Book review: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.
This book claims that “extractive institutions” prevent nations from becoming wealthy, and “inclusive institutions” favor wealth creation. It is full of anecdotes that occasionally have some relevance to their thesis. (The footnotes hint that they’ve written something more rigorous elsewhere).
The stereotypical extractive institutions certainly do harm that the stereotypical inclusive institutions don’t. But they describe those concepts in ways that do a mediocre job of generalizing to non-stereotypical governments.
They define “extractive institutions” broadly to include regions that don’t have “sufficiently centralized and pluralistic” political institutions. That enables them to classify regions such as Somalia as extractive without having to identify anything that would fit the normal meaning of extractive.
Their description of Somalia as having an “almost constant state of warfare” is strange. Their only attempt to quantify this warfare is a reference to a 1955 incident where 74 people were killed (if that’s a memorable incident, it would suggest war kills few people there; do they ignore the early 90’s because it was an aberration?). Wikipedia lists Somalia’s most recently reported homicide rate as 1.5 per 100,000 (compare to 14.5 for their favorite African nation Botswana, and 4.2 for the U.S.).
They don’t discuss the success of Dubai and Hong Kong because those governments don’t come very close to fitting their stereotype of a pluralistic and centralized nation.
They describe Mao’s China as “highly extractive”, but it looks to me more like ignorant destruction than an attempt at extracting anything. They say China’s current growth is unsustainable, somewhat like the Soviet Union (but they hedge and say it might succeed by becoming inclusive as South Korea did). Whereas I predict that China’s relatively decentralized planning will be enough to sustain modest growth, but it will be held back somewhat by the limits to the rule of law.
They do a good (but hardly novel) job of explaining why elites often fear that increased prosperity would threaten their position.
They correctly criticize some weak alternative explanations of poverty such as laziness. But they say little about explanations that partly overlap with theirs, such as Fukuyama’s Trust (a bit odd given that the book contains a blurb from Fukuyama). Fukuyama doesn’t seem to discuss Africa much, but the effects of slave trade seem to have large long-lasting consequences on social capital.
For a good introduction to some more thoughtful explanations of national growth such as the rule of law and the scientific method, see William Bernstein’s The Birth of Plenty.
Why Nations Fail may be useful for correcting myths among people who are averse to math, but for people who are already familiar with this subject, it will just add a few anecdotes without adding much insight.