Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Nations Fail, a review

"Why Nations Fail" is different from a lot of development books. It neither focuses on specific policy proposals, and neither does it focus on specific micro or macroeconomic theories that lead lead a nation towards economic development.  Quite simply, this book wants to tell you why the same specific sets of policies will work in one nation, and lead nowhere in another. It wants to tell you how you know which nations can run with a specific set of development actions, and end up achieving their objectives.

This book is also different from your regular pseudo-cultural economics books which explain away economic development in successful countries to their specific cultural, anthropological, sociological, or religious makeup. Neither does it barrage you with pseudo-explanations that attribute success to geographical location as the differentiating factor. And neither does it shirk by merely pointing out that successful countries just had the luck of having a really brilliant leader who knew what to do. Yes, these can be big factors that certainly help, but the book in fact explains how each of these common success theories fall short. After all, how many times have we seen countries located strategically next to emerging economies, and led by seemingly smart and charismatic leaders, that still fall short of economic progress, while their neighbours, with seemingly less resources, more run of the mill leaders that come and go, leap into the industrialized world?

No, this is a book that focus on institutions.  It distinguishes between institutions that can be considered extractive from those that are more inclusive.  It then explains how inclusive institutions create the right incentives for local people to invest, to strive, and to take initiative, and how extractive ones discourage them.  If you've been with me on this blog for some time, you know I have a great deal of respect for institutional explanations, and how these institutions create very concrete transmission channels and mechanisms for economic policy. You can have the right policy, but it you do not have the right institutions for it, then no amount of effort will result in successful implementation. To have the right institutions, you need to know how it aligns its objectives with people's incentives and helps them overcome their constraints.

At the macroeconomic level, before you even think of specific goals and policies, you need to ask whether people can see themselves getting more prosperous if they work harder, invest their savings, and take risks with new ways of doing things.  Do they see that rewards go to those who make the effort and investment, or do they risk losing the fruits of their labour to an extractive regime that expropriates and gives everything to someone else more closely connected to the ruling elite? Do they know for a fact that they will have a voice going forward, to ensure that their economic interests are protected and represented, or will they lose out to an elite that's suddenly given a monopoly on their industry?

In my mind these are the questions that must run in the minds of the multitude of people who ultimately make the difference between a nation taking off and a nation not making it.  Steve Waldman posts that depression is a revealed preference, as a polity, and we are choosing continued depression because we prefer it to the alternatives. In the same vein, nations can choose slavery, apartheid, or pluralism, rule by absolute royal decree or rule of law, upward mobility for newcomers or stable representation for incumbents, openness to creative destruction or loyalty to existing regimes. these revealed preferences often also reveal whose interests are most given importance in society. Whether these interests are those of one person, a few elites, or the greater multitude makes all the difference for a nation's rise, and it continued stay up there.

The book provides enough stories and anecdotes from history to make this  view of development vivid.  Soviet Russia, ancient Rome, Maya city states, sub-saharan Africa, medieval China and Japan, medieval England, Spain and Europe, even the neolithic age, as are a bunch of other historical places and times make it to this thick book as examples. it's like reading history all over again, but with the end of analyzing why one people or nation makes it, while others don't, and still others fall. Highly recommended for both history and economics buffs.

Written by Daron Acemoglu, MIT professor of Economics; and James Robinson, Harvard professor of Government.


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farmland as an investment said...

Great post. How many times have seen development consultants (for example from the DFID, I am British) go out to some country and write the most free market, transparent, anti-corruption laws in the world. But, what is neglected is the institutional capacity within the country to implement these laws. What's the point then of the whole bloody exercise if the institutions remain incompetent!

Rogue Economist said...

Farmland, that's right. And then people who live from far away would conclude it's all about those locals being lazy or greedy or stupid, when in fact the people in charge there could be making sure how things currently are are institutionalized, so things continue benefiting them.