Why Nations Fail

  • by Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson
  • Narrated by Dan Woren
  • 17 hrs and 55 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?
Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are?
Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities. The economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions - with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories.
Based on 15 years of original research Acemoglu and Robinson marshall extraordinary historical evidence from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa to build a new theory of political economy with great relevance for the big questions of today, including:


China has built an authoritarian growth machine. Will it continue to grow at such high speed and overwhelm the West?
Are America’s best days behind it? Are we moving from a virtuous circle in which efforts by elites to aggrandize power are resisted to a vicious one that enriches and empowers a small minority?
What is the most effective way to help move billions of people from the rut of poverty to prosperity? More philanthropy from the wealthy nations of the West? Or learning the hard-won lessons of Acemoglu and Robinson’s breakthrough ideas on the interplay between inclusive political and economic institutions?
Why Nations Fail will change the way you look at—and understand—the world.

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What the Critics Say

"Why Nations Fail is a truly awesome book. Acemoglu and Robinson tackle one of the most important problems in the social sciences - a question that has bedeviled leading thinkers for centuries - and offer an answer that is brilliant in its simplicity and power. A wonderfully readable mix of history, political science, and economics, this book will change the way we think about economic development. Why Nations Fail is a must-read book." (Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics)
"You will have three reasons to love this book: It’s about national income differences within the modern world, perhaps the biggest problem facing the world today. It’s peppered with fascinating stories that will make you a spellbinder at cocktail parties - such as why Botswana is prospering and Sierra Leone isn’t. And it’s a great read. Like me, you may succumb to reading it in one go, and then you may come back to it again and again." (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the best sellers Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse)
"A compelling and highly readable book. And [the] conclusion is a cheering one: The authoritarian ‘extractive’ institutions like the ones that drive growth in China today are bound to run out of steam. Without the inclusive institutions that first evolved in the West, sustainable growth is impossible, because only a truly free society can foster genuine innovation and the creative destruction that is its corollary." (Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money)

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Most Helpful

Pros and Cons of "Why Nations Fail"

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.


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- Joshua Kim

Important themes, with blind spots

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.
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- Ryan

Book Details

  • Release Date: 03-20-2012
  • Publisher: Random House Audio