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Why do states fail? Why do failed states persist without collapsing into complete anarchy? This paper argues that given insurgency or weakened state capacity, rulers may find it best, paradoxically, to reduce the amount of political good it provides as a means of sustaining some amount of their rule. Moreover, although the consequence is political fragmentation and increasing levels of violence, this is not inconsistent with the continuation of attenuated central governance. To evaluate this argument, I select the case of King Stephen’s reign in medieval England. Although far removed historically from contemporary cases of state failure, the reign of King Stephen exhibits just those characteristics of modern, failed states: insurgency, civil war, territorial fragmentation, increasing disorder and violence (even between adherents to the same side of the civil conflict), and yet the persistence of some amount of centralized rule.

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Rationality and Society

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Matthew Dimick, Lords and Order: Credible Rulers and State Failure, Rationality and Society (27:2) pp. 161-194. Copyright © 2015 SAGE Publications. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications. Available at 10.1177/1043463115576137.