When Good Governments Go Bad: History shows that when leaders violate social contracts, communities break down.


There must be an end to all good stuff.

They fall apart over time, and to varying degrees, whether societies are governed by authoritarian rulers or more well-meaning members.

Anthropologists analyzed a large, global sample of 30 pre-modern societies in a new paper.

They noticed that “good” governments – those that supplied their people with goods and services and did not concentrate too much wealth and power – collapsed more than despotic regimes.

And in the fall of good regimes, researchers found a common thread: leaders who compromised and rejected the preservation of fundamental social values, morality and beliefs.

Gary Feinman, the MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and one of the authors of a recent study in Frontiers of Political Science, says, ‘Pre-modern states were not that different from modern ones. Some pre-modern states had good governance and were not that different from what we see in some democratic countries today.’ “The states that had good governance were able to hold on a little longer than autocratically run ones, but tended to have a more thorough and severe collapse.”

Richard Blanton, professor emeritus of anthropology at Purdue University and lead author of the report, says, “We found that an internal factor can lead to failure that might have been manageable if properly anticipated,” “We’re talking about an inexplicable failure of top leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen trust in leadership and government and collapse.”

Blanton, Feinman and their colleagues looked at the governments of four societies in their study: the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty of China, the Mughal Empire of India and the Republic of Venice.

These societies flourished hundreds of years ago (or in the case of ancient Rome, thousands) and had a relatively more equal distribution of power and wealth than many of the other cases studied, but since they did not have common elections, they looked different from what we consider “good governments” today.
There were essentially no electoral democracies before modern times, so if you want to equate good governance in the present with good governance in the past, you can’t really calculate it by the position of elections, which are so important in democracies today. You have to come up with other standards, and an appropriate standard is the key characteristics of the good governance concept,”Before modern times, there were basically no electoral democracies, so if you want to compare good governance in the present with good governance in the past, you can’t really measure it by the role of elections, which are so important in democracies today. You have to come up with other yardsticks, and the core features of the good governance concept are an appropriate yardstick,” “They had no elections, but they had other checks and balances against a few individuals’ accumulation of personal influence and resources.

They all had the means to enhance social welfare, not only to provide goods and services for a few, and the means to make their voices heard by people.

The government meets the needs of the people in communities that meet the academic concept of “good governance,” in large part because the government relies on those people for the taxes and services that hold the state afloat. These programs were highly dependent on individuals to retain a good portion of their wealth.

Even if there are no elections, the government must reply to the local people, at least to some degree, since it is from them that the government is financed,’ explains Feinman. “There are often checks on both the power and the economic selfishness of the leaders so they can’t hoard all the wealth.”

Good-governing societies appear to last a little longer than autocratic regimes that center control on one individual or a small group.

But the flip side of the coin is that things seem to get harder for people when a “good” government fails because they have relied on the infrastructure of that government in their everyday lives. “With a good government, you have infrastructures for communications and bureaucracy to collect taxes, maintain services and distribute public goods. You have an economy that collectively feeds people and funds the government,” says Feinman. And thus social networks and organizations, economically, socially and politically, become extremely interconnected.

In the other side, you may see another leader or another capital when an autocratic system fails, but it does not penetrate into the lives of people, since those rulers are


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