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I read Why Nations Fail this month while traveling in South Korea. The book was much on my mind as I looked across the DMZ at North Korea on the 38th parallel. South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, enjoys a per capital PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP of around $32,000. (The U.S. is $48,000 by comparison - wealthier but also with a less equally distributed income). In North Korea, the GDP per capita (PPP) is $2,400 - an incredibly low numbers that still probably understates how desperately poor (and hungry) are the people of North Korea.
Why should North Korea be so poor, and South Korea so rich?
The two countries share common cultural roots, geography, and access to natural resources. This is the question Acemoglu and Robinson attempt to answer in Why Nations Fail. They look at examples such as North Korea, as well as other natural experiments of societies that share similar exogenous traits (resources, climate, etc.) - such as the twin Nogales's in Mexico and Arizona.
Acemoglu and Robinson's explanation as to why some nations are poor and others rich has everything to do with the elites. Poor nations are poor because the people who run these countries have made their subjects destitute in service of enriching themselves.
North Korea can best be understood as being run by a criminal family. Mexico is so much poorer than the U.S. because of its history of being run by elites whose main goal was to extract wealth, and who did not need to redistribute economic production as for most of its history the country lacked pluralistic institutions that could check the power of the rulers.
This argument, that some countries are poor because the powerful keep them poor, stands in direct opposition to the arguments that Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond believes that the wealth distribution was largely pre-determined by immunity to disease (or lack thereof), access to domesticable livestock, and the raw materials and technologies to make advanced weapons.
I am a huge fan of Diamond's writing, but Why Nations Fail has me thoroughly convinced that more deterministic view of development (as put forward by Diamond and others) is problematic. Why Nations Fail should definitely be on the syllabus in any economic history or development course, and on the bookshelf (physical or virtual) of anyone interested in global inequality, poverty, and why some nations are so much richer than others.
Should you invest the time to read Why Nations Fail? The book is 544 pages, or almost 18 hours by audiobook (my reading choice). Acemoglu and Robinson would have benefited from a strong-willed editor, one who was willing to push them to provide less historical detail (the book has a ton from around the world across numerous societies), and more analysis of the implications of their arguments for countries like China and India.
I came away from Why Nations Fail thinking that if the argument is correct then China's long-term economic prospects might not be as good as we assume, and India's may be better. But having spent time time in South Korea, which developed so rapidly at least partly under a repressive military regime, it is hard to square this conclusion with the recent facts of some of our fastest developing countries.
Perhaps Acemoglu and Robinson next book will take outliers and implications, building on top of the theoretical foundations for development and inequality laid out in Why Nations Fail.
75 of 80 people found this review helpful
Acemoglu and Robinson’s central thesis isn’t hard to understand: countries with inclusive, equitable political and economic institutions tend to prosper, while those with extractive, exclusive institutions geared towards the interests of a small elite tend to languish. The authors minimize geography and culture as significant factors in the equation, pointing to nations where those realities are similar but political systems vary.
The dynamic exists, the authors maintain, because the interests of an exploitative elite and those of regular citizens are usually in conflict, so the elite must actively block democratic movements, workers rights, unions, property rights, innovation, etc. in order to maintain a hold on power. In more inclusive systems, meanwhile, there is a virtuous circle effect, in which opportunity breeds motivation and meaningful choice, while making it hard for anyone to consolidate too much power over others.
It’s a strikingly simple hypothesis -- a little too simple, I think -- but the authors back it up with a wide set of historical cases, ranging from post-Renaissance Europe, to the colonial Americas (noting the different approaches taken by English and Spanish settlers in controlling their territories), to post 17th century Britain, to the United States (monopolies and trusts are discussed), to the Arab world, to the Soviet Union, to modern Africa, to North versus South Korea. Even if you more or less accept the book’s ideas, the details are still informative. If you’re not familiar with the political differences between imperial Spain and England, they cast quite a bit of light on the separate paths taken by the two former world powers -- and their former colonial possessions. Similarly, you don’t appreciate what apartheid meant for South Africa until you’ve contemplated just how the system was structured to impede blacks from becoming more than cheap sources of labor. As was a problem in the US, too.
The examinations seemed politically balanced. Communist governments taking a drubbing, and the authors argue that China’s rapid growth as orchestrated by Bejiing is unlikely to be sustainable unless the Party relinquishes more of its grip. But Acemoglu and Robinson also pay attention to how capitalist monopolies undermine democratic ideals, as do weak or corrupt central governments that lack the power to enforce laws and protect individual rights.
The book has its blind spots, though. I simply don’t agree with the authors that geography doesn’t matter. Most wealthy countries, it seems to me, have inclusive systems, but were also blessed in resources, either obtained locally, or extracted from some other region. It’s easy, for example, to see a country like the Netherlands as owing its prosperity to being a liberal democracy, but that’s not the whole story. The Netherlands got started on a path to prosperity because it set up exploitative trading companies during the colonial era and eventually reallocated the wealth into new ventures. I also think that geopolitics is underrepresented as a factor. South Korea and Israel might be successful countries in spite of tough landscapes, but both enjoyed massive military and economic support from the United States, enabling technological economies to flourish. It’s not that a country like Zimbabwe has no chance of becoming a technology center, but it would have to find a way to produce skilled workers who can compete in the global economy, without being tempted to emigrate.
All in all, the ideas that Acemoglu and Robinson promote are important foundational ones, but should be considered with their blind spots taken into account. Readers interested in history for its own sake might enjoy the case studies; if not, the themes are pretty repetitive.
40 of 43 people found this review helpful
Breathtaking sweep across time and geography, flying along on the coat-tails of a theory that is so intuitively acceptable that it almost makes you say 'duh'. A society's institutions, extractive (bad) or inclusive (good) explain the wealth of the society and the health and happiness of the common man (and, if you are really lucky, woman). I hated history at school because it didn't explain: just one damn thing after another. This does, right up to the end where they use their theory to predict the future success of current societies. It explains why 'state building' (e.g. in Afgahanistan) is such a challenge. The UK (a pioneer in modern state building) got properly started on the process in 1215, brought in universal education in about 1890 and gave women the vote in 1928. Mind expanding book.
30 of 32 people found this review helpful
As has been said - repetitively - by other reviewers, this is a very repetitive book. And not just thematically. If you removed the words "inclusive", "extractive", "institutions", "glorious revolution of 1688" and ”creative destruction" the book would be about 9 hours shorter. It's still quite interesting (especially when they zoom in on specific histories, like with Botswana, Uzbekistan and Brazil, about which I knew nothing) and I kept going to the end, but the Grand Theory being espoused doesn't seem all that remarkable, unfortunately. (It can be summarised as: If your public institutions are strong enough to stop the gangsters from getting in charge, you're probably going to be okay, if not, you're screwed.) So, not bad, but not brilliant either. (Did I mention it's repetitive?")
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
This is an academic book with a serious treatment of its subject, but the explanations are clear and well presented. The authors use examples from countries around the world and through history to show consistent patterns in success and failure.
The encyclopedic examples bring the book alive. As you follow the developing argument, you also develop political and economic understanding of countries you are familiar with. The authors' predictions about the future of the Chinese economic miracle are particularly challenging.
It's a long audio book, but never tedious. Dan Woren's voice is pleasant, and he sounds like he knows what he is talking about.
If I had bought this on paper, it would probably still be on my bookshelf with a bookmark in chapter 1. As an audio book on my phone, it fits my busy life.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
loved it. history teaches . nobody listens . learn history so you don't repeat it