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Monopolies of Violence? Civil Insurgency and the Accountability Deficit

Alexei Abrahams - University of Toronto
Brandon Merrell - Yale University

Versions of this paper were presented at the 2018 APSA Annual Meeting, the 2019 SPSA Annual Meeting, the 2019 ISA Annual Meeting, the 2019 MPSA Annual Meeting, and at Ohio State University in 2019. A .pdf copy is available here.

The paper relates to our broader book project, The Governance Market: Insurgency, Civil Conflict, and the Accountable State. An introduction to that volume is available here.


Researchers of civil conflict and state-building often argue that governments should possess a "monopoly on violence" with which to enforce laws, facilitate commerce, and provide security. Monopolists, however, are notorious for predatory behavior. How can citizens simultaneously empower a sovereign to maintain order while also deterring that ruler from engaging in abuse? Using analytic theory and evidence from contemporary crises, this paper demonstrates that optimal governance can emerge when rulers are held accountable by the latent threat of insurgent violence. Although the presence of armed insurgents may provoke civil conflict, the threat of unrest can also inhibit government predation, encourage the development of institutional safeguards, and motivate rulers to extend generous political and economic guarantees to citi- zens. The results challenge popular conclusions regarding the benefits of democratic rule, the desirability of state consolidation, the causes of civil violence, and the optimal use of foreign intervention in civil conflicts.