Why Nations Fail, and why seemingly prosperous China could still fail?

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, Why Nations Fail

- The Preface

This book is about the huge differences in incomes and standards of living that separate the rich countries of the world, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, from the poor, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and South Asia.

- The Blog

Daron Acemoglu on Why Nations Fail (from CATO)

James Robinson on Why Nations Fail (from RSA)


Selected Book Reviews

- Paul Collier: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson – review

That states need order to prosper is important but no longer controversial. That they need inclusive institutions is, in view of China's success, wildly controversial. Their argument is that order without inclusive institutions may enable an economy to escape poverty, but will not permit the full ascent to modern prosperity. Their explanation is that if the institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest – a structure they term "extractive institutions" – the interests of the elite come to collide with, and prevail over, those of the mass of the population.

So, if inclusive institutions are necessary, how do they come about? Again, Acemoglu and Robinson are radical. They argue that there is no natural process whereby rising prosperity in an autocracy evolves into inclusion. Rather, it is only in the interest of the elite to cede power to inclusive institutions if confronted by something even worse, namely the prospect of revolution. The foundations of prosperity are political struggle against privilege.

Francis Fukuyama: Acemoglu and Robinson on Why Nations Fail

Given their overall framework, the hardest thing for AR to explain is contemporary China. China today according to them is more inclusive than Maoist China, but still far from the standard of inclusion set by the US and Europe, and yet has been the fastest growing large country over the past three decades. The Chinese restrict access to the market, engage in financial repression, fail to secure property rights, have no Western-style rule of law, and are ruled by a non-transparent oligarchy called the Communist Party. How to explain their economic success? Rather than see this as a threat to their model (i.e., more inclusion, more growth) AR pull a slight of hand by arguing that Chinese growth won’t last and that their system will eventually come crashing down (like Rome did, after about 200 years?). I actually agree that China will eventually crash. But even if that happens, a theory of development that can’t really explain the most remarkable growth story of our time is not, it seems to me, much of a theory.

- Thomas Friedman: Why Nations Fail

“Why Nations Fail” argues that the key differentiator between countries is “institutions.” Nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and they fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

“Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few,” they write.

“Inclusive economic institutions, are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions,” which “distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.” Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold power.

- William Easterly: The Roots of Hardship

- Clive Crook: ‘Why Nations Fail’ Is Not Quite as Good as They Say

- Jared Diamond: What Makes Countries Rich or Poor?

My overall assessment of the authors’ argument is that inclusive institutions, while not the overwhelming determinant of prosperity that they claim, are an important factor. Perhaps they provide 50 percent of the explanation for national differences in prosperity. That’s enough to establish such institutions as one of the major forces in the modern world. Why Nations Fail offers an excellent way for any interested reader to learn about them and their consequences. Whereas most writing by academic economists is incomprehensible to the lay public, Acemoglu and Robinson have written this book so that it can be understood and enjoyed by all of us who aren’t economists.

Why Nations Fail should be required reading for politicians and anyone concerned with economic development. The authors’ discussions of what can and can’t be done today to improve conditions in poor countries are thought-provoking and will stimulate debate. Donors and international agencies try to “engineer prosperity” either by foreign aid or by urging poor countries to adopt good economic policies. But there is widespread disappointment with the results of these well-intentioned efforts. Acemoglu and Robinson pithily diagnose the cause of these disappointing outcomes in their final chapter: “Attempting to engineer prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problems—extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place—is unlikely to bear fruit.”