonial systems of administration prior to 1450 did so because the proper inputs were not available to seek bureaucracy and those who failed to develop bureaucratic apparatuses post-1450 did so because conditions within their own states developed over several centuries effectively structurally precluded this strategy, why would the states of today be any more free to select their generative conditions?

The large body of work which has developed discussing both postcolonial and post-Soviet state building has been unequivocal in arguing that all of these states are “encumbered” by their previous forms of administration in which there is a distinct absence of both a strong political center and strong participatory localities.  Transnational learning may be influential in helping political elite to identify ideal strategies for state development, yet if these states exist in an environment in which the freedom to select these strategies is highly constrained (as they were in the time period studied by Ertman) the availability of such information may be largely irrelevant (Ertman 1997, 321).  Moreover, although Ertman is certainly correct in his assertion that patrimonial institutions, no matter their historical setting, are highly durable and have “nagging long-term consequences,” but we do not need this book to know that this is the case (Ertman 1997, 322).

Despite his rather complex and compelling account of early modern European development, his presumption of theoretical generalizability supposes that even if there is no single path, there are standard processes, namely his developmental typologies, by which states emerge and consolidate.  However, changes in terms of global power distributions, diffusion of modern technology, advances in modern systems of state coercion, governance, and communication, and markedly increased economic interdependence, as well as shifting norms of interstate and intrastate conduct have produced a political environment altogether dissimilar from that which existed in medieval Europe.  Given that most new states have not emerged and consolidated with either a necessary prerogative to expand nor do they face existential territorial threats, one can moreover argue that the nature and impact of geopolitical competition has changed such that it is often internal dynamics rather than external threats which force states to institutionalize particular forms of administration.  If we are to take seriously the maxim that “history matters,” it is apparent that Ertman’s complex contingent analysis of European state emergence, however laudable in its own right, does not generalize well into the modern context.


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Streeck, Wolfgang, and Kathleen Ann Thelen. Beyond Continuity : Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thelen, Kathleen. How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital, and European States, Ad 990-1992. Studies in Social Discontinuity. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992.

Weingast, Barry. “Rational Choice Institutionalism.” In Political Science : The State of the Discipline, edited by Ira Katznelson and Helen V. Milner, 660-92. New York: Norton, 2002.

Zysman, John. “How Institutions Create Historically Rooted Trajectories.” Industrial and Corporate Change 3, no. 1 (1994): 243-83.

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